A Champion for Children & Families

A Champion for Children & Families

Professor Kele Stewart
Professor Kele Stewart
by ANDI SPEEDY
PHOTO BY JOSHUA PREZANT

From an early age, Professor Kele Stewart knew she wanted to make a difference in children’s and young people’s lives. “I grew up wanting to be a schoolteacher,” she said. “I never knew I’d be a law professor.” That journey was the result of Stewart’s desire to help make the lives of children better.

In her undergraduate years at Cornell University, Stewart majored in human development and family studies. Interning at the New York City Mayor’s Office for Children and Families, it became apparent a law degree would be pivotal in making the kinds of positive impacts she hoped to see from her work. After graduation, she put herself to work serving children and teens in cases involving the New York City’s various child welfare agencies for a year, then earned her J.D. from New York University.

A spirit for serving others runs deep for Stewart, who remembers it instilled in her by her mother throughout her childhood in Trinidad. “My mother had enormous faith, a strong work ethic, and an incredible commitment to service,” she said. “On more than one occasion, she held my birthday party at a local orphanage and made sure the children there were included. I draw inspiration and motivation from her example every day.”

In today’s juvenile and family advocacy world, Stewart believes strongly in sharing compassion, addressing structural inequity, and amplifying the voices of those who otherwise would not have one.

“Families in the child welfare system are often dealing with multiple difficulties that all compound upon each other. We’re starting to see greater awareness in the mainstream consciousness that the system tends to intervene in the lives of poor families more often and with greater force than families with resources,” she said. “As lawyers in this space, we need to advocate for these families in a holistic way if we want to truly improve lives.”

As an example, Stewart outlines the concept of neglect—a broad term that typically fails to capture the root of the problem, Stewart says. What appears on the surface as a child left home alone without supervision is more often a reflection of housing instability, lack of affordable childcare, inadequate access to mental health or substance abuse programs, and other similar factors.

“The conventional legal mechanism for remedying neglect cases is removing children from their homes and placing them in foster care, an incredibly harmful response that isn’t always justified,” she said. “Instead, I try to teach students to be effective legal advocates who find ways to support families. I want every student to acquire strong legal skills—what it’s like to interview, counsel, and build relationships. I challenge them to be proactive in solving problems and making life better for their clients.”

One way Stewart accomplishes her mission is through her work with Miami Law’s Children & Youth Law clinic, where she serves as co-director. The practical program allows law students to handle cases of children and teens dealing with abuse, abandonment, and neglect in Miami-Dade County. Stewart supervises students as they advocate for their young clients but emphasizes that the students themselves do the heavy lifting.

“We support them, of course,” she said, “with intensive course work and supervision of their legal work, and by bringing in psychiatrists, education experts, social workers, and other important people working in the field, so they get a real-world view of what’s needed.”

The clinic has successfully advocated for various issues—placement instability, access to physical and mental health services, LGBTQ rights, and giving young people a voice in their dependency cases. Stewart proudly says the clinic graduates have earned prestigious fellowships, worked for the federal government, and have become managing attorneys for various agencies across the country. “They are successful in every field, but it’s always gratifying to see our alumni stay in this space and become local and national leaders in this area of law,” said Stewart. “They make us proud every day.”

As for Stewart’s career, she’s grateful to be part of the University of Miami. When she left New York to be closer to her family in the Caribbean, the position at UM opened just months later. “Everything aligned at the exact right time. It was a dream job, and I’m still living the dream,” she said.

In her years here, Stewart has found Miami Law to be unique compared to other law schools throughout the country. Among the most important distinctions, in her opinion, is the multidisciplinary approach the university takes when it comes to providing students with a real-world understanding of the law and how it is applied.

She also believes the strength of the law school is in the diversity of its faculty and the ability to bring a personal area of expertise and interest into the classroom and related work. Stewart is the driving force behind the launch of the UM site of First Star Academy. The holistic academic enrichment program gives high school students in foster care a pre-collegiate experience on campus each summer.

“I get to follow a lifelong goal of bettering social outcomes,” she said, “but that’s just the beginning. I also get to train future lawyers, conduct research to unite theory and practice, shape policy, and be proactive in improving opportunities for all children and families.

“The University of Miami is one of the rare places where you can wear many hats and advance many goals. Our ability to innovate and be creative is a direct reflection of donor and alumni support and the shared love we have for our experiences here.”