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

 In Family Law, Spring 2018

Family law is a special field, and Hofstra Law is proud to give it the special emphasis it deserves in the Center for Children, Families and the Law. This first issue of the Center’s digital magazine, FamilyLaw@HofstraLaw, gives us the opportunity to identify what is unique about family law, and look to the past and future of the Center.

The Center was established in 2001 to address the challenges that family law creates for communities, courts and lawyers. It was founded on the premise that families are our most important social institutions and that family law has an enormous impact on our lives by creating and enforcing expectations about how its members should behave toward each other. The Law School felt it was important to have a focal point where the Hofstra Law community could work on policies to improve the treatment of families and children in the legal system and educate future lawyers to represent clients in family disputes.

The Center was also founded on a recognition that family law is both the same and different from other fields of law such as contracts and torts. Like other fields, family law is governed by increasingly complex legal standards. But those legal standards are applied in a specialized, separate court system by judges without juries. And family cases differ fundamentally from other forms of civil disputes such as torts and contracts. The breakdown of relationships in a family is not just a legal event. It is a social event, with legal consequences. This is due to a variety of factors, some of which include:

  • Important state and individual rights are at stake in family disputes. Only a court can restructure parent-child relationships resulting from abuse or neglect by placing a child in foster care or terminating parental rights. While parents have a constitutional right to raise their children, the court also has a special responsibility for the welfare of the children whose lives are impacted by the cases before it that has to be balanced against parents’ rights.
  • Family courts are the legal equivalent of emergency rooms after a major accident — they are staffed by dedicated people but are often overcrowded, underfunded and increasingly involve self-represented litigants and parties who have not been involved in the court process before and do not have a sophisticated understanding of the legal process.
  • Children are often vulnerable unrepresented parties in family cases and their lives are changed dramatically by family case determinations.
  • Family cases often involve vulnerable parties whose experience includes domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness and child abuse.
  • Family cases are often characterized by significant emotional and economic stress on participants, and family members frequently continue relationships long after the case in court is over.

Another major factor in modern family law is the proliferation of collaborative processes to resolve family law disputes. We have come to recognize that it would be better if families reached their own solution to the problems they bring to court rather than have a court impose a solution on them. Courts and lawyers have responded to this idea by developing collaborative processes for family dispute resolution. In many jurisdictions, mediation is mandated for many kinds of disputes involving children. Divorcing and separating parents attend court-sponsored education programs that focus on how to parent their children responsibly in a time of change and conflict. Collaborative law encourages lawyers to work with their clients to collaboratively problem-solve divorce and custody disputes rather than litigate.

How does the Center address the challenges of educating future lawyers and shaping public policy in the complex environment of family law? We start from the proposition that students who are interested in family law careers need to be respected, supported and broadly educated. We want them to be excited about practicing family law and to value the work and services they provide to parents and children. If they choose the field, they should know what they are getting into. It is not a field all are suited to, but those who are have a rewarding professional life and make outstanding contributions to their communities.

The Center thus supports a variety of family law courses with an interdisciplinary, experiential emphasis. The courses range from introductory to advanced and simultaneously emphasize the importance of substantive-law knowledge and the development of skills such as interviewing and counseling necessary for family law practice. The courses also emphasize understanding the unique nature of family law practice and the environment in which it occurs.

On the public policy front, the Center sponsors law reform projects, conferences, publications and stakeholder meetings on issues and trends that it identifies as important in family law. It often does that in collaboration with stakeholder groups such as the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, the Uniform Law Commission and the American Bar Association.

The goal of the law reform projects is to examine old assumptions and encourage collaboration between stakeholders in addressing key problems in the family law system. The projects also play a role in the education of students, as the Center tries to engage them in every project it undertakes. That way, they will begin to have a voice in the future of family law in law school and understand that it is their professional responsibility to use that voice for positive change throughout their careers.

Looking to the past, the Center’s history of being front and center in family law innovation includes:

  • sponsoring the Family Law Education Reform Project (FLER), which called for a reexamination of  law school family law curricula to emphasize interdisciplinary knowledge, alternative dispute resolution and experience-based learning;
  • organizing Family Law With Skills, a national model for family law courses based on the FLER recommendations;
  • developing Modern Divorce Advocacy, an intensive simulation-based skills course focusing on family law trial skills and advocacy in mediation;
  • hosting the Family Court Review of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, an international quarterly forum with over 3,000 subscribers worldwide, which publishes interdisciplinary family law-related research and Hofstra Law student notes on family law topics;
  • developing a national model for court-affiliated parent education programs in PEACE (Parent Education and Custody Effectiveness Program);
  • serving as the base for the research and drafting of the Uniform Collaborative Law Act (now enacted in 15 states) for the Uniform Law Commission and the Model Standards of Practice for Family and Divorce Mediation in collaboration with numerous national organizations;
  • hosting the first law school conference on collaborative law, which resulted in a special issue of the Hofstra Law Review on the subject;
  • hosting the conference of the American Bar Association that created an agenda to improve treatment of foster youth and youth at risk by the legal system, which resulted in several special issues of the Family Court Review;
  • hosting, in collaboration with New York State’s Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children, a statewide and Long Island-wide conference on “keeping kids in school and out of court,” which also resulted in a special issue of the Family Court Review; and
  • sponsoring the Child and Family Advocacy Fellowship Program, which aids law students who pursue public service careers in family law.

This first issue of FamilyLaw@HofstraLaw focuses on the Center’s present and future. I will not list what it covers, because this message would get too long. It suffices to note that the Center’s current projects demonstrate that its pursuit of the goals of family law-system improvement and better family law education never ends and should never end. Most importantly, this issue highlights the dedicated Center faculty, staff, students, alumni, donors and friends who continue to seek to improve the way families and children in the legal system are treated and future family lawyers are educated. We are, and will always be, proud and supportive of them and in their debt. Each one changes the world in her own unique way.

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J. Herbie DiFonzoJudge Gail Prudenti speaking with students