Throughout law school and during my time as an associate at Steptoe, I have focused mainly on criminal law matters. My time as the Loaned Associate in Legal Aid’s Domestic Violence/Family Law Unit has given me an opportunity to think hard about what I want to accomplish as an attorney, and how I understand the law beyond the criminal context. Here are two thoughts I’d like to share as I continue to interact with the brave and loving parent-clients we represent, as well as the dedicated and creative colleagues I work alongside.
The True Meaning of a “Collateral” Consequence. Before I came to Legal Aid, I often heard attorneys talk about the “collateral consequences” of a criminal case in a general, non-descript way. The term “collateral” means additional, but subordinate. No one disputes the gravity of incarceration and its devastation on the incarcerated. What is often the case, however, is some paid lip-service to the problems associated with a criminal conviction – disenfranchisement, employment hurdles, housing issues, and most pertinent to my current practice, child support and child custody complications.
These days, I have a much greater appreciation for these so-called “collateral” consequences to the criminal justice system. When the accused is placed in jail, his or her family must still go on. The toll of incarceration on loved ones is anything but “collateral.” In fact, such a disruption to the family unit can be central and paramount to the well-being of our clients and the children they love.
Men make up 90 percent of today’s prison population, many of them fathers. Once incarcerated, these fathers may lose the opportunity to earn a living, make child support payments, or contribute significantly to the health of their kids. This then leaves the sole responsibility of caring for the family to others – often mothers, wives, and girlfriends. Not only do the financial, medical, and educational responsibilities for the children go to women, but so do maintaining and navigating a new version of the family and household. The non-incarcerated parent will often raise and provide for the children while also working to develop emotional ties between the incarcerated parent and the kids. At times, this relationship is complicated by the fact that the incarcerated parent may be imprisoned due to domestic violence against the parent now tasked with doing 100% of the child-raising.
Acknowledging the intricacies and importance of such “collateral” consequences enables me to be a better advocate and proponent for clients in any context. My time in the Domestic Violence/Family Law Unit at Legal Aid has showed me that legal services is about understanding your client’s big picture, and identifying what outcome will benefit the client both now and in the long-run. I’m learning to find the root and all the branches that grow from the family law issue a client presents. I am honored to help my clients find their voices in a legal system that moves too fast and can sometimes fail to consider each case carefully. Taking the time to look at my client’s needs holistically can ultimately empower that client to find a realistic outcome, which will help the client move forward.
Winning Does Not Always Feel Like Winning. Advocates for survivors of domestic violence who seek to protect their children from an abuser know that “winning” does not often come in a neatly-tied package or from the bang of a gavel at the end of a dramatic and glamorous trial. Often, winning is helping a client identify what is most critical to her well-being, and finding a way to achieve that within the confines of the law. It is empowering your client in a quest to provide for his daughter or son through an accurate child support arrangement. This requires attention to detail, sweat, tedium and sometimes, tears. For our clients, winning is not always about right or wrong, but about better or worse. For the attorneys, winning is not about delivering a lofty constitutional soliloquy in open court, but about kneading the settlement terms so that your client can avoid the stress and public nature of a trial. What I’ve come to realize through my work here at Legal Aid is that the road to winning will feel bumpy and uphill, but the win itself is always well worth the journey.