Youth Advocacy UDM law professor aims to give children 'voice' through clinic

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Deborah Paruch, associate professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, looks forward to co-teaching in the new Juvenile Appellate Practice Clinic that UDM will pilot this fall.

Law school students will represent children in appeals from decisions of the Juvenile Division of the Wayne County Family Court in cases involving parental rights terminations and juvenile delinquency. She will be teaching the course with William Ladd, an attorney and UDM Law School alum, who spent most of his legal career representing children at the Legal Aid & Defender's Association. Ladd is currently on staff at the Michigan Children's Law Center.

"This will be an extremely important class because its focus will be on the interests of children," she says. "Although our laws are designed to protect the interests of children in abuse and neglect and delinquency proceedings, it's the children that are too frequently overlooked in the legal battles between parents and the state. We hope, through this clinic, that we can give these children a voice, and teach our law students to be effective advocates for them."

Paruch, the first person in her extended family to graduate from college, has enjoyed careers in finance and law. The Detroit native received her bachelor's degree from the University of Detroit and followed that with an MBA. She worked as a CPA for Ernst and Young in Michigan and as manager of the tax department for a CPA firm in Texas, and spent five years on the faculty of the School of Business Administration at Oakland University.

A decade later, she entered law school, and found her financial background provided a solid foundation, and the analogical and deductive reasoning skills essential to mastery of the law.

As a CPA, she had frequently interacted with attorneys, which spurred her interest in law. But her original objective was not to practice law.

"I simply wanted to study the law," she says. "It turned out to be the right choice for me. I tell first year students that going to law school was one of the best things I did for myself -- aside from marrying and having my children. It's enriched my life significantly because it made many experiences possible that simply wouldn't have happened had I not gone to law school."

After completing a University of Detroit trifecta with a juris doctor, summa cum laude, she practiced briefly at Dykema Gossett in Detroit, then went on to became the Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity Detroit. She first volunteered to chair the finance committee for the organization's 1994 Blitz Build, which resulted in the construction of 16 new homes in northwest Detroit. The organization, a somewhat sleepy affiliate up to that point in time, got energized by the Blitz Build and by a new $500,000 Hope 6 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Paruch stepped into the role of Executive Director to administer the grant and assist the organization through it first financial audit.

The job was challenging, dealing with issues faced by a commercial developer - land acquisition, title work, financing and construction - with the added complexity of grant management.

"We liked to think of ourselves as a developer with a heart" she says.

Paruch enjoyed seeing the positive impact that decent, affordable housing made on families, particularly the children. Although no longer active with Habitat, she continues to serve those in need through her involvement with South Oakland Shelter, an organization dedicated to serving homeless individuals and families. She has served on the Board of Directors for three years and is entering her second year as treasurer and chair of the Finance Committee.

Paruch also held a Community Builder Fellowship position with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Along with mayors, architects, attorneys, MBAs, and directors of community development organizations, she received extensive training at HUD headquarters and at the Kennedy School at Harvard.

"Our principal role was to serve as HUD's liaison to the community and provide technical support to community organizations," she says.

She had to leave the fellowship early when her son Christopher was diagnosed at the age of 12 with cancer. Thankfully, he is now a healthy 24-year-old.

In 2000, Paruch joined the UDM faculty full time. She teaches Applied Legal Theory and Analysis, a first year course with intensive faculty-student interaction.

"It's enjoyable to see the students as they enter law school and then observe them during the course of the first year," she says. "They experience tremendous growth both in their reasoning abilities and communication skills and gain self respect and confidence.

"It's a pleasure to help them as they develop the skills necessary to become an attorney."

She also teaches evidence and courses focusing on children's legal rights. This fall she also will teach Children and the Law Seminar, a course that will include an examination of the death penalty for juveniles, special issues involved in the legal representation of children and international children's rights, specifically issues of child labor and children and armed conflict.

Paruch became interested in children's legal issues after working with Professor Richard Seid on a pro bono case involving two culturally deaf parents who found themselves embroiled in child protection proceedings in Jackson County. This young, deaf, couple were repeatedly subjected to discrimination and violation of their constitutional and statutory rights in a process that ultimately led to the termination of their rights to their first-born daughter and subsequent proceedings involving their son. Their son was ultimately returned home and the child protection proceedings dismissed by the Jackson Court. The case led to a legal malpractice action against attorneys appointed by the court to represent the parents and a federal civil rights action against the Michigan Department of Social Services and the individual social workers. Paruch served as the parent's attorney in the legal malpractice action and as next friend for the young boy in the federal case

Last year, Paruch worked with Jenny Pilette of the Wayne County Family Court to create a simulation course centered on Child Protection Proceedings. Students assumed the role of attorneys representing parents or children in fictitious proceedings that ended in a termination of parental rights hearing. Students were confronted with a myriad of legal issues and had to address social, psychological, and economic issues, prepare motions and participate in a mock trial.

Paruch has chaired the UDM School of Law Voice for Justice Committee for seven years. The VFJ Committee works with the Student Bar Association to sponsor an annual auction, the proceeds of which are used to provide fellowships for students to work for non-profit organizations during the summer of their first or second year of law school. The Law School has had tremendous success with the auction and the fellowship program. To date, more than 70 Voice for Justice Fellowships have enabled students to serve at local, national and international organizations.

"I'm so proud of what we've been able to accomplish and the service that our students have provided as the result of these efforts. We see this as a vital part of our Law School's commitment to service and with the wonderful support of Dean Lloyd Semple, we're confident we'll continue to have success with the important program," she says.

Paruch's daughter, Jennifer, is a third year surgical resident at the University of Chicago Hospital. Her son, Christopher, is currently living and teaching in Seoul, South Korea. In her spare time, Paruch enjoys golfing, skiing, cooking, theater, ballet, old movies, and long walks in the woods up north with her golden retriever, Brinkley. She also enjoys traveling. She and her husband, Dennis, recently returned from a two-week trip to Russia.

Published: Thu, Jul 7, 2011