Marissa Schwartz

The Project

Marissa (she/her/hers) will provide holistic custody law support to survivors of domestic violence to keep custody of their children through direct representation, pro se assistance, and community education.

Parents caught between the child welfare and custody court systems who are survivors of domestic violence are at an increased risk of losing custody of their children to an abuser who can weaponize prior child welfare involvement against them. Most often, the parents impacted are low-income Black or Brown parents. Survivors face an uphill battle in custody court. Without guaranteed representation, parents face many challenges, such as the impacts of trauma, the stress of facing their abusers in court, and, most importantly, the fear of losing their children.

The revictimization and penalization of survivors of domestic abuse in the family court system drive Marissa’s work for change. Throughout her years serving in the Custody and Support Assistance Clinic at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, countless parents made clear the need for trauma-informed legal support.

Fellowship Plans

Marissa will work to bridge the gap in legal services for parents navigating the custody court system after involvement in the child welfare court system. Marissa will provide trauma and systems-informed legal representation to survivors in custody court and strengthen relationships with parent defense organizations to facilitate referrals for parents involved in child welfare court. She will also collaborate with community organizations to educate and empower parents to navigate custody court against their abusers.

Through empowering Philadelphia parents to address the impacts of domestic violence on their families in custody court, I hope to help survivors protect their children and break from cycles of abuse.

Marissa Schwartz /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Zoe (she/her/hers) will represent indigent parents accused of prenatal/postpartum drug use in the Bronx and create resources for community and policy advocacy to disrupt the womb-to-foster care pipeline.

The child welfare system—more accurately termed the family regulation system (FRS)—routinely undermines the welfare of children by surveilling and separating them and their families. Overrepresented in the system are low-income people of color. In New York City, Black children account for 23% of children under 18, but a staggering 53% of the children in the foster system. In contrast, 26% of the children in New York City are white, but white children comprise less than 6% of the foster population.

One entry point into the FRS for Black families is during prenatal and birth care. Despite similar or higher rates of drug use among white women, Black women are ten times more likely to be reported to the FRS for a positive drug test at the time of birth. Separating children from their families causes severe emotional trauma, and science shows that removing newborns impacted by prenatal drug use can risk inflicting physical harm.

Parents facing removal of their newborns and allegations of neglect based on prenatal or postpartum substance use need comprehensive support, including direct representation, policy reform, and community organizing.

If all families had access to housing, safety, and resources, it would drastically reduce family trauma. Instead, the FRS removes children from all they know and love, creates barriers to reunification, and propagates far more intractable trauma for children. It is Zoe’s desire to support the efforts of communities already using their voices for resistance by creating legal and policy advocacy aimed at an egregious and discriminatory system grossly propagated in the name of children’s welfare.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Zoe will represent parents in Family Court who face the removal of their newborns to the FRS based on allegations of substance use. She will develop tools for litigating substance use neglect cases. These tools will include writing model motions, compiling a resource bank of current medical and scientific research on substance use and misuse, and identifying medical and harm reduction experts who can serve as expert witnesses and consultants. Additionally, she will work with community members to mobilize support for legislative reforms that seek to disrupt the womb-to-foster-care pipeline.

Media

Greenberg Traurig Names its 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellows

As a child of Black parents, raised in a low-income community, I feel an unyielding determination to support sustainable change for system-involved, low-income Black and Brown families.

Zoe Russell /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Tara (she/her/hers) will work at the intersection of domestic violence and gun violence by representing clients in Washington D.C. in Civil Protection Order, Extreme Risk Protection Order, and family law matters.

In 2019, the Council of the District of Columbia enacted legislation that created a new form of protection order aimed at gun violence: the Extreme Risk Protection Order. Like most “red flag” laws, this measure permits law enforcement to seek a restraining order against an individual who would be a danger to themselves or others if they possess or purchase firearms. However, these orders have been extremely underutilized, and fewer than 30 have ever been filed. This is compounded by the fact that there is also a massive shortage of services available for survivors in both Civil Protection Order and family law cases in Washington D.C. in general.

Fellowship Plans

Tara’s project will focus on representing survivors who have suffered gun violence or were threatened by gun violence. Her representation will focus on Civil Protection Order and Extreme Risk Protection Order cases; however, she will also provide representation in a limited number of family law cases where a child custody order or divorce decree would provide continued stability and violence prevention. Additionally, Tara will provide know-your-rights presentations and work with the DC Volunteer Lawyer’s Project’s community partners to educate the community about the availability of Extreme Risk Protection Orders.

The Project

Mary (she/her/hers) will apply the medical-legal partnership model to effectively reach and provide legal services to domestic violence survivors in the greater Boston community during pregnancy and early motherhood.

Domestic violence is integral to the leading causes of maternal death, and women who suffer domestic violence are three times more likely to experience perinatal death. The relationship between maternal health and domestic violence calls for a multi-disciplinary response. Medical visits, especially for pregnant women and new mothers, serve as a critical access point as they may be the only opportunity survivors have to disclose trauma.

By deepening and strengthening connections with health clinics, Mary will more effectively address the public health crisis that domestic violence toward perinatal women presents. Mary will build a coalition of medical and legal professionals addressing domestic violence at a time when healthcare is the safest entry point for offering protective legal assistance.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Mary will focus on the provision of legal representation, coalition building, legal education, and narrative/data collection. She hopes to create a path to legal assistance as an advocate who understands the intersection of family law and domestic violence, empowers perinatal survivors to make informed decisions about the safety and security of their families, and seeks to prevent unnecessary entanglement in the Family Court system.

Media

Four Northeastern Law Students Awarded Equal Justice Works Fellowships

There are many survivors for whom domestic violence is just one piece of their struggle, survivors whose lives are complicated further by pregnancy and motherhood, and a lack of housing, food, healthcare, or financial security. It is my greatest privilege to meet these survivors where they are and advocate holistically for their needs.

Mary LeMay /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Leila (she/her/hers) will defend low-income Black families in the greater Austin area against aggressive child protective services interventions through direct representation, relationship building, and community education.

Our child welfare system surveils, punishes, and separates Black and Brown families living in poverty. Often, children of color are taken from their homes, their parents, their siblings, and their communities because poverty is confused with neglect. The intersecting violence of structural racism, poverty, and family separation is especially dire for Black communities in Austin. Texas terminates the rights of more parents than any other state. In Texas’s most seemingly progressive city, the child welfare system overwhelmingly targets Black families. Black children in Austin are nearly eight times more likely to be forcibly removed from home than their white peers. Parents and caregivers are left to navigate child protection investigations and services under the threat of a petition for removal and termination of parental rights without access to counsel.

Lessons from Black women in Leila’s young world, stories from clients she’s worked alongside, and guidance from incredible mentors inspire her lifelong commitment to supporting Black communities.

Fellowship Plans

Drawing on her experience in family defense, criminal sentencing mitigation, and anti-racist facilitation, Leila will prevent unnecessary family separation for vulnerable Black communities in the greater Austin area. She will provide direct representation to parents and caregivers before a petition for removal and parental rights termination has been filed. Additionally, she will collaborate with local partners to build community trust and host Know-Your-Rights meetings to share knowledge and collectivize advocacy strategies.

Media

2021 Greenberg Traurig Equal Justice Works Law Fellows to Tackle Racial, Economic, and Social Justice Issues

In disrupting the everyday devastations happening in child protection offices, I honor the power and vulnerability of the Black women that made me.

Leila Blatt /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Through the LGBT Anti-Violence and Safety Project (LASP), Joey (he/him/his) will provide identity-affirming legal services, outreach, and education for low-income LGBT survivors of domestic violence with a focus on youth.

While most Domestic Violence (DV) services are designed to serve cisgender women in heterosexual relationships, research suggests that the LGBT community experiences DV at a higher rate. Some studies indicate that certain identities within the LGBT community experience DV and stalking at more than double the rate of their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts. The 2016 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs outlines that 64% of LGBT survivors did not seek a protective order out of fear of further stigmatization by either legal service providers, courts, or law enforcement. The culturally responsive outreach, education, and services for LGBT survivors provided by this project will fill an unmet legal need and remove barriers to life-saving protections.

Fellowship Plans

Through LASP, Joey will help LGBT survivors of domestic violence seek Orders of Protection, Civil No Contact Orders, and Stalking No Contact Orders. Joey will also conduct outreach to and community building with LGBT youth and survivors living in poverty to spread awareness of culturally responsive resources provided by LASP. Lastly, Joey will provide advocacy and education on issues affecting LGBT survivors through training and collaboration with community partners and Legal Aid Chicago staff.

Media

Ensuring Culturally-Responsive Legal Representation for LGBTQ+ Survivors of Domestic Violence

2021 Greenberg Traurig Equal Justice Works Law Fellows to Tackle Racial, Economic, and Social Justice Issues

Chicago-Kent Public Interest Fellow to Tackle Domestic Violence Issues Within LGBT Community

The opportunity to combine my passion for LGBT rights, commitment to serving youth and low-income clients, and my practical experience in domestic violence litigation is honestly a dream come true for me!

Joey Carrillo /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Blair (she/her/hers) will provide domestic violence survivors, particularly survivors of color, living in high poverty areas of North St. Louis City and County with a path out of abuse through family law representation.

Women living at or below the poverty line are nearly twice as likely as the general population to be abused by a partner. Combined with systemic racism’s impact on scarce resources, under-serviced neighborhoods, and poor relations with law enforcement, abuse grows even more severe. This issue is readily apparent in St. Louis, an area with high rates of poverty and segregation.

Research has shown that access to civil legal services can significantly reduce the risk that a survivor will be abused in the future. In 2017, the Legal Services Corporation reported that 86% of low-income domestic violence survivors across the country received inadequate or no help at all with their civil legal issues. This leaves a desperate gap in legal assistance for marginalized survivors in high poverty areas who would benefit most from representation.

Blair’s commitment to serving domestic abuse survivors inspired her decision to become an attorney. Her understanding that not all survivors have equal access to resources motivated her to design a project to help those most in need.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, survivors living in North St. Louis City and County. Additionally, her project will create family law pro se clinics to expand the reach of services and provide support to survivors who cannot be represented directly. Her project will strengthen and expand partnerships with community agencies to ensure the project is tailored to the needs of North City and County residents.

As a social worker, I was unable to help my clients fully resolve legal issues that kept them trapped in cycles of abuse and poverty. After repeatedly seeing my clients impeded by legal barriers, I made the decision to attend law school.

Blair Pankratz /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Thomas (he/him/his) will advocate for and provide family preservation legal assistance to families facing homelessness in Chicago through advocacy, outreach, community education, and direct representation.

Families experiencing homelessness face significant obstacles to accessing family-related legal services. CCH estimates 76,998 people experienced homelessness in Chicago in 2018. Homelessness disproportionately impacts families of color. 61% of homeless individuals in Chicago identified as Black.

Tragically, families experiencing homelessness in the Chicago area have little to no access to legal assistance for family-related legal issues such as child custody, parental responsibilities, and protection from domestic violence. Even where family legal aid services exist, homeless families face barriers like lack of phone, stable address, and access to transportation. Moreover, Covid­-19 has exacerbated legal issues facing homeless families. Reported domestic violence has increased during the pandemic and a rise in eviction and foreclosure is expected. These civil legal issues can be life-altering and there is an urgent need for civil representation for homeless families.

Thomas’s experience working with people experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity motivates his work. His years organizing low-income people guides his commitment to supporting systemic approaches to curbing homelessness.

Fellowship Plans

During his Fellowship, Thomas will represent families in domestic relations and child welfare proceedings. He will conduct outreach and community education workshops to families experiencing homelessness at schools, shelters, and community service providers in the Chicago Area. Additionally, Thomas will draft a report including barriers that families experiencing housing have in accessing legal services and proposed policy solutions.

Media

As Eviction Crisis Looms, Advocates Fear an Increase in Child Removals

Homelessness is too often caused by lack of access to family legal support and family issues, I felt a strong connection to the work of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless’ fight to address homelessness at the root.”

Thomas Edwards /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Jamitra (she/her/hers) will advocate on behalf of justice-involved women in Missouri to mitigate the collateral consequences of incarceration through legal representation, reentry services, and policy advocacy.

Missouri has recently seen the fastest-growing population of women in prison in the country. Women have unique experiences that result in incarceration such as childhood trauma, domestic violence, and/or substance abuse. Women also have unique risk factors for reentry, including declining mental health and self-esteem, financial insecurity, and parenting concerns which are not being addressed by the male-dominated prison industrial complex. Many collateral consequences of incarceration, such as struggling with employment security, locating adequate housing, reestablishing healthy relationships with loved ones, and securing benefits upon release, result simply from having a felony record and some are compounded by unresolved issues that occurred before or during incarceration as a result of an arrest and imprisonment.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Jamitra’s project will invest in justice-involved women from the beginning of their terms to help them proactively address and eliminate some of the risk factors that contribute to recidivism upon reentry. Jamitra will assist women with their civil legal needs while incarcerated, including resolving outstanding municipal charges, family law issues such as child custody proceedings, and issues pertaining to housing, such as challenging eviction judgments on their record that occurred as a result of their arrest and subsequent incarceration. She will also assist clients with their post-incarceration needs such as obtaining public benefits or battling wage garnishment.

Our society’s systems overwhelmingly impact Black women and other women of color. The women I will be working with are fighting to overcome and live within systems that were not created with them in mind. As a Black woman who has had to navigate society in similar ways, I am excited for this opportunity to help justice-involved women in Missouri and promote racial, gender, and economic justice.

Jamitra Fulleord /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Lelabari uses community lawyering tools to advocate for and mobilize the support systems of parents in the child welfare system who had their own families disrupted by the child welfare or juvenile justice systems in their youth.

Philadelphia’s child welfare system takes children from their families more often than any other major city. Most of Philadelphia’s children who enter foster care do so because of allegations of neglect rather than abuse. Too often poverty is conflated with inadequate caregiving, leading to children being separated from their parents through no fault of their own. Parents who stabilize and reunify their families usually do so with the support of their families and communities. Yet, parents who were themselves separated from their families as children are often isolated. Community lawyering and participatory defense use humanizing and trauma-informed narratives to center parents’ experience and voice, identify helpful resources, and provide decision-makers with the tools they need to justly avoid unnecessary child removal and ensure faster and safer reunification.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

In the past year, Lelabari has:

  • Represented 40 parents who were involved with the child welfare or juvenile justice systems as children
  • Provided brief services, advice, and/or referrals to an additional 10 individuals, including supporting families who are pre-petition and undergoing a Department of Human Services investigation
  • Provided four trainings for allies and other service providers on how to support parents and families involved in the child welfare system, as well as organizing monthly trainings with case managers in schools who work with pregnant and parenting students
  • Presented to social work and law students on the intersections between the juvenile justice system and the child welfare system

Next Steps

In the next year, Lelabari plans to:

  • Continue zealously representing parents from pre-petition until the case is discharged
  • Continue to conduct more community education and outreach
  • Collaborate with partners on parents’ group using a model co-created with parents and have initial Parent Organizing Coalition meeting

Media

Lelabari Giwa-Ojuri L’20 awarded prestigious 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellowship

Through partnering with parents and communities, I hope to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty, child welfare involvement, and family separation.

Lelabari Giwa /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow