New clinic to help parents in prison stay connected to kids

February 21, 2014

Moms and dads serving time in prison will get legal assistance to keep their families together, as part of a new clinical course starting this fall at Seattle University School of Law.

Lisa BrodoffProfessor Lisa Brodoff, director of the Ronald A. Peterson Law Clinic, said the Incarcerated Parents Project will serve domestic violence survivors and parents with a history of drug or substance abuse.

The goals, she said, are to preserve parents' relationships with their children, reunite families when parents are released from prison, and keep families together.

"This is a critical area of social justice and it serves a real need," Brodoff said. "We'll be representing people who are sometimes scorned by society and deemed not worthy of representation. These kids and parents have a right to each other, and they deserve to have those rights protected."

The clinical course is just one part of a broader project funded by the Legal Foundation of Washington. The Washington Defender Association (WDA) will develop a training course for attorneys who work with incarcerated parents, create advisory materials for attorneys and judges, assist individual cases, and advocate for legislation and other efforts to improve child welfare.  The lessons learned in the clinic will inform these other efforts.

Devon KnowlesThe law school has already hired a full-time visiting faculty member, Devon Knowles, to teach the clinic. Knowles is a former public defender with The Defender Association and has previously taught in the law school's Legal Writing Program.

Knowles envisions a holistic representation model that builds on the family's strengths and addresses the concerns that may have brought the children into the child welfare system. Brodoff said moms and dads in prison don't currently have adequate legal help during dependency hearings, when their children can be sent to foster care or placed in the custody of other family members.

Clinic students will also work with incarcerated parents to develop easily accessible materials that explain the legal process, she said.

The foundation awarded a $450,000 grant to the law school and WDA for this three-year project — $180,000 of that amount is for the clinic. The funding stems from the settlement of a class action lawsuit against AT&T and other phone companies related to fees paid by inmates' families who received collect calls from prison.

Brodoff said she expects the clinic to appeal to students who have an interest in family law, domestic violence, or child welfare. However, like all clinical courses, it will teach lawyering skills that apply across a range of practice areas.

The Incarcerated Parents Project will be offered as a clinic for two academic years, and then will be evaluated for its performance and outcomes. Brodoff said she hopes to find other funding sources to keep the project going after the three-year grant is completed.