Laura Canfield L’87

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Written By: Grace Frey

If you asked Laura when she was a student at the College of Law, she likely wouldn’t have been able to predict her distinguished career in the public sector. 
Set to retire in March, 2024, after 35 years of service, Laura works for the nation’s largest employer, the federal government. Her official role is Senior Counsel and Unaccompanied Children Program Oversight Advisor, working for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the Office of Inspector General. Looking back, Laura explained that she wished she knew more about how rewarding a government career could be, because her intention was not to head down that path. While at the College of Law, Laura was involved in a public interest legal clinic where she was part of the team representing pre-trial detainees at the Onondaga County Jail in a class action lawsuit challenging the county government over the deplorable conditions at the jail. These experiences helped shape her interest in social justice. After law school, Laura clerked for an Appellate Division Judge in New Jersey, her home state. Following this, Laura struggled to find a public interest legal job and finally expanded her definition of “public interest” to include the federal government.  She got her foot in the door at the Solicitor’s Office, Office of Legislation and Legal Counsel, at the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”). 
After a year at DOL, Laura moved from Washington, D.C. to New York City and worked for two years in the New York regional office for the Office of General Counsel (OGC) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”), where she handled matters relating to the Medicare, Medicaid, and HHS child welfare programs arising in New Jersey, New York, and Puerto Rico. She then moved back to D.C. where she worked in HHS OGC’s Children, Families, and Aging Division for the next fifteen years. She quickly became counsel to the Office of Refugee Resettlement providing legal advice on all aspects of this program that provides benefits and services to newly arriving refugees and asylees. During this time, then-President Bill Clinton signed into law two key pieces of legislation affecting benefits to immigrants – the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (known as welfare reform) and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, and Laura played a key role implementing these statutes at HHS working closely with her clients in the Department as well as with staff at the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, the Department of Justice, and what was then known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service. In 2006, Laura took a position at the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG) to help expand its work to prevent fraud, waste, and abuse at many HHS agencies, including the Administration for Children and Families, the National Institutes of Health, the Health Resources and Services Administration, and the Food and Drug Administration.
For all her career achievements, Laura’s highlight was her ability to bring attention to the Unaccompanied Children’s Program. Most HHS programs pay for benefits or services to eligible individuals.  In addition to receiving certain HHS-funded services, unaccompanied children – who arrive in the U.S. without a parent and have no lawful immigration status – are in the legal custody of the Secretary of HHS. OIG’s role is to ensure that HHS is protecting children in its custody from harm and ensuring their medical and mental health needs are addressed until HHS releases the child to an appropriate sponsor (often a parent) who will care for the child until their immigration situation is resolved. From her oversight perspective, Laura found working to ensure the safety and care of these vulnerable children as her most important role in her federal career.  In 2018, Laura and a number of OIG colleagues were at the border seeing first-hand the challenges HHS-funded facilities were facing attempting to care for the large numbers of children coming into HHS custody, including a particularly vulnerable new group of children who had come across the border with their parents but border officials had separated them from their parents, making them “unaccompanied” under the law, resulting in them being transferred into the care and custody of HHS.  This was occurring as the result of then-President Donald Trump’s Zero Tolerance Immigration policy. Laura and a core leadership team devised review protocols and trained hundreds of OIG lawyers, auditors, evaluators, and criminal investigators who would conduct site visits later that summer at 45 facilities, inspecting the conditions at the facilities and interviewing staff to understand the breadth and depth of challenges faced by these HHS-funded facilities in caring for large numbers of unaccompanied children, including thousands separated from their parents. They identified a variety of issues, including the fact that the government did not know how many children had been separated from their families and had not gathered adequate information to reunite them, the difficulties faced by facilities in addressing the mental health needs of the unaccompanied children in HHS custody, and the physical safety of children and the security of the facilities. Over the course of three years, OIG issued numerous reports that garnered considerable attention from Congress and the press and resulted in changes at HHS to ensure better care for unaccompanied children.
When asked what advice she would like to give to current law students, Laura wanted to emphasize that “a government career can be a really rewarding career.” She feels it is a wonderful opportunity for young attorneys to consider, because of the amazing opportunities and responsibilities the government can offer to motivated young attorneys. Laura is the perfect example. Five years after graduating from the College of Law, she had already argued an appeal before the Second Circuit, argued a temporary restraining order before a Federal District Court, and more. Additionally, Laura has found great financial stability in her career. While she notes that you will never make the amount of money you make working at a big law firm, you still make a decent living, while maintaining a work-life balance. Laura was able to take extended maternity leaves, attend every school performance, participate in her kids’ classes, work part-time when necessary, partake in volunteer work, and have a life outside of the office because she was, “not tethered to a phone with billable hours.” As for the best advice she ever received, it was to start actively saving for your retirement in your very first legal job. She followed that advice, maxing out on every retirement pot she could, and is retiring with the knowledge that she saved well for her future.
Looking back at her time at the College of Law, Laura is most grateful for the lifelong friends, both students and professors, she made. For her, there was something quite special at that time about the types of people that were drawn to the school. In her words, “it really shaped a lot in my life, not just career-wise.” While enrolled, Laura met her husband, a fellow member of the Syracuse Law Review. At that time, there was only one student in her class who came to school with a computer. The only way any law student could access Westlaw and Lexis in those years was through a separate room in the library that contained a Westlaw machine and a Lexis machine. Laura and Rick Thomas had both elected to stay over break to finish up work for one of their second-year courses and ended up spending it together in that room, researching cases. He said that was when he knew he was going to marry her; she says that is when she knew he would be a great friend. Turns out they were both right in the end.