Family Law Society forum features Children’s Law Center
On November 18, the Family Law Society hosted its second networking lunch of the semester, featuring two attorneys from the Children's Law Center of Central North Carolina. Amy Kuhlman and Iris Sunshine spoke with Elon Law students about the practice of family law, focusing on child advocacy and public service.
The Children’s Law Center is a non-profit organization located in Winston-Salem, N.C., which provides advocacy for children in matters of domestic violence, high-conflict custody, abuse and neglect, and educational issues. One of the most important messages that Kuhlman and Sunshine conveyed at the Elon Law forum was that children often do not have someone advocating for them or determining with objectivity what is in a child's best interest in a family legal dispute.
“The attorneys for each parent work diligently to accomplish the goals of their client, but oftentimes, no one is looking out for what is in the best interest of the child who is involved in the matter,” Kuhlman said.
Kuhlman and Sunshine also detailed how the Children’s Law Center came into existence. While volunteering for the Legal Aid Society of Northwest N.C. in Winston-Salem, Kuhlman helped to start the Child Advocacy Project, providing a voice for children in custody cases. The Kilpatrick Stockton law firm partnered with Legal Aid to support this program.
In 2004, North Carolina General Statute Chapter 50B was amended to allow for children to be represented by a Guardian ad Litem in protective order proceedings. At that point, it became apparent that Legal Aid could not provide representation for both the parents and the children involved in these cases because there is a legal conflict of interest.
To ensure that children would have representation in court, Kuhlman enlisted the help of friend and attorney, Penny Spry, who had a similar passion for children’s rights, and they started the process of establishing the non-profit Children’s Law Center. After obtaining funding through grants, the center was able to hire Iris Sunshine, a former Assistant District Attorney for Forsyth County. Over the past five years, the Children’s Law Center has represented the interests of children in hundreds of cases in Forsyth County.
Kuhlman and Sunshine explained that it is important for advocates of children in family law legal disputes to do a thorough investigation of each child’s particular situation and to gather as many facts as possible. This includes extensive interviews with each parent, multiple home visits, and numerous collateral interviews with teachers, social service workers, coaches, physicians, family friends, and neighbors of the children, in order to get a complete picture of the child’s circumstances.
Responding to a student’s question about how to determine what is in the best interest of the child without personal opinions interfering, Kuhlman said that, “after a thorough investigation is completed, there are so many facts that stand out and those facts outweigh any personal opinions … just as in Law School, you look to the facts to analyze what conclusions should be drawn.”
After gathering facts through investigation, the attorneys of the Children’s Law Center write extensive reports for the court, describing their findings about each child’s situation. The report includes facts relating to the child’s circumstances and recommendations to the judge as to what would be in the child’s best interest.
Sunshine commented that the Guardian ad Litem is “the eyes and ears” of the court and that the information provided in their reports enables the judge to make an informed decision which is in the best interest of the child. Kuhlman added that the Children’s Law Center insures that children have a voice in court.
At the forum, Kuhlman and Sunshine also described how they became involved with family law, noting a shared passion for children’s rights and a desire to make a difference in the greater community. They each spoke about the importance of using one’s legal education to help others.
By Ashley Hansen L’12