Center for Law and Social Work: ESME’s Featured Nonprofit

Center for Law and Social Work: ESME’s Featured Nonprofit

Lawyers and social workers collaborate to help families in Cook County, Illinois

The mission of the Center for Law and Social Work (CLSW) is to create, preserve, and protect families. CLSW believes that all families, regardless of financial circumstance, should have equal access to legal and social services to remain stable and secure. Lawyers and social workers work together to help families in Cook County, Illinois, with adoption, guardianship, legal backup planning, and clinical services for children and disabled adults.

CLSW was founded in 2003 to assist older caregivers, mostly solo aunts and solo grandmothers, with backup plans for the children whom they cared for. Many of these caregivers were becoming older, frail, or incapacitated and could no longer care for their adopted or guardian children. Often these children were forced to become wards of the state. This growing crisis—in 2003 there were 45,000 children facing this situation in Illinois alone—was causing children to cycle in and out of foster care unnecessarily. CLSW helped arrest this tragic situation and provide legal permanency with another relative or trusted adult. At present, in 2015, there are still too many kids in foster care; however, the numbers are much lower—about 14,000.

Since its founding, CLSW has grown and expanded services to meet more needs of families. The agency not only continues to provide legal backup services but also assists with adoption, guardianship, adult guardianship, clinical intervention, education assistance, and juvenile-court advocacy.

Services are provided as determined by professionals at CLSW and include:

  • Adoption and standby adoption. CLSW provides direct legal representation to relatives and nonrelatives seeking to create a family through adoption.
  • Minor guardianship. CLSW provides direct legal representation to relatives and nonrelatives seeking legal guardianship of children in their care.
  • Standby guardianship. Lawyers secure a legal backup plan to ensure stability for the minor children securing a successor guardian. If the guardian dies, the backup person assumes custody and care for the minor. All adoption and guardianship cases receive a backup plan.
  • Adult guardianship. CLSW provides direct legal representation to individuals seeking adult guardianship for minors with special needs or incapacitated adults. Adult guardianship protects an adult with special needs from exploitation and ensures continuity of care.
  • Clinical services. Social workers provide in-home, brief crisis or grief counseling for children and families dealing with issues of trauma, loss, and separation.
  • Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) post-adoption and guardianship program. Social workers provide in-home services to families who previously adopted or obtained guardianship of their children through DCFS. Services include securing standby adoption/guardianship, preparing subsidy packets, reporting of investigation, home studies, and preparing child-specific documents.
  • Mediation. CLSW is contracted with DCFS to provide mediation for service appeals in the state of Illinois.
  • Court liaison. A court liaison in juvenile court represents the DCFS post-adoption and guardianship unit in post-adoption or guardianship cases. The liaison coordinates custody and service issues for former wards of the state.

Many of our families face financial roadblocks along the way. That is why it’s so important for us to share our mission with people who can be donors to CLSW. Our fundraising efforts allow us to help clients with services that are free (through DCFS) or at low cost on a sliding scale according to the Solo Mom’s income.


ESME had a chance to catch up with Patricia Fell who is a Solo Mom and marketing director at CLSW.

Q: When and why did you get involved with CLSW?

A: About three years ago, I was looking for a new opportunity with a nonprofit organization that aligned with helping families and solo parents. I, myself, am adopted and a Solo Mom and grandmother. I wanted to help others create, preserve, and protect their families. I love the mission of CLSW, believing that all families, regardless of financial circumstances, should have equal access to legal and social work services in order to remain stable and secure.

Q: How many Solo Moms or Solo-Mom families are you able to help?

A: We help over 300 families a year; and, of those, approximately 40% are Solo-Mom families and solo-grandmother families.

Q: Is there any family that or mom who, in particular, stands out for you?

A: Recently, CLSW helped a Solo Mom who’d been a foster parent to her sister’s daughter for 20 years. She had cared for her “daughter” since she was two years old. The daughter, now 22, is going to have a baby of her own in the next few months. She asked her “mom” if she would legally adopt her, as she wanted her unborn son to call her “grandma” and have that be true. She stated that although her mom was a foster parent her whole life (as her biological mom would not terminate her parental rights), she never treated her any differently than a parent would; she wanted to make sure that they were all a secure and forever family. It was so touching, the way the mom and daughter showed love and admiration for each other as the daughter talked to the judge and shared her life story. The judge, the attorney, and all who were there had tears in their eyes. It was a powerful culmination and new beginning all in one!

Q: Is there a memorable event or situation that demonstrates the goals of your organization?

A: Every service that CLSW provides for a family demonstrates our mission and goals. Solo Mom Donesha was thrilled, as she could finally adopt her three grandchildren. She smiled and said, “I am so blessed today. This is the best day of my life!” When the hearing was over, they all embraced and shouted, “Yea . . . we are a family! We are a family!!!” It was a beautiful moment that they will remember forever.

Q: What are some of the challenges your organization faces in terms of funding and support?

A: Children and youths are being raised by grandmothers, by choice or by chance, in greater numbers than would be expected. These households represent a transfer of child-rearing responsibilities from an absent or incapacitated parent to an older adult who could also be at risk for disability. Grandmothers are now expected to give up their retirement and that grandparent relationship to fill in the position of parent when the child’s parents can no longer do so.

This can be a hardship for both the grandmothers and the grandchildren. Grandparents raising grandchildren are more likely to experience increased depression, poverty, and isolation, and need assistance. There has been a 77% increase in grandmothers raising their grandchildren, but there have actually been cuts in the funds and programs that would assist these families. Still, there are some services available, and we work with these families to get them the services that they need.

Q: How have you been impacted by this work? Has it changed you in any way?

A: CLSW is a nonprofit organization that takes into consideration the financial burden some families face. Without services like ours, adoption or guardianship is often difficult or nearly impossible to achieve because of the costs of hiring a lawyer or because of the complexities inherent in the legal system.

I am adopted and grew up in a stable, permanent, and “crazy normal” family. I know what it feels like to be a part of a whole and know that I do have support of my family. I feel so privileged to help other women become part of a family through adoption, guardianship, and backup planning.

Usually I hear on the news that there are violent, horrible things going on in this world. That is true, appalling, and unacceptable, for sure; however, I am reminded daily that there are certainly more good, dedicated women who are willing to do the hardest job in the world: being a parent.

Q: What are you most proud of in terms of your work and participation with CLSW?

A: Through my community outreach program, I work directly with Solo Moms, solo grandmothers, and support groups to help them understand the steps needed to provide them a legal plan of action. I present to other agencies and nonprofits to teach their staff how they can help their families and use us as a resource.

Another aspect of my work is fundraising and fundraising events throughout the year. My enthusiasm spills over to donors and sponsors who are also interested in family stability. I am proud to be a part of a social service nonprofit that truly cares about women and children, our most valuable resources in the world.

Thank you, Patricia and CLSW, for your important work! ESME is proud to feature your agency. For more information, go to CLSW’s website and Facebook page.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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