By Sheila Pursglove
Last October, the Michigan Governor’s Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect honored Don Duquette with the Erney Moore Award for “unselfish rendering of outstanding and unique service to and on behalf of children and families in Michigan.” It was a well-deserved honor for the University of Michigan law professor who has spent his life helping children.
Duquette, founder and director of the U-M Child Advocacy Law Clinic—the oldest such law clinic in the country—terms himself “a product of the ‘60s when many of us thought we could change the world, abolish injustice and achieve world peace—really. So in pursuit of the ideals of the period it seemed like focusing on the wellbeing and success of children was the best pressure point to do this. Besides, I like children.”
The Michigan State University grad worked as a social worker specializing in child protection and foster care prior to earning his J.D. at Michigan Law in 1974. The first in his family to graduate from college, Duquette headed to law school without any particular thought of practicing law afterward.
“I thought that law would teach me how to affect change, how to pull the strings for reform, to create a more just society—this was the idealistic ‘60s remember. I thought legal training would help me understand the structure of society and teach me how to analyze problems and to express ideas more clearly and more persuasively.”
Always “obsessed” with child welfare, while in law school Duquette worked for a professor doing work in this area; and after graduation, joined the faculty of the Department of Pediatrics at Michigan State University.
“What a great experience that was,” he says.
Three years later, Michigan Law advertised for a clinical faculty position in a program on child abuse and neglect that included social work, pediatrics and the law.
“It seemed the position had my name on it—fortunately the law school agreed and I’ve been here ever since.”
In 1976, the Towsley Foundation—named for U-M professor of pediatrics Dr. Harry Towsley—provided a grant to Michigan Law for the Interdisciplinary Project on Child Abuse and Neglect, to include law, social work, and pediatrics and psychiatry.
“My charge as the clinical professor was to develop something hands-on that would teach students, expand knowledge in this new field and provide service to the community,” explains Duquette, who found that his experiences at MSU medical school imprinted a model of clinical education based on clinical training in medicine, that he has tried to implement in the legal education context.
And so the Child Advocacy Law Clinic was launched, representing children in Wayne County Juvenile Court who were allegedly abused or neglected. The clinic added representation of the local county department of social services and Duquette and his students appeared as of counsel to the Washtenaw County Prosecutor bringing cases of suspected child maltreatment on behalf of the county.
The team soon specialized in the most difficult child welfare litigation, pursuing termination of parental rights.
“These TPR cases were very time-consuming for the prosecutor but our smart and eager law students could prepare and successfully present these cases—and learn a ton about lawyering and the social context of our profession,” Duquette says. “A year or so later we started representing parents accused of child maltreatment in Jackson County. So began our signature representation of the three major parties, children, agency and parents, in separate counties to avoid conflict.”
Duquette’s law students love the opportunity to use and build their skills in service of a real client.
“Early in our history there was concern about whether clinical education could have the intellectual and pedagogical rigor befitting our law school. The concerns here at Michigan mirrored the debate going on nationally about ‘clinical’ legal education,” he says. “Further, how can ‘kiddie law’ really teach our students anything of value that would help them in their future careers?”
These questions have been laid to rest, he notes, as over the years students have raved about the experience the Child Advocacy Law Clinic offered them, and where they learn so much of the lawyer craft—trial practice, legal writing, ethics, client relationships, negotiation, substantive law—in the context of real cases helping real people.
Nevertheless, students face daunting challenges.
“The stresses of the practice of law are bad enough—of being on the spot in a courtroom, feeling the displeasure of an impatient judge, intense and skilled opposing counsel, time pressures,” Duquette explains. “But on top of that we deal with a difficult subject matter, the possible maltreatment of children and struggles over custody of a child.”
These difficult issues are explored directly as much as possible in class, supervisory sessions, and sometimes with the help of psychologists who teach with the class and advise on cases regularly.
Students may find themselves advocating for a position with which they personally disagree or for a client—agency, parents, and/or children—they do not particularly like, Duquette notes.
“These dilemmas are generalizable to other areas of law practice. Students learn to form rapport with clients, get them to trust them, counsel clients, and in the end do what the law and our ethics require.”
In 2009, the U.S. Children’s Bureau made a $6-million, multi-year grant to Michigan Law to serve as the National Quality Improvement Center for Child Representation in the Child Welfare System (QIC-ChildRep) with Duquette as director.
“With funding at $1.3 million per year, this is a wonderful opportunity to make a real difference in this field,” he says.
The many aspects of the project can be found at www.improvechildrep.org. The current focus is on a research project in Georgia and Washington State, the first-ever random assignment experimental design.
“The research is intended to learn what it is that lawyers do representing children that makes a significant difference in case handling and case outcomes for the child,” Duquette explains. “We should have a final report by December 2015—about time for me to retire.”
In 2003, Duquette partnered with the National Association of Counsel for Children (NACC) to develop a national certification of lawyers as specialists in child welfare. In 2004, the ABA recognized a new specialty of child welfare law and accredited the NACC to certify lawyers as specialists (Child Welfare Law Specialists—CWLS). A federal grant supported a successful pilot in several states, including Michigan. Certification requires three years specialty experience, a rigorous screening, and passing a national certification examination. There are now more than 400 CWLS lawyers in 32 U.S. jurisdictions.
“Certification improves the level of practice in child welfare by recognizing the truly excellent lawyers in this field, identifying leaders and mentors, and inspiring others to develop their skills and be so recognized,” Duquette says. “The idea started here and it’s been very satisfying to see it grow and flower.”
Duquette’s 2010 book, “Child Welfare Law and Practice: Representing Children, Parents and State Agencies in Abuse, Neglect and Dependency Proceedings, Second Edition,” defines the scope and duties of this legal specialty and prepares lawyers for the national certifying examination. An earlier book, “Advocating for the Child in Protection Proceedings,” published in 1990, formed the conceptual framework for the first national evaluation of child representation as mandated by the U.S. Congress.
“I think it’s important to write,” he says. “There is a power to clarify and influence.”
A proud “Yooper” from Manistique in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Duquette has called Ann Arbor home for nearly four decades. Recently he and Kathy, his wife of 46 years, sold their house of 35 years, downsized, and are enjoying a condo downtown, within a 10-15 minute walk of his office and all the Ann Arbor attractions.
“We love it,” he says.
The two are also enjoying their new role as doting grandparents to Andrew John Chapman, born in December to their daughter Gail, an MSW who works for a private agency in Wayne County.
Duquette, whose flexible summer work schedule allows him to live and work most of the summer in Bay View near Petoskey, enjoys sailing on the Great Lakes, cruising on his own boat and with friends. He also sings in a choir and takes jazz piano lessons, practicing almost every day.
“I’m terrible, have little or no talent, but I enjoy it and every day feel I am on the cusp of a breakthrough, which hasn’t come yet. Hope springs eternal?”