What excites you most about your new role at the University of Baltimore?
This was really a dream opportunity for me. I have always done clinical work, and I enjoy lawyering and teaching students how to lawyer. This role at CFCC takes the work I have been doing throughout my career to a higher level, allowing more focus on policy and programs in addition conceptualizing direct services to families. I have written a lot about how we can do things better for families, but being able to put some of that into practice at CFCC means that those ideas could have broader impact. Over 20 years, this Center has definitely shown that a small center at a law school in Baltimore can help to effect real change that improves outcomes for thousands of families.
I really feel honored to come back to the family law faculty at UBalt. Barbara Babb, Jane Murphy, Margaret Johnson and Leigh Goodmark, who is now at Maryland, are all such well-respected, brilliant scholars and teachers. What makes this faculty stand out in my mind is that each of them not only talks the talk, but they walk the walk. Through their clinical work, Barbara’s work through CFCC, Margaret’s work in the Center on Applied Feminism with Michele Gilman, and their scholarship, they have all done practical things to help families. My earlier tenure here opened my eyes to the possibility that law professors can actually effect meaningful change. People think you sit in ivory tower and write, but, not here, and definitely not with the people who have come before me on this faculty—even though the UBalt building is a literal ivory tower.
You’ve spent the last couple of months immersed in the work of CFCC, meeting with the staff, and thinking about the future. Can you talk about your vision for CFCC going forward?
I’m still really in the listening phase. Since I got here in August, I’ve been working closely with the Center’s Executive Director, Rebecca Stahl, meeting with the CFCC team, and connecting with people who are working in the field in this community. My aim is to understand what CFCC does best, and to think about how the work of the Center can align with the needs of families and children at this moment in time. Some of the challenges are different today than they were 20 years ago, and some of the issues that the Center has always worked on remain the same. We have learned a lot by having our team working directly with kids in the schools for more than 15 years through our Truancy Court Program (TCP). So, I see this first year as a time to reflect, gather information, and engage in collaborative planning to set the course for CFCC’s next decades.
This Center has been a means for the legal community to be engaged with the larger community in Baltimore. Programs like the TCP literally go into the heart of the city and bring the expertise of lawyers to the community, making it easy for families to access help they need to avoid interactions with the courts. CFCC and the larger family law faculty at UB take holistic view of the role of family law. We know that if a kid is struggling going to school, there’s always something bigger going on, and if that kid doesn’t get support for those bigger issues in a non-punitive way, the child and family can be funneled into the courts. – sometimes multiple courts.
CFCC has immersed generations of law students in the community. Judges who volunteer in the TCP value the chance to understand the underlying issues that lead to families ending up in their courtrooms. CFCC has done extensive work in trainings, and through our relationships with the bar, that have helped lawyers and the judicial community to see that broader picture.
Your scholarly interests center on issues of family separation and the role of the child welfare system. How do those interests dovetail with the work that Professor Babb and the CFCC team have done in advocating for unified family courts?
When you boil it down, my work and the long-term work of CFCC both focus on ensuring that whenever the law intervenes in a family, it should be helpful, not harmful. In my scholarship, I look at family separation from a range of different angles, and the TCP fits squarely into my worldview. If we can disrupt the school-to-prison and school-to-child welfare pipeline, that will also prevent parents and children from being separated. Addressing absenteeism is another way to prevent families from being separated that many people might not think about.
The past two years have really made it clear that we’ve gone too long without taking real steps to address the harmful impact of law and legal systems on minorities, and particularly on Black people in America. People know about the systemic issues plaguing the criminal legal system and there is growing awareness that these same issues exist in the child welfare system. CFCC has always centered on helping courts think about how they could do better for families, and my work has the same goal.
Our law school and therefore our Center is in the heart of the city. I think it’s important to be doing this work in conjunction with and in support of, the people of Baltimore. As we look forward, we’re thinking and reaching out to stakeholders about how we can have a direct, positive impact on the lives of families and children in our own community.
More on Shanta Trivedi
Before her time in academia, Shanta Trivedi spent nearly a decade as a working lawyer, most recently representing parents through Brooklyn Defender Services’ Family Defense Practice, and earlier as a volunteer attorney at Sanctuary for Families, both in New York, NY. After earning her law degree from Boston University School of Law, she worked for five years at Winston & Strawn LLP in New York, representing clients in complex securities litigation.
Recognizing that securities litigation wasn’t the right path for her, she refocused on child welfare-focused representation for families, both as a volunteer attorney and finally as a staff attorney at Brooklyn Defenders Services. “That was a life-altering experience for me,” she says. “There’s a conception that if you care about kids, you represent the kids. But if you believe kids do best when they are with their parents, you have to make sure that parents have strong representation. Studies show that by focusing on offering high quality representation for parents like they do at Brooklyn Defenders, we improved outcomes for families and children. Fewer kids were going into foster care, and those who did spent less time there. It was a holistic practice bringing together social workers and immigration, education and housing attorneys. Families facing deportation or a criminal case may have to choose between going to court on that case or going to family court. These are the choices many of the families we represented had to make.”
This experience led her to focus her scholarship on the ways our systems lead to family separation, but her passion for helping families to stay together and providing them with the resources they need to thrive was also informed by her own family history. “I was born here while my father was studying at Penn State, but I grew up in Trinidad,” she explains. “My mother’s family there was extremely poor. My family, like many extended families, has had a lot of struggles. When I think about what kids in my family experienced during that time, combined with the cultural expectations we have here in the U.S. about what makes a good parent, I realize that if my extended family had been in the U.S. system, many of the children probably would have spent time in foster care. I think about what that would have meant not only for those children, but for our entire family.”