"I had promised those five children that I'd be there for them, that I wouldn't let them go back into the system and I wouldn't let them be separated from each other," Summers, then the children's foster mother, says. "I decided the only way to do that was to adopt them myself." For the help she needed to make her heartfelt commitment to the five children legal, Summers turned to the MC Law Adoption Legal Clinic. The Adoption Legal Clinic provides free assistance to families who want to adopt children who are under the supervision of the Mississippi Department of Human Services (DHS). The work includes processing paperwork, coordinating court appearances, and handling legal details, but at its heart, the mission of the Adoption Legal Clinic is to make the dream of a family come true for parents and children. "Adoption is the only legal proceeding that's a win-win situation," says Crystal Welch '09, an MC Law adjunct professor and the staff attorney with the clinic. "Everyone involved in an adoption walks out of the courtroom with a smile on his or her face."
The Adoption Legal Clinic was founded in 2004, when a representative of the Attorney General's Office approached Shirley Kennedy '91, director of the MC Law Child Advocacy Program and asked if the law school would consider assisting Department of Human Services with some pending adoption cases.
What began as a special project for a few law students quickly evolved into a full-fledged legal clinic. In the nine years since its founding, the Adoption Legal Clinic has helped hundreds of foster children become family members.
"The Adoption Legal Clinic represents a win-win-win situation," Kennedy says. "Families who want to adopt receive free legal assistance to complete the process, DHS is able to provide children in its care with permanent, loving homes more quickly, and our law students gain valuable, real world experience."
"Adoption is a beautiful thing, but the adoption process is purely a creature of statute," Welch says. "The clinic is fortunate to have professors, attorneys, and law students who have both a heart for children and proficiency in adoption law."
Working under the supervision of Kennedy and Welch, MC Law students handle adoption cases for foster parents who wish to adopt children in their care. The children are already living in the homes and have already bonded with their soon-to-be-adoptive parents; the only thing preventing the parents and child from becoming a legal family is the paperwork.
A heart for children — Crystal Welch '09 Ever since she landed her first job in a day care center at the age of 16, Crystal Welch has known she had a heart for children. Following her graduation from Bowdoin College in Maine, Welch spent two years in Guatemala as a volunteer with the Safe Passage Program, a non-profit organization working to bring hope, education, and opportunity to children living in extreme poverty. Welch volunteered as a first grade teacher and librarian in a "garbage dump community," a poverty-stricken, drug-invested community where the children spent their days scavenging in a garbage dump. Upon returning to the United States, Welch enrolled at MC Law, where she participated in both the Guardian ad Litem and Adoption Legal Clinics as a student. Welch practiced criminal law before returning to MC Law in 2010 as an adjunct professor and attorney with the Adoption Legal Clinic. "I love the fact that I can use my legal training to bring families together," Welch says. "People think being an attorney is always adversarial. The Adoption Legal Clinic lets me use my professional training to do good for everyone involved."
In 2011, six law students working for the Adoption Legal Clinic finalized 71 adoptions. The clinic's average time from obtaining the file from DHS to finalizing the adoption is just two weeks.
Positions in the legal clinic are open to law students who have completed more than half of their graduation requirements and are licensed to practice law under the limited practice act. An average of 15 students apply for the three clinic positions each semester.
"The students chosen have to be compassionate and have great people skills," Kennedy says. "They'll be working directly with the prospective parents, many of whom have been waiting for a long time to adopt a child. For most of these parents, this is their first experience with the legal system, so there is some hand holding involved. The students handle legal issues, but they also answer basic questions, like where to find a notary or what to expect in court."
Law students walk adoptive parents through every step of the adoption procedure, from the day the initial paperwork is filed to the day the child becomes a permanent member of the family. In many cases, students appear in court and present the case before the judge. Because the Adoption Legal Clinic handles cases statewide, students also perform all of the background and legal work for volunteer lawyers throughout Mississippi, who then make the necessary court appearances in their local communities.
"This is a great opportunity for our students to gain experience and network with attorneys and chancellors statewide," Kennedy says. "But most of them participate because they genuinely want to help these children and families."
"In the Adoption Legal Clinic, students get to make a real difference, one child and one family at a time," says Courtney Wolfe '12, who works in the clinic as a law student. "What I enjoyed the most was meeting with adoptive families and their newly adopted children and seeing how happy they were that they had made it to the other side of the adoption process. I remember Professor Welch telling us that adoption was the only time you would see everyone walk out of the courtroom happy, and she was right."
FROM ONE ADOPTIVE PARENT TO ANOTHER Shirley Kennedy knows first-hand the excitement, anxiety, joy, and impatience an adoptive parent feels. Kennedy and her husband are the parents of two adopted children, 18-year-old Kyle and 17-year-old Kelly. Following the arrival of babies Kyle and Kelly, Kennedy left her practice with the Brunini Law Firm to become a stay-at-home mother. When the children began school, Kennedy accepted a position as director of the MC Law Child Advocacy Clinic. Today, one of her greatest joys is helping other adoptive parents through the Adoption Legal Clinic. "I feel such a connection with these parents," Kennedy says. "I know how nervous and anxious they are about the legal part — I was a lawyer and it was still an anxious time for me. My husband and I had to wait for some time for Kyle and Kelly,and I know how hard the waiting can be. I've seen tears of joy and relief in court, and I know exactly what that feels like."
When his current cases are complete, third-year law student Matthew Powers will have helped finalize nine adoptions through the clinic.
"I've loved every minute of it," Powers says. "I handled a case in which a family was adopting a little girl who had just turned three. When I walked into the courthouse, this little girl patted the chair beside her, asking me to sit there. She showed me a photo album that was filled with pictures of her from the time she arrived with this family up until that day. The families are appreciative, but I get so much personal reward out if it."
"One of the first families I worked with was adopting a four-year-old boy they had been caring for since he was born," Wolfe says. "The family was so excited that it was finally happening. The adoptive parents, their natural children, the adopted child, and the proud grandparents were all there at the courthouse. The judge asked the child if he wanted to be adopted. The little boy was shy — he nodded 'yes,' then buried his head in his mother's shoulder — but one of the natural children who could not have been more than 10 years old wanted to make sure the judge was clear. She spoke up and told the judge that yes, the child wanted to be adopted, and that she and the rest of her family were ready to officially have a new brother."
Lisa Robin '12 had a personal interest in adoption even before she began working with the clinic. Robin's cousin had adopted a child from Russia; another cousin had gone through the court system so that her new husband could adopt her daughter. Prior to beginning law school, Robin worked as a paralegal in family law, where she saw divorces and custody battles. Robin was interested in working on adoption, what she refers to as "the happy side" of family law.
"It was so rewarding to talk to these parents and to hear them explain why they wanted to adopt," Robin says. "In many cases, the parents had already been caring for the child for years, but they wanted that child recognized as legally their own. They wanted to be able to say, 'This child is mine."
Jessie Summers, now the legal mother of five siblings, was one of those parents.
"The people at the clinic were so much help to us," Summers says. "They helped me understand about going through the system, and when all five children decided they want to change their name to 'Summers,' they helped us do that. My oldest adopted daughter is going to college now, and she wants to be a lawyer. I think she wants to help other people the way the clinic helped us."