Sara Wood '10 Awarded Equal Justice Works Fellowship
Third-year law student Sara Wood has been awarded an Equal Justice Works Fellowship that will allow her to spend two years advocating for caregivers who take in young relatives who might otherwise end up in foster care.
Wood will use the prestigious public service fellowship to work with MFY Legal Services in Manhattan, N.Y. , working to help a population known as kinship caregivers.
"A kinship caregiver is a nonparent who is assuming full-time care for a child they are related to when the biological parents are unable or unwilling to do so, often due to reasons such as mental illness, drug addiction or incarceration," Wood said.
MFY Legal Services has a project that assists New York City kinship caregivers with adoption, custody and guardianship proceedings.
Wood will expand that project to offer public benefits assistance, and will also work with a state advocacy group to set up similar programs outside of the city.
Yared Getachew, the assistant dean for public service and director of the Mortimer Caplin Public Service Center, said Wood is a deserving candidate whose project will fill a "great void in the delivery of legal and social service in New York."
"Those who know Sara are struck by her unfailing kindness, humility, deference to the views of others and her uncompromising commitment to be a voice for survivors of domestic violence and children in need," Getachew said."Her advocacy skills, coupled with her involvement in several pro bono endeavors at the Law School, made her a perfect candidate for a public interest fellowship."
Wood said she first became aware of kinship caregivers and their challenges last summer while working at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A.
"The attorney I was working for asked me to research private placement adoption, and one of the resources she pointed me to was a manual the MFY kinship caregiver program had prepared," Wood said.
Many kinship caregivers are elderly and living on very limited resources, and often weren't planning on taking care of a child during the later stages of their lives. They are often struggling to meet the financial burdens that come with raising children. Assistance with public benefits matters such as food stamps and Medicaid will help address a pressing need, Wood said.
"A lot of these caregivers are eligible, but there's not a lot of accurate information available and many are either being improperly denied these benefits or aren't aware that they are eligible," she said.
The fellowship will allow her to steer clients toward the benefits they are entitled to, and represent clients in administrative hearings if they have been improperly denied, providing a legal service that would otherwise go unmet, Wood said.
Currently, programs providing kinship caregivers full legal representation in family court proceedings in New York state are unique to New York City. In addition to assisting clients, Wood will work with the New York State Kincare Coalition to try and establish similar programs in surrounding areas.
"This is a large undertaking, so I think we will start with one county at a time. In two years I think a reasonable goal will be to get programs established in one or two counties," she said.
The Equal Justice Works Fellowship Program is the largest postgraduate legal fellowship program in the nation, and provides recipients with a salary and loan repayment assistance.
Wood said the fellowship will allow her to assist an underserved and needy population while honing her legal skills.
"This fellowship will be a launching pad for a career working with disadvantaged children and families," she said.