Southwestern Students Help Join Families on Adoption Day
Southwestern students Marina Zakiyan and Shannon Thiele found it difficult not to get choked up as they helped a couple formalize the adoption of their three foster children. A few hours earlier, the pair married on the beach before packing their family and friends into Courtroom 419 of the Edmund D. Edelman Children's Court in Monterrey Park. As Judge Rudolph A. Diaz finalized the adoption, he looked at the incredible turnout and exclaimed, "Is this the entire clan!?"
The tears of joy among their witnesses were contagious, especially as their 1-year-old son squealed out "Daddy!" throughout the proceedings.
Immediately after the adoption was official, their 6-year-old proudly stated her new last name as she and younger sister danced around in their party dresses.
The culminating event of Adjunct Professor Amy Pellman's Children and the Law class, 17 Southwestern students helped facilitate 23 adoptions on a warm April day. A judge of the Los Angeles Superior Court, Professor Pellman worked closely with The Alliance for Children's Rights to pair students with local attorneys who work pro bono to complete the adoptions. (Fawn Shanz of Dickstein Shapiro LLP served as Thiele and Zakiyan's supervising attorney.) The Alliance is Los Angeles’s preeminent free legal services organization dedicated solely to protecting impoverished, abused and neglected children, assisting more than 100,000 children and families over the past two decades.
"That was amazing. I didn't think it would be so emotional," Zakiyan said after the adoption was finalized. "Children and the Law has been one of the best courses I've taken at Southwestern. It's especially great for people like me who want to be involved in family law and dependency." After she graduates in May, Zakiyan will join the firm of Kolodny & Anteau, which specializes in family law.
"In my class, I try to give my students exposure to both the law and the heart of the foster care system," Professor Pellman explained. "I take the students through not only the legal procedures, but also the life of a foster child. It is a life that often sadly includes being moved at a moment's notice without consideration for the child's friends, school schedule, school activities or community attachments."
The Alliance conducted a training session during one of Professor Pellman's classes where all participating students were present. (Attorneys had already been trained.) Students then worked individually or in pairs with alumni to finalize the adoptions. They drafted letters, either met face to face with the family or had conference calls, completed the actual forms for the adoption, advocated for the AAP rate (Adoption Assistance Program) for which the child was entitled, appeared at the hearing and took the parents' testimony in court.
Evening program students Andrew Katon and Liz Merritt worked together on a case where a grandmother adopted her four grandchildren who range in age from 6 to 16. They really enjoyed Professor Pellman's course as well.
"It's great because she brings real-world experience and a passion for children's advocacy that you don't usually see," Katon said. Although he is not sure what area of law he will practice in, Professor Pellman's class has inspired him to seek pro bono opportunities in the future to help those in need.
In addition to taking Professor Pellman's course, third-year day student Andrea Rodican is also one of her externs. On adoption day, she helped a woman officially become mother to her 8-year-old nephew. "The class is so good," Rodican said. "It's like having a great supplement to the work I'm doing as an extern."
Judge Pellman, a former senior trial attorney with Dependency Court Legal Services and legal director for The Alliance for Children's Rights, has had a great deal of experience with adoptions on both sides of the bench, and was the recipient of the American Bar Association's distinguished Child Advocacy Law Award. During her tenure with the Alliance, a "National Adoption Day" was established to highlight the need for adoptive parents for children in the foster care system. That program has since grown exponentially so that now every state participates.
Children who grow up in foster care often have an array of psychological, physical and educational challenges, and therefore the need for competent legal assistance. "The children who are adopted from the dependency system are able to get their childhoods back and become kids again," Professor Pellman said. "It is my hope that the experience of finalizing the foster care adoptions and personally meeting the children and their adoptive families will inspire the students to help other disadvantaged people in their legal careers - whether it is through pro bono work or full-time professional calling. As lawyers we all have an obligation and an opportunity to help those who cannot help themselves."