To Trouble the Comfortable and Comfort the Troubled: Championing the Voices of Families
A Conversation with Progressive Legal Advocate Vivek Sankaran.
Hosted by Kendall Marlowe
This past Child Abuse Prevention Month we were inspired to have a conversation with this community to rethink the roles that support children and families. We discussed what real help might look like for families; we worked to identify opportunities where each of us could step up to promote prevention regardless of our disciplines every day all year. We know this is a 12-month problem, and we want to make it a 12-month conversation. So, to continue the discussion, we have launched a podcast to bring you relevant topics that you can listen to on your own time that you do not want to miss!
In this first episode of Radio Kempe, join us as we have a conversation with Vivek Sankaran, Clinical Professor of Law at The University of Michigan Law School and a leading advocate for child welfare reform. Listen to his experience developing a new approach to helping families that focuses on preventative interventions instead of reactions. What if lawyers could intervene before a separation is made? What does it mean to be a champion for the voices of those who are in the system? What could cases look like if families had the opportunity to assert their rights? Accept the call to be bold and listen now to learn more!
Get curious, tune in, and join us on the journey to prevent child abuse and neglect every month of the year!
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You're listening to Radio Kempe, elevating voices to cause change. Join us on our journey to prevent child abuse and neglect.Kendall:
Welcome, welcome. I'm Kendall Marlowe, and this is Radio Kempe. Thank you for being with us today. We need you. Families and their children need you. At Radio Kempe, we love how people come together in a way we call family, to love, to share, to hold each other up, to find a way to move forward. How can we help those families in need? We're passionate about that, but humble before the challenge. That passion and that humility drives us and calls us to reach out to each other to learn. And whatever your line of work, if helping families is what drives you too, and if being humble before this tremendous challenge drives your curiosity, there's someone I think you'd like to meet. You know the truth about child maltreatment, that our challenges are more about poverty than pathology, that some 80% or so of our cases are poverty driven neglect, not abuse, and that we'd like to learn how to do something about that before a child is removed from their own and only family. What if there was a program that received 110 cases at risk of entering our problematic child welfare system and that program didn't just help some families strengthen themselves - that program helped every family, preventing the need to open a child welfare case in 110 out of 110 cases. Who pulled that off? And how? Vivek Sankaran, how the heck are you today?Vivek:
Always a pleasure to be here, Kendall, thanks for having me.Kendall:
Good to be with you. We're lucky to be with Vivek Sankaran. He's an attorney and a Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Michigan and directs both their Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic. It's not an exaggeration to name him as the most productive and progressive legal advocate in child welfare today. But we don't care about his accolades. We want to know about his work. So Vivek, how did this start? Why did you decide to become a lawyer?Vivek:
Oh, so I don't know if we have enough time to talk about all the reasons I decided to be a lawyer. But I think from a young child, I always felt like an outsider in systems. I think it's growing up as a child of immigrants, being in a predominantly white town, feeling like I was never part of the mainstream, and having some life experiences in childhood and adolescence that kind of made me want to look in from the outside and really pushed me towards those on the margins and the fringes, right, families that felt like I did on the outside. And as I started thinking about a profession, I started thinking about where I could be in kinship with some of these folks who are trying to kind of assert their rights and be heard. And I kind of fell into love with being a lawyer and standing up for those voices on the outside and being able to kind of champion them and make sure that we paid attention to what they were experiencing. And so that's kind of a short way of answering that complicated question for me. But, you know, that's where I, I came across a saying just recently that part of our life's goal is to trouble the comforted and comfort the troubled. And I just think that if I were to like start my own law practice like that would be like the slogan because I think it defines kind of where I get so much satisfaction these days.Kendall:
And why did you think that the law was a way to do this?Vivek:
I think that I see lawyers as confidants. It's the relationship, it's, you know, it's a profession where we can get proximate, and get to know people on their basic sort of human level. And we're able to share confidences with them and have them share confidences with us and keep them calm. And so it's that richness of the relationship that I think is like the foundation for anything great that we can do in life. And as a lawyer, that's what I enjoy, is really that kinship with my clients and that closeness. I saw is one of, not the only profession, but one of a number of professions where that sort of relationship is truly possible and special.Kendall:
And so off you went to do all that and it took you to law school. What happened next?Vivek:
So I stumbled into this clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, called the Child Advocacy Law Clinic. I knew nothing about the foster care system. I knew I liked kids but I didn't know much about the system. And that experience was the foundation for like the rest of my life and I just kind of I fell in love with the work, the families, the kids, the parents, the law, and saw and represented voices that were unheard in the system. And just, I mean, you have this kind of this moment where you realize this is kind of what you were designed to do in life. And not that it's the only thing I was designed to do, but it filled my soul. And, that was back in 1999 and it's kind of the rest of it writes itself, although with some meandering paths, but that's where it was kind of this happenstance where I stumbled on this work and it was my purpose.Kendall:
And you then started to develop a new approach to helping families. And that's where we get to our 110 out of 110. I think I'd like to say 110 out of 110. You never get to say that results of a research study, right? So, what was that moment where you thought that this new approach might work? Was there a case or a family where you started to think I might be onto something here?Vivek:
There was, and to frame it, Kendall, I started this work like many do in a very reactive way. I represented kids in DC's foster care system where we'd get the cases after kids had been removed, right, 75% or so were neglect, poverty-related cases. And I saw kids meander through the system and face, you know, all sorts of trauma and experiences. And almost every time kids wanted to be with their families, right, they wanted. I remember my colleagues and I would go back to the office all representing children saying I wish we could get involved earlier to figure out ways to support families. So I think of a case right now that as you asked that question, of a family who was separated and placed in foster care solely because of housing. Right. The family had been evicted. They were living in their car and CPS got involved and placed the children in foster care, at which point we got involved in the case appointed by the court. And it took us seven months of these kids living with strangers before we had a trial in the case. And a judge finally ruled that poverty isn't a reason to separate families and sent the children back home to live with their parents who were then by then had found some transitional housing. But I think of those, I still remember that moment to this day, right? I think of the moment where the judge decreed that poverty is not neglect. I think of the foster parents coming up to the birth parents and giving them a big hug because they knew that the right result had happened at that moment. But boy, seven months of kids living with strangers, seven months, right. And that was one of a number of defining moments of trying to think of a different approach, right. What if a multidisciplinary team of lawyers and social workers could move upstream to try to support and help families resolve some of these issues so kids don't have to have the seven months of trauma? They don't have to experience what we all know is devastating to families. And yet we continue to react. And so this was kind of a way the model was a way of trying to figure out a proactive approach to support families.Kendall:
Now, you said multidisciplinary. Vivek, everybody says multidisciplinary. It's one of those words, yeah (Vivek's voice), we're all supposed to say, and we're also supposed to say it's a great thing and we learn from each other and all of that. Really? How does that work as a practical matter?Vivek:
Yeah. So I think the reality is that our families have multiple needs. They certainly have legal issues that need to be taken care of by lawyers. But what we realized in our Detroit Center, and we're going to talk about that, is that they also have social work needs, right. They need to find housing. They need to find...they might have a counseling that they need to go or want to go to. Medical needs. That lawyers you know, Kendall, we don't learn that in law school, right? Despite the fact that lawyers think that we can answer and fix everything, there are actually people that are better equipped to deal with issues like that. Even interviewing and talking to clients, you know, social workers have special skills that lawyers lack. And so we decided to partner lawyers and social workers, and in addition, had a special role called a parent partner, which was a parent who themselves had been through the foster care system, lost their children and successfully reunified with their kids. And we hired a parent partner on our staff and this was magical because this was someone who could look at parents and say, I've been there. I know how you feel. Something that I will never, I'm a dad of three kids, I will never be able to in all likelihood say that or hope you know, oh, say that, but these parent partners have the special sort of bond with our clients to be able to say, I've been there and you got to hold your head up. We can get through this together. And you're right, the multidisciplinary is a buzzword, but when I think of breaking it down, it was sort of pairing together this team of a lawyer, a social worker, and a parent partner, to really join hands to support this family in need.Kendall:
So you started to come up with that model and it eventually became something called the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, didn't it?Vivek:
It did. And so just the birth story quickly is, you know, Don Duquette, a colleague of mine and who was the head of our child advocacy clinic at the time, and I decided that we had this model, we actually wrote it out on paper, you know, it was like a three pager. And then we decided to shop to try to persuade foundations to invest in it. And we knocked on doors and I think it took us three years before we got one foundation to say, we'll take a shot, we'll give you a chance to do this. And then we said, oh great, we need to find cases, right. We need to get CPS workers to refer cases to us. And if you were to ask me then, right, do you think this is actually going to work, I would have said, heck, no, there's no way. Because again, I was stuck in this reactive model where all my entire experience in child welfare was after petitions had been filed; where everyone is dug in, everyone is adversarial, and we all want to prove ourselves to be correct.Kendall:
That's when the lawyers come in. That's when the lawyersVivek:
That's when the lawyers come in. What I neglected to come in. think about was this kind of this proactive idea of problem solving. And that it was reasonable efforts, which is kind of a buzzword in child welfare, which is to try to keep families together. And it was the, what I didn't realize i that CPS workers, many of the want to keep families together they just don't have the tools And this project taught me tha more than anything else. And s we went and introduced thi concept to local child welfar agencies and we found that the embraced it. They said this is great idea. We have all thes legal issues that come up wit families - like housing, lik education, like guardianship, o custody orders, or you know public benefits that are denie that families need, but we don' know who to turn to. And the embraced the model and kind f you match the funding with t e desire to support families a d this beautiful project sort f emerged from thaKendall:
Because we wouldn't think, and I imagined some of the foundations' initial reaction might have been this, we don't think of lawyers when we think of abuse prevention.Vivek:
We don't. We think of lawyers of mucking things up and thinking about like, I don't mean that I'm a lawyer, I'm really proud of my profession, but when people think of it, they don't think of us as problem solvers. They think of us as people we call once a problem has been identified to minimize risk and protect rights. But what we're missing is this really rich skill set that many lawyers have, which is to spot issues before they are ripe and they become and then think creatively about different ways to approach them and solve them.Kendall:
This feels so rich to me, Vivek, and I'm thinking of my own experience with agencies doing this work. And we find a family who's homeless, check the box, they don't have stable housing, right? We rule them out. We find we'd love to place with grandma, but there's an arrest warrant out there for her. Right? And so what lawyers can ask, I'm imagining here is, is that right? Is that arrest warrant valid or is it something that should have gone away years ago? That grandma's about to be evicted - is that eviction valid? Can we step up and fight that?Vivek:
Absolutely. You know, I think of both examples of housing, right. There are, if a family's in section eight, you know, thinking about whether the proper regulations were followed in kicking a family out. There's eviction proceedings. There's also conditions of housing - landlord tenant issues, right, about if renters have rights. And these are all issues that in child welfare for so long, we haven't thought about them as legal issues. We almost think of them as like a gravity problem - things that we cannot change. Right? Right (Kendall's voice). Right. And now there's a slow recognition and I think our Detroit Center played a role in that in getting people to think of these as a legal issue. Think about kin that are denied placement, like you mentioned, because of, of a warrant. Well, here in Michigan now, we have a new expungement statute that allows all these people to get their criminal convictions expunged after a certain time period, but you need someone to guide families through that process. This is too complicated for any of us to do alone and so, it was really the Detroit Center was really a marriage between lawyers and CPS workers to try to figure out ways to support families so that kids could stay with parents, with kin, and others who knew them well.Kendall:
And the results then, you had a privately funded, completely objective evaluation done, didn't you?Vivek:
We did and it was over a three-year period. And these are all in our prevention cases and of 110 children who we serve, not one of them entered foster care. So you guys, you can imagine, I'm really proud of those results, but not surprised. And I'm not surprised because, yes, we resolved legal issues, but more than that, it was the spirit of collaboration between the agency and our staff that when problems did arise with families or concerns came about. I still remember a case where a child was left unattended and the CPS worker found the child unattended. And so in the old system, the reactive system, they would have probably just filed a petition in juvenile court and let the court sort it out. But here, they called us up and said what's going on with your client? And then we had a meeting immediately and found out that it was a babysitter who didn't show up. Right? It was a babysitter, something that happens, could happen to any of us. Yeah (Kendall's voice). It was a misunderstanding. And because that trust had been built between our client, the agency was almost like a triangle in our office, that we were able to work through it and the kid remained safely in that home. It's that spirit of working together that I think is on a common goal of keeping families safe and together, which I think for me explains the results of it.Kendall:
And we see, I think we see a lot of programs that try to pair social workers with lawyers. I'm struck by the importance of your parent advocate, as part of that team - someone who could literally look that dad or that mom in the eye, and say, listen, I've been there. I'm going to help you through this. There's some good people here who are going to try to help you. That must have been transformative.Vivek:
It was transformative. And it was the look of I will stand by you through this process in a way and truly understand what you're going through in a way that nobody else, not even the lawyer, not the social worker, will, can do. And for that parent, and we've all, you know, for those listening to this podcast who are attorneys or social workers, we've all had clients who are difficult to connect with because they don't think as much as my words can say, I'm with you, my, you know, socioeconomic status, my race, my life experiences are so different from my clients that there is, it takes work to bridge that gap - work that we'll do, but for the parent partner, it was almost an immediate, oh, you've got my back and if you're gonna vouch for those people, then I'll engage with them. And you know, and so that really helped us. The other thing that really helped us with, I still remember this moment where we had an intake where we met with a client, you know, heard all these things, and then as a team, we were debriefing and we're like, this is what you know, this is what we have to do. And the parent partner stopped us right away and said, the client didn't say any of those things. And by the way, the client didn't understand a word you all were talking about when you were using all those big lawyerly words, and it was this like striking moment of, an important moment, of holding us as a team accountable and having somebody on our team saying to us, you all need to up your game and think about ways to communicate that are more effective, because as your listeners might guess or might know, lawyers have a way of using words that are very challenging and difficult for anyone to understand because we're in our own bubble. You know, it starts at law school and we start talking differently, writing differently, acting differently to fit the norm of a profession, that at times is so distant from those who we serve. And we forget that our goal is to serve others. And so to have, whether it's a parent partner, or a social worker, act as a reminder that our primary job is to communicate with those that we serve, and to explain things to them, was a huge gift to the lawyers on our staff.Kendall:
And ultimately, lawyers are fighting for their client, right, so you got to listen to your client?Vivek:
Absolutely. I mean, we are a, I can't say this enough that we are here as lawyers to serve. And unfortunately, you go into courtrooms and courthouses across America and you would never get that impression because you often see lawyers telling people what to do. And that completely flips the narrative of what we're, what we are paid to do, what we're here to do. Sure, we give some advice, but we're here to listen, to understand, and then to tell a client's story and to advocate for them as they see it. But that starts with getting to know the client for who they are and what they want.Kendall:
And listening and having a little humility as they're talking. So, with the success of this, where's the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy today? Did the entire country immediately rise up and embrace this? Where are we headed now?Vivek:
If only that was the narrative, right. Life is often bumpier than we want it to be, but that's the messiness of life is something we have to embrace. So, we actually, we were open from 2009 to 2016, and then because of funding at that point, there was no steady stream of funding to support these sort of proactive models. So we closed in 2016, put out a kind of a replication manual, with the hopes that people would grab it and run with it. And much to my surprise and pleasure, since the model ended in 2016, we've seen offices now emerge across the country, using our work in Detroit as the foundation. And so now there are sort of pre-petition preventive legal advocacy programs in places like Iowa and New Jersey and Washington state. And I have to say, this podcast comes at the right time, because across the country, there are conversations that are going on, to create this type of model all over the place. So I'm part of a program at Casey Family Programs, a national partnership, for preventive legal advocacy with the hopes of supporting and really disseminating information about how to do this. And I think at its core, like there's lots of sort of, you know, nuts and bolts on like how you do this, right, but really, it's the why, right. And I think people are embracing this idea that they no longer want to be a part of a system that sends kids to foster care because of poverty, because of unresolved legal issues - that recognizing the trauma that even a CPS investigation or a court involvement, what that brings to a family, that they're looking for another way, and the timing is right because there are a lot of great thinkers out there trying to help support jurisdictions looking to do that.Kendall:
You sound like you're not done. You sound like this model is going to be spread across the country, if you've got anything to say about it, and it is being spread across the country. But are there deeper changes we need to make in this system? Is our system fundamentally set up in a way to support the success of kids and families? We've got hotlines. We've got mandated reporting. We file petitions. We terminate parental rights. Is all that good and we just need to get better at it or is there something else that needs to happen?Vivek:
None of that is good, Kendall. You know, as I think about our child welfare system, it is fundamentally flawed in its approach to families that if we were to redesign the system completely, which I hope that there's a will to do so, it would be one that adopts much more of a public health model where we broadly support families and use foster care as a means of last resort, right. The idea of, you know, the 70 to 80% of poverty related cases, are we offering these families with the treatment and the support that they need in terms of access to mental health, substance abuse treatment, jobs? We also need to reckon with the fact that many of the systemic inequities that drive families into the foster care system are things we've created through our years and centuries of racial discrimination. Right? If you look at the in every jurisdiction, if you did a heat map of where cases are coming from, oftentimes they are the neighborhoods and areas with the most pernicious racial discrimination that have the worst schools and the lack of hospitals and the lack of jobs. And we've never really openly confronted that. Right, we almost ask professionals within our systems to be agnostic to the why are families here in the first instance, and we need to stop doing that, right. And that, you know, as folks who might know a little bit about what I do, you know, part of what I do as well, you mentioned an appellate clinic where we fight terminations of parental rights, in large part because, you know, we view ourselves a little bit of part of the resistance - that we refused to be agnostic to what is driving families into our systems. And so I think, I mean this is a longer conversation, but I think that we have the system that we have funded. We fund foster care. We fund adoptions. We incentivize terminations of parental rights. We incentivize destroying families. And so long as we fund those systems, we get what we pay for and what we need dramatically, is a system that funds relationships with families. Right? It then that starts with the preventive side of things and it starts with not even, you know, prevention assumes that a family's on CPS's radar screen. My system would do would have a robust system of support so CPS never gets called first instance. Right. I would do away with mandatory reporting, other than perhaps serious physical abuse or sexual abuse cases, to allow professionals who want to work with families to allow them to do the supportive work. I would have, you know, generous and universal programs like income assistance and medical assistance and Medicaid expansions and universal Head Start, you know, programs that the research is there, that they all play a role in decreasing reports to CPS. But so long as we're in this reactive system, and then we're talking about tinkering, you know, having court hearings more quickly or adding this, that's just rearranging the decks on a sinking ship, that we need to be much more bold, and be willing to revisit many of the assumptions we've made over the years and to own that they're wrong - that kids should, you know, kids really should be with families, if at all possible. That's what my clients, my children that I represent, always remind me of, that they would much rather, you know, sleep on the floor of grandma's house or, you know, share a bed at their mom's house, then be in a luxurious foster care placement. And they are the ones who are teaching me this lesson every day I do this work.Kendall:
We just spent a lot of time lately, haven't we, with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and the institutional racism in our policing systems? Seems to me, you're suggesting that that same underlying dynamic is underneath our child welfare system, as well. Termination of parental rights, in particular, is something that's disproportionately pursued against parents of color. Should we even be doing termination of parental rights? Some countries don't, isn't that true?Vivek:
Absolutely. It's true that many, many countries don't terminate parental rights. And I fear that we have embraced this culture where it's almost viewed as a punitive measure in our child welfare system. It's almost like a criminal system that if a parent hasn't done X, Y, or Z, we want to punish. And instead, can we rethink about you know, the paradigm shift is when a parent can't care for their child, can we take a step back and ask ourselves what relationships matter to this child? So if a kid can't go back home, but still has a relationship, how about we get a little creative and think about ways that we can use the law to protect relationships that matter to a kid. Right. This concept of relational permanency as opposed to legal permanency, right, the idea that we want to use the law as a tool to figure out how to protect those relationships that matter most. And if you talk to youth, youth in foster care are not crying out for the rights of their parents to be terminated. They might be crying out for stability, and permanency and those things can be achieved without terminating parental rights. If you look at many of the practices in Native American communities, where they have things like customary adoptions, which means, you know, allowing a child to live permanently with somebody else while still maintaining relationships. Right, this notion that to give a child something you have to take something away permanently, is something that I really struggle with. And I think of a client of mine right now who has a mental illness, and it's clear, she cannot take care of her child. But she shows up to the soccer games, and birthday parties. Sure she does (Kendall's voice). And boy, the kid's smile when he sees his mom at these games is as big as can be. And then he's living with, you know, a family friend who supports the relationships with the mother. And what is our child welfare system do? We terminate her rights, because she can't care for this child. That's the framework and the lens. And my view is that we're inflicting harm on children when we do so, unnecessary harm, because we are devaluing that relationship and making it harder for this kid to have the world that that he wants.Kendall:
So we've just been listening to an attorney and legal scholar, talking to us about how the most important thing in all this work is relationships, and human relationships. Vivek, here's a final thought. Folks who are listening to you today who have been inspired by your perspective and what you've done, what can they do? What can they do? I'm a worker in rural Arizona. I'm a worker in one of the toughest neighborhoods of the Queens in New York. I'm out there, it might feel like I'm on my own. What can I do to help move the system in this direction?Vivek:
So it's a great question, Kendall. I think the first step is we need all voices to speak out. Right? So everyone on this call has their experiences and stories about what the foster care system is like from their own perspective. Whether that's in your office, whether that's with your family, like we need to change, the most important thing that needs to happen is we need to change the narrative of who our families are in our system. Right? I think publicly, the perception is that our families in the system are dangerous, they're violent, they shouldn't be around children. But those of us who work within the system know that that's just far from the truth. And so that's one is speak out. Two is to start connecting. Right, to think about if you're that caseworker to identify what the conversation is going on in your local town. Right, reaching out to your judge, or the lawyers in the community. Bringing together folks, right, and any of us have the power to send that email to say, hey, let's gather and let's just talk about the needs of our community. Right, I think of a convening we had yesterday in small Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we're trying to figure out whether this virtual court, right, this, this idea of access to justice, is something that should survive the pandemic and how we might be able to use these tools that we have to better serve families. And what was that? That was an email sent to gather some folks to try to see what we can do. For those who are engaged in policy work, you know, every state in the United States has, you know, court improvement projects, or agency leadership, or supreme court justices, whoever. I mean, I think what I would really encourage folks on this call to do is be bold, right? The world needs bold ideas. And so reach out, be fearless in reaching out to people, and to say, I'd like to have a conversation about this, here's my experience, would you be willing to meet with me? And I think it's just through that process of not silencing yourself and being willing to be a part of the solution. And then also kind of owning some of the work and taking that work on yourself to try to develop the ideas and put them on paper. And it almost takes me back to 2006-2007 when we were launching the Detroit Center, and it literally started with a Word document with some of the ideas that we had, and then emails to foundations, and then just being persistent and trying to build up that momentum to make that happen.Kendall:
It takes that first step though, doesn't it?Vivek:
It does. Thank you (Kendall's voice). It does. Absolutely.Kendall:
Thank you. Thank you, Vivek, for being bold, and for calling us to be bold. Thank you everyone for joining us today with Vivek Sankaran. Thank you again Vivek. I'm Kendall Marlowe, and this has been Radio Kempe. Reach out to us and check out all we have to offer at the kempecenter.org. Who will we find? What will we discover next? We'll see you next time on Radio Kempe.Outro:
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