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Vivek Sankaran

Vivek Sankaran is the director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University Michigan Law School. Follow him on Twitter at @vivekssankaran.


Best Interests Standard is a Judicial False Idol

Vivek Sankaran on what the "best interests standard" really means in child welfare cases.

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Creating Space for the Pain — and Joy — of Child Welfare Work

Leaders in the child welfare legal world should foster a work culture where joy and pain can co-exist, writes Vivek Sankaran.

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Measuring What Actually Matters

When measuring the worth of child welfare lawyers, we should consider the quality of their relationships with clients, writes Vivek Sankaran.

child welfare work celebrated


When Foster Youth Have Their Own Kids, Our Support Disappears

Too often, the trauma young people have experienced in foster care is assumed to be healed when they have children, writes Vivek Sankaran.

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A Court Reminds Us of the Obvious: Probable Cause Counts in Child Welfare Cases, Too

Kudos to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for siding with parents' Fourth Amendment rights in child welfare cases, writes Vivek Sankaran.

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Get Kids with Kin, and Quickly

Research tells us that children in foster care fare much better when living with their family, but too often, there are barriers to kin placement, writes Vivek Sankaran. 

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The Power of Asking Why

Observing court one day, I heard one of those remarks that should stun anyone within earshot. Testifying in the case being heard, in which a family separation was on the table, the caseworker remarked, “No, I didn’t make reasonable efforts to reunify because the mother was homeless and was living in a room in a shelter.”

Vivek Sankaran.


It’s About More Than Four Walls and A Roof

Vivek Sankaran writes about the necessary steps beyond simply providing housing for families in crisis or need

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The Family Justice Gap

Those in the child welfare system should reflect on our complicity in allowing a system to separate children from their parents without due process.

Vivek Sankaran.


Changing the Child Welfare System Starts With Reframing Our View of Families

While conversations about statutory reforms in child welfare are important and will hopefully result in meaningful change, questions linger.

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Ma’Khia Bryant’s Story Reveals Flaws in Foster Care System

Ma'Khia Bryant's death is a reminder to the child welfare system: Before placing children with strangers, we must exhaust all other options.

Vivek Sankaran.


Comfort the Troubled, and Trouble the Comforted

My law students entered my virtual office dejected. Their teenage client had been accused of assault. As a result, he needed to change foster care placements, again. His mental health needs were not being addressed by the child welfare agency.

Vivek Sankaran.


Michigan Draws A Line on Terminating Parental Rights

My client in a Michigan child welfare case had already suffered from Crohn’s Disease, which hampered his ability to hold a job and resulted in frequent hospital visits, when tragedy struck.

Vivek Sankaran.


The Lawyer Illusion in Child Welfare Court

Too often, judges assume that the mere presence of legal counsel for parents in child welfare court means the system wasn't making mistakes.

Vivek Sankaran.


The Value of Leaving the Door Open for Families

Vivek Sankaran, University of Michigan School of Law
As I started to clean up the kitchen after Christmas dinner with my family, a text message appeared on my phone. The message simply read, “Merry Christmas,” with a picture attached.

Vivek Sankaran.


Toward Relentless Support of Families

Poet David Whyte writes, “Start close in, don’t take the second step or the third, start with the first thing close in, the step you don’t want to take.” I’m thinking of Whyte’s words this morning as my client – a mother who for years has battled an addiction to drugs – prepares to enter an in-patient drug treatment program, days before Christmas.

Family First Act


Biden Should Keep Jerry Milner at Children’s Bureau

The election of former Vice President Joe Biden provides an opportunity to end the war against poor families waged by the Trump administration. President Trump sought to deny millions of Americans – including children – health care, food stamps and cash assistance.

Vivek Sankaran.


Ginsburg’s Child Welfare Legacy: Attention to Parental Rights

The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had many gifts, one of which was using language to convey the harsh impact of the law on those living on the margins. Consider her words in M.L.B.

Vivek Sankaran.


The Looming Housing Crisis and Child Protection Agencies

Vivek Sankaran, director of the Child Advocacy Law Clinic and the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic at the University Michigan Law School. 
A few weeks ago, my client, a mother in a child protective case trying to regain custody of her children, informed my students she had lost her housing and was now homeless.

Vivek Sankaran.


Is Every Foster Care Removal Really an Emergency?

Let’s say that my neighbor is upset because he believes I encroached on his property by building a fence on it. So he sneaks into court – without my knowledge – and obtains a court order from a judge requiring me to immediately remove the fence.

Vivek Sankaran.


With Child Welfare, Racism Is Hiding in The Discretion

My first client as a family defense lawyer was a Black mother who left her 13-year-old in charge of 8- and 6-year-old siblings while she went to the dry cleaners. In suburban America, we call this babysitting.

Vivek Sankaran.


Reimagining Courts As Dispensers of Justice After Coronavirus

During a recent training, a judge showed us a glimpse of his future courtroom and what awaits us when juvenile courts reopen. A plexiglass shield will separate the judge from the litigants.

Vivek Sankaran.


In Child Welfare Cases, Just Any Old Lawyer Won’t Do

During a virtual town hall last week, parents asked gut-wrenching questions to child welfare leadership. “When can I see my kids again?” “I was having unsupervised visits with them. Why can’t they come live with me?”

American Bar Association Confronts Anti-Black Discrimination in Child Welfare


A Crisis Reveals the Need to Modernize Juvenile Courts

This week, I received word that many courts – including the juvenile court in which I practice – were closing. That is, for the indefinite future, my court would not be holding any hearings, other than emergency hearings, to address whether a child needs to be removed for their immediate safety.


Child Welfare Professionals Must Embrace a Culture of Scrutiny

Last week, NBC ran a troubling story involving Wisconsin doctor John Cox, who lost custody of his daughter after he accidentally fell asleep on top of her. He feared he broke her collarbone so he immediately called his wife, also a doctor.


‘Your Father is as Worthless as Your Mother’

“Your father is as worthless as your mother.” Those words – said by a caseworker to a 13-year-old child whose parents were addicted to heroin – jumped out at me as I read the case file.


Beyond Counsel: What Lawyers Can Mean to Parents

I opened my inbox to find an email titled, “I can’t take this life anymore.” My heart sank. These were the words of a former client, a young adult who had aged out of foster care after living in more than 10 placements.


Finally, a Judge Who Owns the Decision to Remove Kids

Last week, the Washington Post profiled the remarkable work of Judge Ernestine Gray to essentially eliminate New Orleans’ foster care system. Between 2011 and 2017, the number of kids in foster care in New Orleans fell by 89 percent.


Injustice Without Objection

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reading transcripts from child protective hearings. Hundreds of pages of transcripts. I’ve seen examples of clear legal errors. I’ve read many lines of parents’ lawyers grumbling and complaining.


I’m Sorry We Failed You

I turned on my computer to start my day’s work when a reminder popped up on my screen. Today marked the birthday of Alonzo, a child I had represented many years back when he was a 9-year old child in foster care.


Let’s Be Honest: “Best Interest” Is in the Eye of the Beholder

A few weeks ago on a phone call discussing how systems can support keeping kids safely with their families, a judge abruptly interjected, “I don’t like this focus on the rights of parents.


Child Welfare is a System in Need of Umpires

A few weeks ago, a retired judge shared with me how he’d reform juvenile court. He remarked, “I’d tell judges they shouldn’t be umpires. They need to do more than call balls and strikes.


More Than Law: Family Defense Attorneys as Relationship Builders

Recently I sat on a panel at a statewide conference on legal representation at which a judge made the following remark: “We need high quality parent representation in child welfare cases.


What Defines Success for Child Welfare Lawyers?

A year ago, I received an unexpected message on Facebook. It read: “Man we miss you how have u been. We were so devastated when u left.” Of course my curiosity compelled me to respond immediately.

Vivek Sankaran.


To Have Impact, Laws Must Be Enforced. Appellate Lawyers Help Do Just That.

Each fall, students in the University of Michigan Law School’s Child Welfare Appellate Clinic represent parents in termination of parental rights (TPR) appeals. We don’t cherry pick our cases for ones we’re likely to win.

Vivek Sankaran.


Can We Walk You Home?

Throughout the evening, the three brothers described to me the years of abuse they experienced in foster care. They were made to stand in the corner of rooms for hours. They were forced to clean every dish in the house, if one was dirty.


Hearings: The Day I Became a Family Defense Lawyer

This week, a forthcoming major study will demonstrate that high-quality, legal representation of parents by institutional providers in New York City got children with their families four months faster than those parents represented by solo practitioners.


While We Celebrate, Some Children Grieve

Sitting across the coffee table from me, a young woman – adopted as a child out of foster care – shared her experiences. She had achieved incredible success in life, a college degree, with a master’s degree forthcoming.


Your Crisis Can Wait Until Noon

The teenage boy stared at the judge, with a face struggling to hide its emotion but clearly displaying sadness. For weeks, he had been staying at a residential foster care facility and had been getting in trouble.

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The Outdated Way We Think About Relationships in Child Welfare

At a recent meeting I attended, a foster parent described her role as being a “co-parent” with the birth parent to raise a child in foster care. That is, she envisioned that her job was to temporarily help care for the child – with the birth parent – while doing everything in her power to support efforts to reunify the family.


In Court, Children are Unseen and Unheard

My 16-year old client – a young woman who had already spent several years in foster care – just wanted to share her story in court. She hoped to tell the judge the ways in which group home staff were mistreating her.


Michigan Quietly Embraces Unlicensed Kinship Caregivers

In 2003, I was assigned to represent five young children in foster care who had been placed in a group home in Maryland. During my first visit with them, they told me how much they wanted to live with their grandmother, a delightful, gregarious woman with a big smile who was deemed appropriate by everyone who met her.



Grasping the Opportunity to Remake Child Welfare

 As I wrote last week, the federal government quietly introduced a momentous new funding source for child welfare systems before the holidays. The Department of Health and Human Services will now reimburse states for legal support given to parents involved in child welfare proceedings, and to their children.



An Invitation to Remake Child Welfare

A few days before Christmas, the federal government extended an invitation to state child welfare agencies that has the potential to completely transform the system. The invitation did not arrive with great publicity.

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Reasonable Efforts in an Unreasonable World

Every day, child welfare systems confront the effects of America’s misguided social policy. Draconian criminal laws and unjust sentencing policies result in the unnecessary separation of children, particularly those who are African-American, from their parents.


A Call to New State Child Welfare Directors

Tomorrow, citizens across the country will head to the polls. In 36 states, people will elect governors. Presumably, in a significant number, voters will choose a new leader for their state.

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What We Need to Protect American Families

Vivek Sankaran, one of America’s strongest voices for family preservation, graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 2001. Since then, he and his alma mater have built a legal advocacy clinic for Michigan families involved in the system, as well as a fellowship that serves as one of the nation’s top incubators for legal minds in child welfare.


Can We Please Fix the Interstate Placement of Children in Foster Care?

Consider, for a moment, this story I recently discovered in court transcripts. A paternal grandmother living in New York City learns that her 1-year-old grandson is in Michigan’s foster care system.

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Termination of Parental Rights: What’s The Rush?

If a parent is unfit and cannot care for his child, we should automatically terminate his parental rights. Right? Well, maybe not. A few years back, one of my former clients – a child who had aged out of the foster care system – graduated from law school.

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In Child Welfare, Two Worlds When it Comes to Legal Representation

A few weeks ago, a close friend came home from work surprised to find the business card of a Child Protective Services (“CPS”) worker wedged inside his door. No letter, or even a handwritten note, accompanied the card.

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Is the Solution Really for More Children to Enter Foster Care?

Last week, in a provocative op-ed in the Washington Post, Naomi Schaefer Riley – a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute – argued that the problem in America’s child welfare system is “not that we’re taking too many children away from their parents.

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What Gives Me Hope for Child Welfare

Child welfare is a grueling field. Catastrophic forces ignored by society – poverty, mental illness, addiction, homelessness, domestic violence – work together to transform problems into crises. When those crises hit, children are caught in the crossfire.

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Every Family Deserves the Benefit of the Doubt

Every family enjoys its stories. Several years ago, mine had its “Home Alone” moment. My brother, his wife and their two children were visiting my parents in New Jersey. They agreed to head out to dinner – in two cars – to a restaurant about 45 minutes away.