Message from the Dean and Executive Director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law

 In Family Law, Spring 2018

Every day, children and families in America come to our courts at some of the most challenging times in their lives — often facing poverty, homelessness, dementia, divorce, abuse and/or neglect. Rarely do families in crisis present only one catastrophe. Typically, they come in with several, each another domino on a descending path or, in the worst cases, one more nail in the coffin.

Crisis breeds despair, despair breeds disillusionment, disillusionment breeds helplessness, helplessness breeds desperation, and desperation breeds all manner of (sometimes) preventable social ills, including suicide and crime. All too often the effects of these problems are perpetuated in and on successive generations. Must it be that way?

The guiding philosophy of the Center for Children, Families and the Law is that we can provide an off-ramp and we can change the script — and as attorneys, we have an obligation to do so. That requires a willingness to think outside the box, to not be content with kicking the can down the road and to embrace the cutting-edge in every respect. This new digital magazine, FamilyLaw@HofstraLaw, is a natural extension of that view — a 21st-century conduit for sharing ideas, learning of new ventures and fostering a nearsighted view, a farsighted view and an ability to see around the corner.

The Center for Children, Families and the Law was established in 2001 in response to the urgent need for more effective representation of children and families in crisis. Through the Center, students are afforded unique opportunities to participate in community service, public policy projects and research — not only the chance to experience how their legal studies apply in society, but also the opportunity to truly make a difference. And with several initiatives, we are indeed making a difference.

For instance, we all know that separation and divorce are among the most disquieting experiences in the lives of both children and adults, and a trip (or several) to court often exacerbates the tension and stress. Through the Mediation Program for Separating and Divorcing Parents, we are attempting to ease that process and mitigate the pain.  Through this program,  under the watchful eye of clinical professors and pro bono attorneys, students specially trained in the art of mediation help mediate marital dissolutions and channel clients to appropriate services, including psychological counseling for the child or children and financial counseling for the family.

Similarly, our guardianship programs seeks to assist families with a family member who has a developmental disability. Often, these families find themselves at a traumatic crossroads when the infant reaches the age of 18 and must have a guardian appointed to make medical, legal and life decisions. Most times, the parent, who has provided for the child for 18 years, will remain in that role. However, sometimes the parent is in ill health or of an advanced age and is unable to commit to that responsibility.

Under a pilot program, students trained and supervised by clinical faculty and assisted by pro bono counsel establish the guardianships/stand-by guardianships and present the proposal to the Surrogate’s Court. Additionally, we are partnering with the Nassau County AHRC Foundation in a joint effort to help families obtain the requisite legal guardian when a child with a developmental disability reaches the age of 18.

Guardianship issues, however, are not restricted to children.  Frequently, they involve incapacitated adults who fall under Article 81 of the Mental Hygiene Law. We are assisting these people in need as well.

Our guardianship programs are having an immediate impact, filling a void. In the same vein, we are investigating the possibility of working with the New York State court system to establish a mentoring program for the rudderless young men and women who find their way into our criminal courts.

A thoughtful upstate judge in the Albany-area city of Cohoes, Hon. Andra Ackerman, established the first program of its sort just eight months ago, and the results are encouraging: Of the 12 defendants in Judge Ackerman’s novel United Against Crime-Community Action Network program, known as U-CAN, only one individual has been arrested for a new crime since getting a mentor. Although it is early on — the results are encouraging. It costs nothing and has the potential to reap tremendous benefits. We will be looking for ways to foster a U-CAN partnership through the Center for Children, Families and the Law.

We are also in the planning stages for a new initiative to assist people afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, as well as their families.

Why are we doing all of this?

Certainly, it benefits our institution and our students, and it is consistent with our university-wide commitment to serve the community. More importantly, it is the right thing to do. It is our hope that these initiatives will alleviate at least some of the stresses confronting families on Long Island and make our community more stable, more vibrant and more fulfilled. That should be a goal of every attorney and every law school.

Practicing law is a privilege, not a right, and in exchange for that privilege, attorneys have an obligation to use their special gifts, advanced education and the power of the law to improve our society. The Center is one means of doing that, and this new digital magazine is a crucial way to build upon each other’s ideas and experiences. I am truly honored to see it launch on my watch as dean and executive director.

Several people deserve special mention in this first issue of FamilyLaw@HofstraLaw. It would not exist without each one of them:

First and foremost, President Stuart Rabinowitz, who is always supportive of our ventures and always willing to consider doing that which we have never done before.

Paul Meller, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Family Forensic Psychology at Hofstra University, is a vital and always helpful collaborator on much of what we do.

Amy Brown, the editor of FamilyLaw@HofstraLaw, began with nothing but an idea and raised that brainchild to maturity.

Andrew Schepard, the Siben & Siben Distinguished Professor of Family Law and founding director of the Center for Children, Families and the Law, has been our guiding light from day one. I am not exaggerating to say that virtually nothing we do — including the creation of this digital magazine — would happen without Andy.

Matt Kiernan and Lisa Petrocelli, the key administrators of the Center, supported the creation of this magazine in every way possible. Andrew Berman, the Law School’s assistant dean for communications, shaped the concept, provided focus and helped us avoid getting lost in the weeds.

In closing, I must mention our beloved and sadly departed colleague, Herbie DiFonzo. As the tributes to him in this issue show, he was the beating heart of the Center. Students and colleagues revered him. I adored him. We all miss him — his wisdom, his wit, his enormous heart and, yes, even his corny jokes — terribly. I know he would be thrilled with the legacy he left, and the building blocks he left us.

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Professor Andrew Schepard speaking with students