By: Jessica Tiburcio
Public interest is often misconceptualized when compared to other practice areas. The stereotype is that public interest lawyers pursue unattainable and abstract ideals, while other lawyers perform more practical and attainable work. However, public interest work is deeply satisfying and meaningful to many practicing attorneys. Public interest often necessitates work on behalf of poor individuals and families with legal problems, including criminal matters or civil issues. Public interest law also frequently supports civil rights and social justice causes. To me, public interest work is not only joyful, but also a representation of the time, dedication, impact, and work I exude into the communities and families that are most in need.
The Center for Elder Law & Justice (CELJ) primarily focuses on public interest work. As a summer legal intern for the Kinship Care Unit at CELJ, I observed legal professionals provide free legal representation to relative caregivers. The kinship care lawyers at CELJ usually help relative caregivers who want to pursue temporary or permanent custody of relative children (i.e., nieces, nephews, siblings, grandchildren, etc.) in Erie and Niagara counties. By placing children with a relative, the children can avoid foster care when parents cannot continue parenting.
Although the Family Court process is designed for people who do not have lawyers, it can help to have a lawyer. There are two types of lawyering for kinship care because two kinds of kinship care exists: formal and informal. Formal kinship care involves asking the court to place a child or children under the legal custody of kinship parent(s). Formal kinship care typically occurs when a court decides that the child must be separated from its biological parents due to child abuse, child neglect, child abandonment, or certain medical circumstances.
The second type of kinship care is informal. Informal kinship care is when the parent(s) of a child decide that it is better to let the child live with another family member or relative due to specific reasons. In an informal kinship care arrangement, the parents retain legal custody of the child. This means that the parents can still make important decisions on behalf of a child, while the kinship care parents assume physical custody and child-rearing responsibilities.
Throughout my time at CELJ, I predominantly worked on formal kinship care cases. In general, formal kinship care arrangements are highly regulated by both federal and state laws. Thus, I have worked closely with the New York Family Court Act Articles 6, 1017, 1028, and 1028-a when composing and filing petitions for custody, orders to show cause, and specific motions.
Throughout my internship, I also learned about the importance and need for kinship care lawyers. Kinship care lawyers provide legal stability to hundreds of families each year by offering representation in custody, guardianship and adoption matters. Kinship care lawyers, such as those in the Kinship Care Unit at CELJ, provide access to public benefits that low-income families cannot otherwise afford. By formalizing kinship care relationships between children and relatives, kinship care lawyers promote children’s well-being and help secure additional supports for caregivers, all of which prevent children from entering the foster care system and being separated from their families.
Next year I will implement my learning experiences at CELJ made possible by Francis M. Letro ’79 & Cindy Abbott Letro Diversity Fellowship Award through the University at Buffalo School of Law. I will use the lessons from this summer in the classroom by actively encountering authentic problems, constructing novel hypotheses, testing for real solutions, and interacting with others to make sense of the legal topic.
Name: Jessica Tiburcio, ‘21
Name of Fellowship: Francis M. Letro ’79 & Cindy Abbott Letro Diversity Fellowship Award
Placement: Center for Elder Law & Justice
Location: Buffalo, NY
One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “Positivity is essential when dealing with sensitive kinship care matters. Positivity allows kinship care lawyers to listen and provide constructive feedback to their clients proactively; it also helps kinship care lawyers successfully separate business and personal issues.”