CUNY Law Impact: HIV/AIDS Advocacy

CUNY LAW IMPACT

The story of CUNY Law is the stories of our alumni and the impact they have on the world: inequality, poverty, immigration, and the rights of women, children, families, the elderly. They right wrongs as defenders and judges. They serve the pressing needs of the poor and disadvantaged in communities that often lack access to legal representation.

Law in the Service of Family Needs

Karen Simmons (‘94)

Karen SimmonsGiving children a strong and effective voice in court is what Karen Simmons (‘94) seeks to do every day as Executive Director of the Children’s Law Center (CLCNY).

With a staff of 80, CLCNY is a non-profit law firm funded by the New York State Office of Court Administration and founded on the belief that children deserve skilled zealous advocates in the court system. Its mission is to give a child a strong and effective voice in a legal proceeding that has a critical impact on his or her life. Each year in New York City, thousands of children are the subjects of custody/visitation, child protective, termination of parental rights, adoption, paternity, child support, domestic violence and guardianship disputes. CLCNY ensures that children’s voices are heard in this process. Last year, CLCNY provided representation in family court and the Integrated Domestic Violence Parts in Supreme Court to over 7,000 children and youth in crisis.

“We come in because the court feels a child’s voice needs to be heard,” says Simmons. “When parents have such conflict, the clarity of understanding what the child’s wishes are can help the court.”

Simmons recalls a recent case in which a father who had been away from his family for years, wanted to get back involved with his daughter. While she was excited about his return, the mother resented the father and did not allow him to visit. He ended up taking steps to get custody.

“My attorneys told them how much this child wanted both her parents involved,” she recounts. “In this case we got them to come to an agreement, so it was settled without further litigation.”

Other cases can be more contentious. In an unresolved case, a court-weary child has been caught in the middle of parents firing off numerous litigations and filing multiple supplemental petitions.

Simmons has headed up CLCNY since 2008 and brought to CLCNY her desire to ensure that systems are dynamic and supportive to the people they are seeking to serve.  This includes managing and developing her staff as well as ensuring that they can be zealous client advocates and community minded.

Simmons has represented children for a large portion of her career, but the origins of her interest in family law go back to her first job out of college working for the Human Resources Administration as a caseworker for homeless clients.

“I was frustrated at how families and children were being shuttled around from hotel to hotel, missing school. They weren’t getting services they needed. I wanted to help people be able to navigate bureaucracy,” she says.

To ensure that people who need help are not lost and social justice is not forgotten her career path moved from social services on to public administration, getting a master’s degree from John Jay, and then her JD. CUNY Law was her top choice.

After law school, Simmons worked for Legal Services NYC in family law, and through an IOLA Fellowship, developed an information project for families struggling to figure out the court system. That project became Legal Information for Families Today (LIFT), a not-for-profit that today operates out of every Family Court in New York City. Simmons also represented children in Manhattan and managed two trial offices in Brooklyn and Staten Island for the Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Practice.  She was also a Director with the Office of Court Administration Bronx Criminal Drug Treatment Court. 

Currently, along with CLCNY, Simmons is an Adjunct Professor at Brooklyn Law School.  One crucial element in her work has been mentoring students, interns and volunteers who are the next generation of advocates and need to build solid skills to develop a rapport with children to understand them as clients during emotionally difficult times. 

Sometimes they can remain with their parents; other times CLCNY has to connect them with other adults who will help form a new family.

“Although it’s hard and we hear hard cases, this work is doable and sustainable,” says Simmons. “You can still thrive in this and not burn out.” — Paul Lin

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At least 30 CUNY Law grads have served as judges in NY and beyond.