2012 Founders Fellowship
The Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law
Rebecca Lee Zimmerman, Children’s Law Center
Read Rebecca’s personal essay about her experience helping children achieve permanency in stable, loving homes by providing free, high quality legal assistance to third-party and kinship caregivers in adoption, custody, and guardianship cases.
Every child deserves a strong, supportive, and loving family. Surrounded by this kind of family environment, a child has a greater chance of thriving and developing into a confident and productive adult. But for many children in the District of Columbia and across the United States, circumstances beyond their control leave them without a family to whom they can turn for the kind of help and support that most children take for granted. In extreme cases of substantiated abuse or neglect, children are removed from their homes—a jarring, confusing, and traumatic event. For children placed in the foster care system, reunification with their biological parents is the preferred goal, but when that goal is no longer viable, these children are left in limbo and their futures are uncertain. Because statistics consistently show that children who “age out” of the foster care system without permanent families are more likely to have negative life outcomes, alternatives to reunification, such as adoption and guardianship, are essential.
This summer, with the generous support of the DC Women’s Bar Association Foundation, I worked with Children’s Law Center (CLC) in its Family Permanency Project (FPP) to help children in Washington, DC, achieve permanency in stable, loving homes by providing free, high quality legal assistance to third-party and kinship caregivers in adoption, custody, and guardianship cases. Providing this support helps eliminate the financial and knowledge barrier for foster parents, kinship care providers, and third parties seeking to achieve permanency for children through the judicial process. Additionally, FPP works with caregivers, such as grandparents and other relatives, who care for children in an informal setting and want to solidify legal custody. To help prevent abuse and neglect and possible entry into the foster care system, FPP attorneys also serve as custody guardian ad litems for children in the midst of high-conflict custody disputes.
As a law clerk with CLC, it was inspiring to see first-hand the positive impact their services have on the lives of children and families in Washington, DC. Not only do CLC attorneys work to achieve stable family environments for children, but they also advocate for the total well-being of children by working to prevent abuse and neglect, ensuring access to healthcare and education, and advocating for policies and programs that improve the lives of at-risk children. I was grateful to work with the energetic FPP attorneys on a number of cases where I was given substantive assignments that significantly contributed to the forward progress of each case. My experience as a law clerk also provided me with invaluable training and practical experience as part of my legal education. I worked on adoption, custody, and guardianship cases as well as custody guardian ad litem matters with assignments ranging from interviewing clients and drafting initial petitions to preparing for hearings and trials by performing legal research and drafting opening and closing statements and witness examination questions. I also tracked down evidence, such as medical and school records, to use in trial, and I accompanied FPP attorneys to the DC Superior Court’s Family Self-Help Center to assist with intake.
Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of my time at CLC was the clients themselves. Unlike most of CLC’s juvenile clients, the FPP attorneys work with adults who seek to achieve permanency for children. Whether these clients are grandparents, foster parents, or other relatives, they all share a common devotion to securing an enduring family relationship for children that is safe and meant to last a lifetime. Despite many obstacles—often financial—these clients are willing to dedicate their time, homes, and unconditional love to children, many of whom have significant health, educational, or behavioral issues.
For example, one of FPP’s clients (“Ms. A”) was a grandmother who sought to obtain legal custody of her two school-aged grandchildren, including a granddaughter with special needs. Ms. A’s daughter was the children’s biological mother, but when her behavior spiraled out of control due to substance abuse, the children’s welfare was at risk, so Ms. A, like an increasing number of grandparents in the United States, stepped up and took on the parental role. After the children’s mother passed away, Ms. A continued to serve as the children’s sole caregiver, doing her best, despite her limited means, to provide them with everything they needed to succeed in life. However, Ms. A had never obtained formal legal or physical custody of her grandchildren, so the FPP attorneys and I were able to help Ms. A navigate the judicial process to ensure that both she and her grandchildren could enjoy the full legal rights of family membership. Ms. A’s selflessness and dedication will undoubtedly leave a lasting, positive impact on her grandchildren. During my time at CLC, I met many other inspirational clients, such as a first-time foster mother seeking to adopt her three-year old foster child who had been removed from his home because of substantiated neglect and ongoing substance abuse by his parents. Working with these clients was an incredibly rewarding experience, not only because CLC was able to help them achieve the all-important goal of permanency, but also because it demonstrated the positive things that can happen when community and family members partner with legal advocates for a common purpose.
As a third year in law school contemplating the future as a practicing attorney, my experience as a law clerk at CLC was the perfect opportunity to gain practical lawyering experience while also making a positive impact on the lives of children and families in Washington, DC. I am grateful to the attorneys and administrators at CLC for facilitating a well-rounded law clerk experience that included substantive legal work, opportunities to interact with clients, skills-based training, and guidance on pursuing public interest legal careers. In addition to my past clinical experiences working on behalf of domestic violence victims, my work at CLC, especially with clients like Ms. A, confirmed my desire to work on behalf of children and families as a practicing attorney, whether in a public interest setting or in a pro bono capacity. This experience would not have been possible without the generous support of the D.C. Women’s Bar Association Foundation.