Kara Finck, most recently Managing Attorney for the public interest organization The Bronx Defenders, is the new Director of the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Child Advocacy Clinic.
After a lengthy search, Finck, who entered public service after graduating from Columbia University School of Law in 2001, officially joined the Penn Law faculty in April as a Practice Associate Professor and will lead the interdisciplinary Clinic.
“Penn Law’s Child Advocacy Clinic has a long tradition of service to families caught up in the child welfare system, and Kara, by virtue of her experience with The Bronx Defenders and the scholarship she has demonstrated in her recent book on Social Work and the Law, is superbly equipped to carry that tradition forward,” said Penn Law Dean Michael A. Fitts. “Equally important, she is a gifted teacher, whose commitment to public service will inspire Penn Law students. We’re delighted that she has accepted this appointment.”
“We are pleased to welcome Kara to Penn Law,” said Louis Rulli, a Practice Professor at Penn Law and Director of the Law School’s Gittis Center for Clinical Legal Studies. “Having built and directed one of the nation’s premier family defense practice units at The Bronx Defenders, Kara brings a strong commitment and wealth of interdisciplinary experience in child advocacy. And as a successful manager, legal advocate, and teacher, Kara will be a great mentor and role model for our students, who will be able to learn from her insights and experiences in meeting the challenges of our child welfare system.”
“I am thrilled to teach in a clinic setting and to give students the opportunity to work with families who have real and complicated legal issues that require creative and interdisciplinary responses,” Finck said. “To be able to do this at Penn, where there is such a strong commitment to interdisciplinary practice is a great gift.”
After graduating from law school in 2001, Finck clerked for U.S. District Court Judge Reginald Lindsay in Boston. Following her clerkship, she was awarded a Skadden Fellowship to work at The Door’s Legal Services Center in New York, where she represented children in foster care who were approaching discharge from the child welfare system, as well as teen mothers whose children had been illegally removed from their care.
In 2004 Finck joined The Bronx Defenders, where she created the practice, expanding from a small, grant-funded project with two staff members into the first institutional parent representation provider in Bronx Family Court, serving approximately 1,000 clients per year. As Managing Attorney, she led a holistic, team-based practice for parents facing abuse and neglect cases that brought together the services of more than 30 attorneys, social workers and parent advocates.
The law as a tool for social change
A desire to work in the public interest and to use the law as a tool for social change led Kara Finck to law school.
In 1996 she had graduated cum laude with departmental honors in Political Science from Columbia College, where she had been a Harry S. Truman National Scholar. “At that point, I was thinking about improving the system and attacking the age-old problems of racism, classism and sexism,” Finck said.
But in law school she discovered that the impact you can have as a lawyer representing individual clients is tremendously rewarding, even if it’s not always as attention-grabbing as advocating for systemic reform, which she continues to do. At Columbia Law, Finck was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar and Executive Articles Editor of the Columba Law Review. As a student in the law school’s Child Advocacy Clinic, she learned first-hand the profound impact that you could have as a lawyer in the lives of children and families.
Before attending law school, Finck worked at the then new holistic public defender office, The Bronx Defenders, focusing on community outreach and development. When she returned to the organization as an attorney five years later, she had the opportunity to “take my wish-list of what you’d want representation for parents to look like and make it a reality, all under one roof.”
As the office grew, Finck managed multi-million-dollar city contracts and private grants to fund services and developed a comprehensive training program for new lawyers focusing on interdisciplinary Family Court practice and collaboration between civil and criminal attorneys.
She was also closely involved in court reform initiatives and systemic reform measures in New York City and participated as a key partner with child welfare leaders, Family Court judges, and other providers on issues relating to the representation of children in criminal, civil, and family law cases. For Finck, child advocacy and advocating for the rights of parents are two sides of a coin. “You really can’t be an advocate for one and not the other,” she said. “For me it’s always been about working to keep families together.”
While leading The Bronx Defenders, Finck also served as an adjunct professor at Fordham University School of Law, an experience that reinforced her desire to teach.
Penn Law’s interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic was founded in 1983 and works in collaboration with the Penn’s schools of Medicine and Social Policy & Practice, and with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The Clinic teams law students, medical students and social work students to study the legal system’s response to child welfare in an interdisciplinary context. Under “student practice” rules of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Penn Law students represent their clients in court hearings, participate in developing a plan to serve the child’s best interest, and assure that the plan is carried out through a variety of interactions with parents, the Department of Human Services (DHS), and various service providers.
For many years the Clinic was led by the late Prof. Alan Lerner. “There is a tremendous legacy Prof. Lerner left with the clinic and the work he did,” Finck said. “I’m lucky to have that as a foundation.”