Family law professor calls for reform of legal system to help families

By Heather Cobun
The Daily Record Newswire

The legal system is harming families and, as a result, harming children who don't grow up in a family that is adequately supported, according to Clare Huntington, a professor at Fordham University School of Law.

Huntington is the author of "Failure to Flourish: How Law Undermines Family Relationships," a project that was a decade in the making and the subject of a presentation at a Baltimore Bar Library event June 7.

According to Huntington's research, the legal regulation of families does not address the needs of families and sometimes actively works against those needs. The criminal justice system, divorce laws and even transportation policy make it difficult for parents to provide their children with strong, stable and positive relationships.

Huntington advocates for changes in the legal system to help families avoid crises and heal effectively when the system must intervene.

In a conversation, Huntington discussed her research and what can be done to change the system to help families flourish.

How did you become interested in how the law affects families?

I have a longstanding interest in children and poverty. Initially, I did international development work, in India and Senegal, and then I worked as a caseworker for a foster care agency in New York City. I brought these experiences with me to law school, where I learned to apply the tools of the law to the problems that had long concerned me.

"Failure to Flourish" contends that the entire legal system, not just the family law system, hinders families and fosters inequality. How did you develop this idea and what was your research process like?

I developed this more encompassing idea by thinking and writing about the child welfare system. Families in that system face substantial challenges, finding housing and employment, and addressing the criminal justice system. If we want to strengthen families, we need to think about all these sources of pressure. The book is the result of ten years of work studying multiple aspects of family law.

Is this a historic problem or a modern development?

There is no golden age of family law when states supported families more effectively.

Did any of your research surprise you? If so, what?

The finding that surprised me and that I could not ignore is the evidence that family structure plays a causal role in, and is not simply correlated with, child outcomes. Poverty, parental education, and similar factors go a long way to explaining the differential outcomes of children born to married parents and children born to unmarried parents, but new evidence is showing that family structure is a part of the problem as well.

In the book, you incorporate psychology and social science to support your arguments. What role did that research play in your conclusion?

This research was key to my findings. I spent several summers immersed in that evidence, always looking for more, and trying to read studies reaching different conclusions so I could think more critically about the results.

Did you discover models, either historical or contemporary, which you believe are doing something to help families?

Finding promising models was very important to me, and I dedicate two long chapters to describing promising reforms, both in the U.S. and other countries. I didn't want readers to finish the book feeling hopeless, because it's not hopeless. But we do need the political will to make changes, and that can be hard to find.

Where do you think the responsibility lies to take the first steps to correct the system?

There is a role for everyone, and we all need to play our part. Families can be very persuasive advocates, in court, and in local, state, and federal [legislatures]. Lawyers and community activists need to argue for a more proactive approach to strengthening families in a variety of settings. And elected officials need to think beyond the next election and make the investments that will help families in the near- and especially long-term.

Published: Thu, Jun 02, 2016

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