Photo of Zoe Russell

Zoe Russell

  • Hosted by The Bronx Defenders
  • Sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP
  • Service location Bronx, New York
  • Law school Harvard Law School
  • Issue area Family Law, Racial Justice
  • Fellowship class year 2022
  • Program Design Your Own Fellowship

The Project

Zoe (she/her/hers) will represent indigent parents accused of prenatal/postpartum drug use in the Bronx and create resources for community and policy advocacy to disrupt the womb-to-foster care pipeline.

The child welfare system—more accurately termed the family regulation system (FRS)—routinely undermines the welfare of children by surveilling and separating them and their families. Overrepresented in the system are low-income people of color. In New York City, Black children account for 23% of children under 18, but a staggering 53% of the children in the foster system. In contrast, 26% of the children in New York City are white, but white children comprise less than 6% of the foster population.

One entry point into the FRS for Black families is during prenatal and birth care. Despite similar or higher rates of drug use among white women, Black women are ten times more likely to be reported to the FRS for a positive drug test at the time of birth. Separating children from their families causes severe emotional trauma, and science shows that removing newborns impacted by prenatal drug use can risk inflicting physical harm.

Parents facing removal of their newborns and allegations of neglect based on prenatal or postpartum substance use need comprehensive support, including direct representation, policy reform, and community organizing.

If all families had access to housing, safety, and resources, it would drastically reduce family trauma. Instead, the FRS removes children from all they know and love, creates barriers to reunification, and propagates far more intractable trauma for children. It is Zoe’s desire to support the efforts of communities already using their voices for resistance by creating legal and policy advocacy aimed at an egregious and discriminatory system grossly propagated in the name of children’s welfare.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Zoe will represent parents in Family Court who face the removal of their newborns to the FRS based on allegations of substance use. She will develop tools for litigating substance use neglect cases. These tools will include writing model motions, compiling a resource bank of current medical and scientific research on substance use and misuse, and identifying medical and harm reduction experts who can serve as expert witnesses and consultants. Additionally, she will work with community members to mobilize support for legislative reforms that seek to disrupt the womb-to-foster-care pipeline.

Media

Greenberg Traurig Names its 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellows

As a child of Black parents, raised in a low-income community, I feel an unyielding determination to support sustainable change for system-involved, low-income Black and Brown families.

Zoe Russell /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

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