LEXINGTON, Ky. (Dec. 7, 2023) — Learning to bend and navigate chaos is nothing new for Emily M. Puckett, third-year law student at the University of Kentucky’s J. David Rosenberg College of Law.
“I was knee-deep in a take home exam when my son, who was a senior in high school, had a steelpan concert, so I couldn’t go,” Puckett laments. “My family FaceTimed me in, and I got to watch in real time, which was not ideal, but it was a delightful reprieve from my studies. We’ve had to be creative and figure it out.”
Puckett cites the inability to hit a pause button as one of the more vexing aspects of law school. Her study schedule occasionally coincides with family commitments, yet she and her husband Kevin make the most of challenging circumstances.
Born in Lexington, Puckett spent her formative years in Hawaii and grew up alongside nine siblings — three biological and six adopted. It was here that Puckett’s destiny as an advocate for foster children was set in motion.
“I saw my sister endure a lot of pain when she was separated from her biological siblings after we adopted her through foster care,” Puckett says. “That experience put a desire in my heart to one day foster so siblings could stay together.”
Shortly thereafter, Puckett, aged 10, and her family left the Hawaiian Islands when her father accepted a position with the Kentucky Department of Education. Puckett graduated from the School for the Creative and Performing Arts magnet program at Lafayette High School in Lexington and then studied speech communication and rhetoric at Berea College. Puckett considered a career in law but deferred that ambition to prioritize her family.
She and husband Kevin proceeded to establish their household. A mix of biological and fostered children resulted in a spirited home — one in which the couple reveled. Over the years, they opened their doors to seven foster children. When a pair of siblings from Eastern Kentucky could not safely return home, the couple adopted them to ensure they could stay together. In all, the couple have six children, aged 6 to 18.
After closing their foster home, Puckett began working as a trainer and mentor for foster parents.
“She offered laser-like insight to fundamental principles of foster care,” enthuses Jeff Damron, program coordinator of the UK College of Social Work Training Resource Center. “She offered her insight with humility and compassion for all involved — the foster parent, the birth parent and the child in care. I felt extremely fortunate when she joined the Foster Parent Mentor Program as a mentor.”
At the Department for Community Based Services, Puckett saw firsthand the successes and failings of the legal system regarding foster children. She cites the 2013 gutting of the Kentucky Kinship Care program as particularly egregious. The program provided modest financial assistance to family members who wanted to foster the children of relatives but often lacked the financial means to do so.
“The funding was cut, and we were hit full throttle with the opioid epidemic,” Puckett explains. “We had an influx of children coming into foster care who were displaced from their communities because there weren’t enough relatives who could afford to take in needy infants and children, especially in already strained communities in Eastern Kentucky. I got to see how this wasn’t in the children’s best interest because it was further disjoining their families.”
Things didn’t change until 2017 when the lack of payment was challenged, and an appellate court made clear that financial support must be available to relatives taking in foster children. Although there are more support options now for those caregivers, the dismantling of the Kinship Care program a decade ago demonstrated the adverse impact legislation can have on foster children.
“Working in foster care, I began to see how interconnected it was with many other things — mental health, poverty, education, the criminal legal system — it’s not just child welfare,” Puckett says. “There are many elements at play.”
Around this time, spurred by frustration with the ever-changing laws concerning foster children and the premature death of a childhood friend, Puckett began to grapple with philosophical questions regarding purpose and being an example to her children.
“As a mother, I wanted my children to have the best chance in life,” she explains. “I would tell them — and still tell them —‘You can do anything. You can be anything.’”
As her children grew older, Puckett noticed a disconnect between what she encouraged her children to believe and what she believed possible for herself. In addition to foster care, Puckett worked in property and construction management, but she still harbored aspirations of becoming an attorney. This convergence of events created the perfect storm, setting the stage for the next chapter of her life.
“I realized I could tell my kids, or I could show them, and maybe I would like to be the kind of person who would show them instead of telling them,” Puckett says. “I want my life to be congruent with what I believe and value.”
Any tinges of self-doubt or misgivings about returning to school after being away for so long were allayed when the UK J. David Rosenberg College of Law offered her a full-ride, merit-based scholarship recently established by its namesake.
“Closing the financial gap from the scholarship certainly reduced my stress load,” Puckett laughs. “For me personally, most of its significance was in having the support of Mr. Rosenberg — just knowing that he was in my corner from the very start and that I had someone else to make proud drove me to excel.”
Soon after commencing her law school journey, Puckett earned the distinction among her cohort as “Law School Mom,” a moniker she takes in stride and finds endearing.
“Being a mother has never been an isolated thing,” Puckett explains. “It’s a part of my identity. Some of the students — especially in the first year — were living away from home for the first time — and I think I could sense their growing pains. I’d say, ‘You guys need to eat!’ Through fostering, I learned how to be a temporary mom. Now it’s just a natural role for me to assume.”
With less than a year until graduation, Puckett — who is also the managing articles editor of the Kentucky Law Journal — is looking into how she can make a positive impact as an attorney. She is interested in practicing appellate law.
“Appellate courts can change the law,” explains Puckett. “Just as the law was changed for kinship care providers by an appellate court — that’s the lens I have for what my advocacy might look like and how it may affect child welfare and other vital things.”
She says she has also contemplated serving as guardian ad litem — an appointed attorney for a child in foster care — or even an attorney for the child’s biological parents.
All of that is well into the future. After law school, Puckett will serve as a term clerk for Chief Judge Danny C. Reeves of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky.
Puckett’s advice for other adults considering returning to the classroom is to “find a way to enjoy what it is that you’re doing” and have a robust support system.
“I treasure my friends and family because they keep me grounded and remind me who I am,” she says. “I’ve needed these people more than ever. My faith keeps me anchored, too. I know this is where I’m supposed to be right now.”
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