New grant allows Child Advocacy Clinic to expand custody guardianship for domestic violence victims

A new grant will allow Wake Forest Law’s Child Advocacy Clinic and the Children’s Law Center of North Carolina to partner to hire a custody attorney guardian for families where there is both domestic violence and issues over the custody of minor children.

The two-year grant for $100,000 from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund will enable the law school, the clinic and the center to accomplish two important goals: 1) to serve as a voice for greater numbers of children in the courtroom with the intent of breaking the cycle of violence; and 2) to track the decrease in family violence because of the guardian and publish those results to convince other judicial districts to use the custody attorney guardian model.

The grant comes as the result of research done in 2006 by Dean Suzanne Reynolds (JD ’77) and Professor Ralph Peeples, which suggests that when judges in conjunction with the Center and a guardian address custody issues in families with domestic violence, violence in those families decreases or disappears altogether.

“For complex reasons, judges have been reluctant to address the issue of custody when a victim of domestic violence has a minor child,” Reynolds says. “Preliminary research indicates that appointing a guardian to investigate custody in a home with domestic violence makes a lasting difference in that family’s experience.  We are so grateful to the Jessie Ball duPont Fund to enable us to study the phenomenon further.”

As a result of the grant, the law school plans to hire in August 2015 a custody attorney guardian to work in the Clinic/Center partnership. Currently, the Center has four lawyers who work in several areas of the Center’s work. The duties of the guardian would focus on: a) trying to get judges to appoint the Center in protective order cases where the custody of a minor child is involved; and b) research efforts, including collection and analysis of data about the cases in which the Clinic/Center partnership participated, according to the grant proposal. The guardian also would help supervise students enrolled in the clinic and would enable the Clinic/Center partnership to appear in a greater number of cases each year.

The project will be jointly led by Center Executive Director Iris Sunshine (JD ’89), who will oversee the staff member’s involvement in the Clinic, and Dean Reynolds, who will oversee the staff member’s research component.

The clinic was established in 2010 under the direction of Sunshine as a joint effort of Wake Forest Law and the Children’s Law Center. The law school and the Children’s Law Center initially collaborated on a course, Children and Domestic Violence, with the course evolving into a clinic that preserved the collaboration between the two entities.

The mission of the Children’s Law Center, which was co-founded a decade a ago by Penny Spry (JD ’82),  is to provide children with quality legal advocacy focusing on domestic violence issues, high-conflict custody cases, and access to education. As a non-profit organization founded in 2005, the Center’s ultimate goal is to enable children to grow up in safe environments and to become emotionally healthy adults. The Center is committed to making Forsyth County and Central North Carolina a safer place for children – one family at a time. The Center provides a voice for vulnerable children in court proceedings in three kinds of cases (actions for a domestic violence protective order, high-conflict custody cases in family court, and civil cases involving access to education) and advocates in all those settings for safe placement and counseling.