October 4, 2010

Is There a Lawyer in the Room?

Washington, DC has more lawyers per resident than any other major city on the planet: one lawyer per 12.4 residents, with 48,456 practicing attorneys total.

Can you guess how many of those are paid legal services attorneys focused on family law for the low-income residents of the District of the Columbia?

(That’s not a typo.)

This means that many DC residents of meager means who face stressful legal matters like child custody or domestic violence protection must deal with them pro se (unrepresented by legal counsel).

BFC’s Family Law Clinic works hard to meet as much of this great need as we can. We provide legal support to single mothers seeking to obtain child custody/support, battered women trying to free themselves from abusive relationships, disabled fathers seeking to reduce the amount of monthly child support owed when they can no longer work, and custodial parents seeking (or in need of help to maintain) public benefits like TANF. These are problems that threaten our clients’ very household stability.

For Spanish-speaking immigrants, the problems are even more complex because language and cultural barriers become involved. Thankfully, our bilingual staff attorney can help with that. Last year, our legal clinic assisted 205 individuals with family law matters, including 19 new cases opened for full representation.

Every day our Family Law Clinic assists people like Ms. O, a 46-year-old Salvadoran immigrant who was trapped in an abusive long-term relationship. Ms. O suffered a long history of domestic violence at the hands of her boyfriend of 23 years, including stalking her at work and threatening to burn down their house with the whole family inside. When his erratic and jealous behavior continued even after she obtained a Temporary Protection Order, Ms. O came to us for help. We successfully secured a Civil Protection Order that forced her boyfriend to vacate their house while continuing to pay the full monthly mortgage payments for the duration of the CPO. She also won custody of their 11-year-old daughter for the duration of the CPO—as well as use of the car, her only mode of transportation. More importantly, the CPO brought a feeling of stability to what was a very dangerous situation for Ms. O and her child.

“I can’t think of anything more important in a person’s life than family relations,” says BFC’s bilingual family law attorney, Allison Miles-Lee (who just welcomed a newborn into her own family). Allison tells us about the things that she fights for: “access to your children, the right to care for your children and make important decisions for them, freedom from abuse, being able to choose who you live with."

Su Sie Ju, BFC’s senior family law attorney, reflects: “What’s important about the work I do is that I am able to help people who either could not afford an attorney or who have barriers that prevent them from navigating our complicated legal system. It’s important to me that poverty and other barriers do not prevent meaningful access to our justice system, particularly with respect to issues like custody, divorce, and child support, which are critical to securing stability for low-income families. And it’s important for me to accomplish this all at a place like Bread for the City where I know I have the support of my colleagues to address other non-legal challenges that are facing the families I am helping.”

In fact, Su Sie’s desire to help extends to the realms of system change as well. In collaboration with partner organizations and other stakeholders, she is currently working to propose a pilot project designed to institute much needed reforms to the Paternity & Child Support Branch of DC’s Family Court, which is currently stacked against pro se litigants. Her goal is to help reform the system so that it assumes litigants are pro se, and adjusts its practices accordingly. This means translating court documents into “plain speak,” staggering court dockets (not scheduling everyone to show up at 9am), and establishing a system of limited scope representation (temporary assistance from a legal professional). All of these changes would have a huge impact on thousands of low-income litigants per year, thus assuring them a more even playing field when it comes to this branch of the judicial system.

Even though Bread for the City’s total number of family law attorneys (two) doesn’t even stack up against the number of lawyers you’d find in a typical K St. restaurant during lunch hour, the impact of their work is felt in the homes and hearts of hundreds of families for whom they’ve helped ensure safety and stability.

You can read more about our Family Law Clinic in a recent post about one of our long-time volunteers, Elena Alvarez, who will be receiving recognition for her work at this week’s Good Hope Awards ceremony.

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