MFY: Working With Corporate Counsel To Improve Children's Lives

Wednesday, August 1, 2007 - 01:00

Editor: Can you tell us about MFY and what role you play there?

Cordero: MFY Legal Services, Inc. began serving low-income New Yorkers in civil matters in 1963, as part of a massive anti-poverty effort on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Today, MFY handles over 4,000 cases citywide in the areas of housing, public benefits, employment, civil and disability rights, elder law, and consumer. MFY's newest initiative is the Kinship Caregiver Law Project, which I supervise. The project grew out of MFY's successful Pro Bono Adoption Project, which helped clear a backlog of foster care adoptions in the family court. While the Adoption Project was in force, we received a steady stream of calls from grandparents, aunts and uncles, and, in some cases, older siblings who were caring for related children and wanted to adopt them or needed help with guardianship proceedings.

Editor: How has JP Morgan Chase been involved with MFY's work in the past?

Cordero: JPMorgan Chase has been a long-time supporter of MFY Legal Services, both through participation on our Board of Directors and through grants made to us by the JPMorgan Chase Foundation. Mark Segall has been one of the most active members of our Board for the past three years, and recently chaired our most successful annual benefit to date. The JPMorgan Chase Foundation is currently supporting MFY's work in the area of financial literacy for low-income New Yorkers, and previously funded our work to represent domestic violence victims in employment matters. As part of its new initiative to increase pro bono involvement by its attorneys and legal workers, JPMorgan is participating in the Kinship Caregiver Law Project.

Editor: Can you tell us about the Kinship Caregiver Law Project and what its mission is?

Cordero: In New York City today, there are over 300,000 children who are cared for by relatives outside of the formal foster care system. Most of these caregivers are grandparents who have opened their homes to children when their parents were unable or unwilling to care for them. In some cases the natural parent has died or is seriously ill; in other cases, the natural parent is struggling with substance abuse or is incarcerated. In some cases, the children have been abandoned and the whereabouts of the biological parents are not known.

The goal of the Kinship Caregiver Law Project is to help stabilize these families and bring greater permanency to children's lives by providing free legal assistance in adoption, guardianship, and custody matters. Almost all child welfare experts believe that it is better for children to be with a close relative rather than be placed in foster care with a stranger. However, the Administration for Children's Services only provides support for kinship caregivers if they enter the formal system, and most are not interested in doing that. In fact, the greatest demand from kinship caregivers is for help with adoptions. Many of these grandparents have cared for a child since he or she was an infant and the child has known no one else as his or her "parent." Other caregivers want legal guardianship, which often enables them to place the children in their care on medical insurance plans and make medical decisions.

Editor: How do the lawyers from JPMorgan Chase work with MFY Staff?

Cordero: JPMorgan Chase attorneys have been trained to handle adoption, guardianship and custody proceedings and they are currently representing one caregiver in an adoption case. JPMorgan is unique in having made a special effort to encourage other legal workers to get involved in the program. Several of the company's compliance staff join me at family court in Brooklyn each month, where we meet one-on-one with kinship families to discuss their rights and options and to screen them for possible representation by the Project. They conduct an initial screening, review and copy documents, and otherwise help the process go smoothly. This makes the process very efficient and allows me to meet with more families.

Editor: Where do you see your partnership with JPMorgan Chase headed, and how can other legal departments get involved?

Cordero: Over time, we expect that more caregivers will be represented by JPMorgan Chase attorneys and the clinic will be an on-going collaboration. Our Project will expand in September with the addition of a full-time staff attorney. We will be able to do more outreach in general, and we would like to expand court-based intake to the other boroughs. The Project needs volunteer attorneys to represent caregivers in court, provide advice and counsel at court-based intake and at periodic legal clinics we hope to organize in the future, and to do community-based training on the issues involved in kinship care to caregivers in the community and to social service workers who serve them.

Interested law firms and law departments may contact me at rcordero@mfy.org.