U-M law professor serves as an advocate for children, families

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

There are few things more important than giving each child the opportunity to grow up in a loving, supportive family, says Vivek Sankaran, clinical assistant professor of law in the University of Michigan Child Advocacy Law Clinic and director of the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy.

"Using the law as a vehicle to ensure that children remain with their families is something that will have a profound impact on the lives of those children," he says.

Drawn to a career in law by its power to help underserved populations achieve justice, last year Sankaran was appointed by Governor Rick Snyder to the Child Abuse Prevention Board that helps fund programs across Michigan.

"I'm fortunate to serve on the board with others interested in keeping children out of foster care and I hope to use my position to spread awareness on these issues," he says.

Sankaran, who has litigated several cases on behalf of parents before the Michigan Supreme Court, sits on the Steering Committee of the ABA National Project to Improve Representation for Parents Involved in the Child Welfare System, and chairs the Michigan Court Improvement Project subcommittee on parent representation. Author of scholarly pieces and practical resource guides for professionals working with parents in the system, he regularly conducts national and statewide training on these issues. His research and policy interests center on improving outcomes for children in child abuse and neglect cases by empowering parents and strengthening due process protections in the child welfare system.

"The overwhelming majority of families enter the child welfare system due to poverty-related neglect and not serious physical or sexual abuse," Sankaran says. "Very often, these families are drawn into the system because they may not have the resources to care for them. Rather than provide these parents with the proper support, the child welfare system too often removes children from these homes and places them in foster care."

Sankaran earned his bachelor's degree in government, magna cum laude, from the College of William and Mary; and his JD, cum laude, from Michigan Law School, where he was an associate editor of The Michigan Law Review.

After law school, he joined The Children's Law Center (CLC) as a Skadden Fellow and became a permanent staff attorney there in 2003. He was named the 2004 Michigan Law School Public Interest Alumni of the Year; and in 2006, was certified as a child welfare specialist by the National Association of Counsel for Children.

"As a law student, I helped Professor Don Duquette develop the specialization in child welfare law. It was an honor to then be in the first class of child welfare specialists recognized by the National Association of Counsel for Children and the ABA," he says.

Last year, Sankaran was honored as "Parent Attorney of the Year" by the Michigan Foster Care Review Board.

"There are so many hard-working and underappreciated lawyers across the country who represent parents in child welfare cases," Sankaran says. "I accepted the award on their behalf because it is through their hard work that the child welfare system is slowly changing to understand why supporting parents is the best approach for children in foster care."

Sankaran's students in the Child Advocacy Law Clinic obtain skills needed to practice law in any setting while serving a particular population that desperately needs talented advocates, he says. They also face tough issues, stubborn governmental agencies, and inadequate funding and resources.

"Clinical law forces students to face the realities of what it's like to practice law and helps them integrate the skills they learn in other parts of the law school's curriculum into the representation of real clients," he says. "I've stumbled upon my dream job and am so fortunate to work with amazing students and wonderful colleagues while at the same time am able to focus on the substantive issues I care deeply about."

A native of Glen Rock, N.J., Sankaran enjoys basketball--and is a Michigan/Syracuse fan--as well as crossfit and reading, and spending time with family, which includes a brother and two nephews in Ann Arbor. Sankaran and his wife recently welcomed a newborn son, who joins older brothers ages 5 and 3.

Published: Thu, Jun 21, 2012