Who We Are:
In 2007, Brooklyn Defender Services, Family Defense Practice (FDP) was selected by the City of New York to represent parents in child welfare cases in Brooklyn Family Court. FDP is assigned by the court to represent 1,150 new clients each year and has an active case load of over 2,000 clients. FDP’s attorneys, social workers and parent advocates provide interdisciplinary legal representation to low-income parents facing significant legal and economic challenges to keeping their families together. In January 2013, FDP joined Brooklyn Defender Services, which represents nearly 40,000 Brooklyn residents arrested each year. FDP’s interdisciplinary legal representation has dramatically changed the landscape of Brooklyn Family Court by advancing our clients’ constitutional rights to family integrity through aggressive motion practice and appeals and by raising the impact of poverty and race on our clients’ lives.
What We Do:
Every day we are fighting for our clients’ fundamental right to keep their families together in the face of poverty and discrimination. We have represented over 8,500 clients – the most vulnerable New Yorkers -- most of whom are people of color and/or immigrants living in poverty. As we’ve grown, we have also been able to address systemic problems in the child welfare system and improve family court functioning. Our practice has grown from a small team of 25 in 2007 to 65 today. We are viewed as leaders in this filed nationwide and speak on numerous state and nationwide panels each year about our practice.
Improving the Child Welfare System and Family Court for All Families
FIGHTING REMOVAL OF CHILDREN FROM THEIR HOMES WITHOUT COURT ORDER
Through systemic advocacy, FDP has helped reduce the unnecessary removal of hundreds of children from their homes city wide. In 2010, FDP threatened to sue the City for illegal practices that resulted in children being taken away from their families when there was not a true emergency, only to be returned after a hearing. As a result, the City developed a vastly improved emergency removal policy and training program that has, according to ACS, reduced the percentage of removals that occurred pre-filing from 79% in 2010 to 41% in 2015. FDP is now co-chairing a city-wide subcommittee with ACS called Keeping Children Safely at Home that is working on continuing to reduce the number of removals without court order
COLLABORATIVE REFORM EFFORTS
BDS works collaboratively with other parent and child advocacy organizations and ACS to improve the child welfare system. Ten subcommittees were created to address issues of concern to advocates. BDS is actively engaged with most of these committees. Our involvement is an opportunity to advance important reform objectives, such as reducing the number of children who enter foster care, improving visiting practices for children in care, expanding the use of family as a resource, and expanding kinGAP as a permanency resource.
TRANSFORMING TREATMENT OF MENTAL HEALTH IN FAMILY COURT
FDP’s Mental Health Advocacy Project is transforming how mental illness is treated. FDP leads a coalition of parent, disability rights and child advocacy groups, and mental health experts, which developed Principles to Inform Child Welfare Decision-Making Regarding Mental Health, formally adopted by ACS. FDP participates in a Mental Health Services working group that seeks to improve the quality of the mental health evaluations used to make decisions about whether children should be returned home and whether parents’ rights should be terminated
ENSURING LANGUAGE ACCESS
FDP continues to advocate for ACS to improve its ability to work with parents who do not speak English as their primary language. In response to our concerns, ACS created a Language Access Work Group to evaluate these issues and collect data to ensure quality. FDP is in regular contact with ACS to improve language access for our clients, including the provision of caseworkers who speak the same language as the family
Strengthening Families, Strengthening Communities
FDP’s Parent Leadership Initiative trains parents with prior child welfare involvement to advocate for other parents and create systemic change. The Initiative attempts to bring the voices of those most impacted by the child welfare system into policy debates. FDP’s Keeping Families Together Project hosts Know Your Rights trainings, community forums and provides services for parents at risk of ACS involvement.
FDP has built a thriving pro bono program in partnership with more than fifteen major New York City law firms resulting in hundreds of hours of pro bono work for clients as well as excellent litigation experience for associates, including drafting motions, arguing appeals, working with experts and conducting depositions.
Each year, New York University School of Law’s Family Defense Clinic assigns 8-12 students to work on FDP’s most complex and resource-intensive cases, and every fall, CUNY Family Law Concentration places students with FDP.
FDP has one of the largest social work intern programs in New York City, hosting interns from Hunter College, Fordham University, Columbia University, Long Island University, and New York University’s schools of social work.
FDP has a Therapeutic Visiting Program in collaboration with the Children’s Museum of the Arts, which offers children in foster care and their parents an opportunity to work closely with an art therapist in a positive and nurturing environment while creating art together.
Brooklyn Law School’s Second Chance program helps FDP clients have their names cleared with the State Central Registry after their case is dismissed.
FDP’s Associates Advisory Board provides advice and guidance to FDP’s leadership on issues concerning communication, policy, and fundraising. With 27 members from 15 law firms, the board is crucial in expanding FDP’s fundraising capacity, leveraging pro bono resources, and increasing FDP’s community profile. The Advisory Board enables associates to gain leadership experience in a non-profit setting. If you are interested in joining the board or hearing more about it, contact Lauren Shapiro at firstname.lastname@example.org or Dan Ball at email@example.com.