Influential Parent Defender Clinic in New York Gets a Funding Boost, Plans More Appeals

Elie Hirschfield, New York City real estate developer: “I know people in divorce cases who have been caught up in a child welfare system that doesn’t devote enough attention to the need to try to keep a family together.”

A small but influential pro bono family law clinic at New York University has received a gift to expand its efforts to protect parents’ rights, the school announced this week. The gift comes from the prominent New York City real estate developer (and President Trump pal) Elie Hirschfeld.

NYU’s Family Defense Clinic typically defends parents accused of child abuse or neglect, and will use the funds to create a fellowship for attorneys that will help appeal cases the clinic loses in lower court against the city’s child welfare agency, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). NYU officials declined to reveal the size of the gift.

The goal, says the clinic’s co-founder, is to increase accountability for the New York City’s family courts, which have final say on decisions to place children in foster care, and are plagued by chronic delays and capacity issues.

“The way you force judges to respect the statutes is to not let them get away with it when they don’t,” said Martin Guggenheim, the co-director of the Family Defense Clinic and one of the intellectual godfathers of the nationwide movement of recent decades to expand due process rights for parents accused of mistreating their children.

With the gift, which came with a three-year commitment from Hirschfeld, the clinic has offered the fellowship to Amy Mulzer, who currently practices for another larger legal aid firm, the Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS).

It’s Hirschfeld’s first donation in this area.

“The subject is quite important, I know people in divorce cases who have been caught up in a child welfare system that doesn’t devote enough attention to the need to try to keep a family together,” said Hirschfeld, president of Hirschfeld Properties. “There’s a lot of suffering at all ends of the economic spectrum as a result of removal of children from parents, particularly from fathers.”

Martin Guggenheim, co-director of the Family Defense Clinic: “The way you force judges to respect the statutes is to not let them get away with it when they don’t.”

Hirschfeld Properties is known for its luxury residential towers and hotels, including Manhattan’s massive Riverside South development and the Hotel Pennsylvania. Hirschfeld himself is known as a friend and early campaign supporter of President Donald Trump, with whom he collaborated on Riverside South in the 1980s.

“I do know the President, but I’m not an adviser to him in any sense so I wouldn’t presume to push myself on him in a social setting,” said Hirschfeld, when asked if he had any plans to bring up child welfare issues with Trump, who now oversees billions of dollars of federal child welfare spending on every state’s child welfare system, primarily on foster care.

New York City is the envy of social justice advocates nationwide for its network of pro bono legal aid firms representing parents accused of child abuse or neglect. Guggenheim was the chief proponent of the city’s decision last decade to begin funding a group of specialized, feisty institutions (including BDS) representing low-income parents who are the target of ACS investigations.*

That funding, though, only covers the first round of proceedings in New York’s lower courts. The new gift, says Guggenheim, will allow his shop to contribute to the growing ranks of family law attorneys working on appeals. (Many agencies also partner with white-shoe firms, like Proskauer Rose LLP, on appeals.) Guggenheim, Mulzer, and his co-director Chris Gottlieb plan to convene those in a first-of-its-kind appellate summit to discuss strategy around which cases to pursue.

“Looking at New York over past 11 years, huge strides have been made in representation of parents in family courts. And now that we have moved the law and practice forward, we are trying to move into doing more and more appellate work,” said Mulzer, who will split time between both firms.

NYU is not funded by ACS, and takes on far fewer cases than large providers like BDS, but tends to pick high-profile cases that have a chance of setting important precedents. This summer, the Intercept columnist and Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King claimed on Twitter that ACS had visited his house in response to false, malicious accusations of child maltreatment from an anonymous opponent of his activism. He soon announced that the Family Defense Clinic had decided to take on his case.

CORRECTION, Thursday, September 20th, 2018: An earlier version of the story stated that New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services funds the pro bono legal aid institutions that represent parents accused of child maltreatment in Family Court. While New York City’s government does fund these agencies,  the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice is the contracting agency, not ACS. 

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Michael Fitzgerald
About Michael Fitzgerald 39 Articles
Northeast Editor for The Chronicle of Social Change