Earlier this week, the country celebrated a day of service in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. In thinking about King’s legacy, I found inspiration in this quote from his Letter From A Birmingham Jail: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
As a Loaned Associate in the Family Law division at Legal Aid, I have worked primarily on issues of custody, child support, and domestic violence for the past six months. King’s words got me thinking about my role as an advocate for survivors of domestic violence; the freedom and empowerment that the legal process can provide for survivors; and the importance of keeping the issues surrounding domestic violence on the minds of law-makers and enforcers.
First, MLK states that justice must be demanded by the oppressed. Hundreds of applicants come to Legal Aid each year to seek assistance in filing for protection orders against their abusers, and in doing so they are bravely following in King’s footsteps, in their own personal fight for equality and respect. Advocates who assist in the legal process are fulfilling their clients’ demands for freedom. An advocate’s role is an important one – it serves both to validate our clients’ claims to be freed from violence, and to demand consequences of those who would oppress. But during my tenure at Legal Aid, I continually am reminded that we are here to serve and to provide the tools, but it is ultimately the client’s fight. This really struck home for me as I met with a client who was seeking a custody order to protect her three-year old daughter from her father. In order for me to best represent her in court, I needed to bring up past abuse that the mother had experienced at her husband’s hand. The client initially said she was not comfortable sharing that part of her story, for fear of retribution. I advised her about the benefits of her testifying and provided safety information, but at the end of the day, I was not the one who would face walking home alone from work in the days after testifying about his past violence in open court. It was her spirit and strength, and her love for her daughter, that gave her the courage to say yes and allow us to fully present her case before the court.
Second, I am impressed by watching the journey of self-empowerment that clients undergo as the legal process unfolds. I had never worked in family law before, but I was not new to pro bono work upon coming to Legal Aid. I expected to learn a lot about the legal standards governing protective orders and custody cases, and I expected to receive important guidance about the individual court practices and strategic guidance from my colleagues. But I harbored a naïve stereotype of how a domestic violence victim would act, and I quickly learned that my clients were striking not for their victimization and their helplessness, but for their strength and perseverance. There is something uniquely intimate about family law cases that encourages personal growth and change among the clients you serve, and it is particularly impressive and inspiring to watch unfold.
My clients, if you could meet them, would humble you with their tenacity, their exhaustive efforts, and most of all their hopes and aspirations:
- Tamika (all names have been changed) is raising four children, including disabled twins. She commutes four hours each way to attend classes to finish her college degree, even though she struggles with the cost of gas. And yet if I called her to tell her I needed a document from her leasing office, within a few hours she would leave me a message with the date and time she contacted property management, the name of the person with whom she spoke, the name of the supervisor she was transferred to, the steps she followed upon their advice, and when she expected to be able to fax me the final document from the public library. I am left in awe at her tenacity in the face of hardship.
- Rasheeda came to Legal Aid after a court granted visitation to a previously absentee-father. The mother reports that her three-year old daughter cries and cries before each visit, because she views the man essentially as a stranger. And yet my client, who has been attacked by this man and threatened with her life in the past, takes her daughter aside, looks her straight in the eye, and encourages her to go with her father. As a mother, she wants to make the transition as easy as possible, unless and until Legal Aid succeeds in changing the visitation order. I wonder at how calm and strong she is for her daughter’s sake.
- While we wait outside the courtroom for the judge to hear her protective order case, Jennifer tells me that she wants to help young girls improve their self-esteem, so that they avoid getting caught up in the patterns of psychological control and emotional abuse so prevalent in domestic violence relationships. She recently took the initiative to found her own image consulting business. She rented space in her neighborhood, started a website, compiled images for advertising, and found funding. I wonder at her creativity and self-starting, all in the midst of her legal struggles to obtain freedom from her abuser.
Clients like these inspire me to be a better advocate, and have made my time at Legal Aid so rewarding.
Third and finally, I do not believe I could reflect upon my experience at Legal Aid without emphasizing my utmost respect for my colleagues and the other advocates who have made a career out of pursuing justice for domestic violence survivors. It cannot be encapsulated in one blog entry, or one expression of gratitude, or one check in the mail. My first reflection point was that for each individual case, a lawyer’s role is really to assist what is ultimately the client’s fight. But Legal Aid also strives for systemic change, and in that role, the organization and its attorneys take up their own fight as well. My colleagues know how to work within the system, at the same time that they are working to change the system, to make their efforts more effective and to improve the lives of not just their clients, but all future clients.
Legal Aid has made great strides in raising awareness and advocating for advances in justice for domestic violence survivors. In the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and as Congress appears poised to introduce a bill to reinstate the Violence Against Women Act that expired last term, I firmly believe that organizations such as Legal Aid are critical to continue to pressure law makers and law enforcement officers to provide the legal mechanisms so that clients like Tamika, Rasheeda and Jennifer can demand freedom from their oppressors.