Faculty Post: the Legal Advocacy for Victims Project

by Jennifer Howard, Supervising Attorney of the Domestic Violence Institute

It’s a cold, late November night, when a NUSL 1L student first meets Paul, in the basement community room of a local transitional housing program. After a long day of classes and a rush hour ride to the event, the 1L carefully opens the interview with gentle questions in an effort to establish rapport with Paul. Through the course of the 90 minute consultation, the 1L gains Paul’s trust and listens intently as Paul describes childhood sexual abuse and the domino effect it has had on his life, as he sits now, profoundly depressed, unemployed and essentially homeless. A lack of support and an unwillingness by Paul’s family to validate his experiences have no doubt led him to take advantage of the chance to sit down with a NUSL law student to explore legal options. Welcome to the Legal Advocacy for Victims (LAV) project of the Domestic Violence Institute (DVI) at NUSL.

Supported by a federal grant from the Office of Violence Against Women, the LAV project at NUSL exists in partnership with Casa Myrna, a multi-service haven for survivors of domestic violence. The project aims to connect survivors of domestic and sexual violence with legal services, at those places they first turn to for help, such as, homeless shelters, health centers, and family service centers. This is an important goal because it is well known that very few survivors actually reach out to traditional domestic violence service providers, despite the possible usefulness of the services. There are many reasons why survivors might not reach out, some practical (as in, do not know of their existence, or lack transportation to get to their office), some philosophical (“I’m not a victim of domestic violence”) and some cultural (“the legal system is not generally considered a helpful tool, and could in fact make things worse”). The LAV project works hard with community partners to identify the needs of their clients, what information may be helpful and what the best way is to deliver this information.

In the Fall of 2014, the DVI selected six first-year law students to implement the LAV for its inaugural 2014-2015 year. Through their involvement with LAV, students received ongoing introductions to substantive law training on areas such as criminal process, family, housing, and immigration. In addition, students tackled complex issues related to working specifically with survivors of domestic and sexual violence such as survivor-centered interviewing and advocacy, working with the police, understanding the impact of trauma, maintaining survivor privacy, and multi-disciplinary collaboration. Through specific training and on-site community work, students gained greater cross-cultural lawyering awareness and skills as well. Lastly, LAV students had the opportunity to grow interviewing, issue spotting, documentation, and case theory development and presentation skills through both simulations and live-client interaction.

Out in our community, LAV students presented workshops on topics ranging from understanding survivors’ experiences in court, how the law can address domestic violence, Massachusetts child custody and child support, and technology safety for survivors. In addition, LAV students conducted one-on-one legal interviews at community partner sites, Renewal House, Brookview House, and Upham’s Corner Health Center. By making the year-long commitment to the LAV, students were able to invest in the growth of these community partnerships and help determine how to best offer legal information most appropriately at each individual community site.

Last week, a team of LAV students performed a 45 minute role play to a group of care providers at Upham’s Corner Health Center, depicting a survivor’s journey navigating the criminal and family courts as a result of her abuser’s actions. At the conclusion of the presentation, an audience member commented, “I had no idea this is what victims went through. This is such important information for me to have in my mind when I talk to victims here in my office.” This kind of connection perfectly demonstrates the impact the LAV project aims to achieve.

Looking ahead, while four dedicated students will continue the work of the LAV over the summer, the DVI will start recruiting for the 2015-2016 team in late August when the first years arrive at NUSL! Please contact the Domestic Violence Institute to receive more information about the LAV project.

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