ANN ARBOR—It’s not easy to miss the faded black, free-standing heavy bag in Ashley Burbanks’ townhouse.
The bag, with a 6-inch tear on top, is next to the kitchen island, visible to family and guests who enter the Ann Arbor home. Burbanks’ boys—Donny, 13, and Gabriel, 12—occasionally punch it because, as their mother says, “they need boxing to defend themselves, learn to take care of themselves, be a strong man.”
Her desire to empower them comes from not feeling capable to defend herself for many years. She is a domestic violence survivor. Her strength now, in part, came from a team at the University of Michigan’s Child Advocacy Law Clinic, which stood in her corner when other legal options weren’t available.
Two clinic lawyers—former students who have since graduated—and its director Vivek Sankaran passionately advocated for Burbanks to regain custody of her four children when Child Protective Services intervened. Gabriel, then age 8, unexpectedly found his mother’s handgun—which she kept for protection against an abusive ex-husband—and shot his younger brother Alan, then age 4, in the head.
Alan survived, but the physical and mental scars remain. The family is still healing and coping daily, but grateful to CALC for reuniting them.
“If it weren’t for them during the time that I was going through what I was going through, I don’t know that I would have made it through,” said Burbanks, as her hands trembled and eyes swelled with tears as she recalled the physical, mental and sexual violence she suffered for years. “Honestly, they really saved me by just everything they did.”
Since its inception in 1976, CALC has tirelessly represented thousands of clients. As the first and oldest clinic of its kind in the country, its lawyers mainly represent children in the foster care system. Michigan is one of several states that allows law students, under the supervision of law faculty, to take the lead role in representing clients.
Second- and third-year law students handle cases, gaining experience as future lawyers under Sankaran’s guidance. Nurturing their interest in child advocacy, the dozen or so students enrolled in the clinic perform the same tasks as lawyers: interview clients, file motions, pore through legal documents, take the case to court and make decisions.
All of this happens while taking classes to prepare them for what to expect in court. Sankaran notes that the clinic and classes also address the legal, social, emotional, ethical and public policy questions of when and how the state ought to intervene in family life on behalf of children.
Elliott Gluck, a third-year law student, describes CALC as one of his best experiences in the Law School. The work makes a difference by reuniting families, he says.
“Building the relationship with clients … that is the most important part of the clinic,” said Gluck, who will move to New York in September to work at a law firm.
The clinic’s value in providing high-quality representation shouldn’t be underestimated in a profession where lawyers are sometimes overworked and underpaid. Sankaran speaks with pride about his highly motivated students, who he describes as being “passionate about their work.”
Sometimes those qualities are needed when families, who typically get referred to CALC by the courts, are concerned about students—not veteran lawyers—representing them.
“It’s not uncommon for families to be skeptical, but I hear back from them after the cases saying ‘I’m so happy that a law student represented me,’” said Sankaran, a 2001 U-M law graduate who also directs the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic. “The families feel that they are heard.”
CALC provides free services, which is ideal for low-income clients who mainly live in Ann Arbor/Washtenaw County, Flint, Detroit and surrounding areas. Sankaran said these families deserve representation as they seek to overcome trauma, homelessness, neglect, incarceration, poverty and social issues.
“That’s the story that people miss,” he said. “Students can share that narrative with judges.”
Judge F. Kay Behm of Genesee County says she values the clinic’s work in assisting in foster care cases, which can sometimes involve complicated federal and state laws.
“The clinic’s students do a good job. They have access to resources most attorneys don’t have,” said Behm, a 1994 U-M Law School graduate who worked in a law clinic involving landlord/tenant cases. “The program not only trains lawyers in this area of law but improves the system as a whole.”
For instance, since the students each handle one or two cases, they have more time to devote to clients. In addition, Sankaran and colleague Joshua Kay, clinical assistant professor at CALC, are frequently available to assist the court with cases.
Behm pointed to a case she handled involving a girl seeking to be placed with her father in Mississippi. Sankaran used his contacts to have the father’s home evaluated—which was required by the state for placement—and the process only took a few weeks rather than six months.
For Burbanks, former law students Dani Angeli and Alanna Farber vouched for her that she had completed parenting classes, which eventually allowed Burbanks to regain her children after three months apart.
Burbanks says she’s relieved that her ex-husband—who she divorced in 2012 after eight years of marriage—is in jail for other charges. She has since sought and was granted a request that his parental rights be terminated for their children, which also includes 11-year-old daughter Shylah.
Burbanks is helping the kids adjust emotionally at home and in school, but also plans to get them professional counseling.
“They know that I would do anything for them,” she said. “They know that I love them. They know that they are everything to me.”
In the meantime, her children enjoy kicking a ball, riding skateboards and playing games with other neighborhood kids. And if they want to let out any frustration or simply sharpen their boxing skills, there is always the black heavy bag near the kitchen.