Gabriella’s (she/her/hers) project will provide legal help to support people in recovery from opioid use disorder in rural West Virginia. Through direct advocacy and outreach will Gabriella will create referral partnerships with local clinics as well as Family Treatment and Adult Drug Court programs.
There is an overwhelming need for legal services for people in recovery in north-central West Virginia, where no targeted legal assistance exists. Thus, Gabriella’s project targets the six rural counties served by Legal Aid of West Virginia’s Elkins Office.
Gabriella’s project will partner with a regional community health center to serve patients in recovery and with the state court system to help participants in Randolph County’s Family Treatment and Adult Drug Courts. These courts offer families an alternative to loss of parental rights, and individuals an alternative to incarceration, if they engage in treatment and supportive services promoting recovery. By taking referrals from these “recovery courts,” the project will add to the court’s array of supportive services and meet a critical need by responding to the opioid crisis with both a proven model and a new partnership that will give rural West Virginians in recovery access to legal supports for stable housing, employment, and income.
Gabriella’s West Virginian heritage and family motivate her commitment to developing a sustainable project that supports people impacted by the opioid use epidemic in West Virginia.
My Equal Justice Works Fellowship has afforded me the opportunity to give back to my forever home, West Virginia. As a first-generation college and law student, I’m honored to use my education to make a difference in my community.
Gabriella Sayger /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Hannah’s work will focus on providing preventative legal services that support families in the early stages of the child protection process to promote family preservation and prevent trauma.
Many families involved with the child protection system experience unnecessary disruption and system-imposed trauma which has harmful long-term effects on children, their families, and communities. Minnesota consistently removes children from their homes at a higher rate than the national average primarily because of issues of neglect stemming from poverty. Although both federal and state laws require child protection agencies to make reasonable efforts to prevent removal, services and supports are commonly reactive and provided to families after a child has been removed from their home. This problem disproportionately impacts Native American, Black, and multi-racial children who are more likely than white children to be removed from their families.
Pre-petition legal representation prevents unnecessary child protection involvement and removal of children from their families by providing high-quality, interdisciplinary legal representation at the earliest stages of the child protection process. During her Fellowship, Hannah will work to develop and implement preventative legal services for families utilizing an interdisciplinary approach. The project will focus on removing barriers to meaningful social supports and addressing legal obstacles and barriers that commonly lead to child protection involvement. Additionally, Hannah will partner with individuals and families impacted by the child protection system to inform policy reform efforts and improve training resources and processes of current and future lawyers.
In my experience working directly with families involved with child protection, I learned that the vast majority of resources and support are targeted toward reactive interventions that often fall short and lead to unnecessary trauma and family separation. I’m honored to have the opportunity to work alongside families and communities to help identify proactive solutions focused on keeping families healthy and together.
Hannah Burton /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow
Isabel (she/her/hers) will focus on supporting and empowering Native American families in Denver through direct representation in family law matters, education and outreach, and advocacy and coalition-building.
For centuries, Native communities and families have been marginalized and destabilized by federal and state policies designed to eliminate tribal cultural practices and networks. The resulting trauma and destructive effects are deeply felt and starkly seen in disparate outcomes experienced by Native communities including poverty rates, rates of intimate partner violence, and disproportionately high numbers of Native children involved in the child welfare system. Further, Native families are often unable to secure needed legal services, especially in family law, due to barriers such as a lack of culturally responsive and connected services and attorneys.
Isabel is honored to pursue a project to serve the Native American community in Denver that will allow her to combine her passion for client-centered legal aid with her personal background as a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. She intends to use her position to become a strong voice advocating for the needs of her clients and the Native community at large, and to create positive and lasting change.
Isabel will provide accessible and culturally responsive direct representation to Native American individuals and families who need assistance with divorces, custody, adoptions, guardianships, protection orders, wills, and other family law matters. She will also develop strong community partnerships with and among non-legal organizations that already serve the Denver Native American community. Isabel will form a coalition to more effectively meet and respond to the needs of Native families in the area. Additionally, Isabel will develop trainings and a report of best practices and considerations in representing Native families, as well as identify areas that may be ripe for macro-level policy reform and advocacy.
As a tribal citizen, I know how important it is that Native families have access to legal services and providers with whom they share a connection, especially in family law where the issues are deeply personal and complex.
Isabel Dufford /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow
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.
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
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.
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.
Zoè (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 Zoè’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.
During her Fellowship, Zoè 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.
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."
Zoè Russell /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow
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.
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.
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
At Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Leila (she/her/hers) focuses on defending low-income Black families in the greater Austin area against aggressive child protective services before court interventions through direct representation, relationship building, and community education.
Often, children of color are taken from their homes, their parents, their siblings, and their communities because poverty is confused with neglect. Texas terminates the rights of more parents than any other state. In Texas’ most seemingly progressive city, the family regulation system overwhelmingly targets Black families. These parents 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 inspired her lifelong commitment to supporting Black communities.
Fellowship Highlights to Date
In the first year of the Fellowship, Leila has:
- Represented 13 clients involved with child protective services (CPS), who have all maintained access to their children and avoided escalation to court filing
- Provided legal advice or limited services to an additional nine individuals
- Advocated for the constitutional rights of a parent facing a custody battle with a non-relative CPS placement
- Trained 190 service providers on CPS investigations and the targeted violence they inflict on Black and Brown families
- Helped develop the Family Defense Project webpage on TRLA’s site to reach parents across Texas
- Partnered with the Travis County Public Defender’s Office to fight the dual surveillance of the criminal and child protective services systems
In the next year, Leila plans to:
- Develop and publish Know-Your-Rights informational videos for parents facing CPS contact
- Continue to spread project awareness in the community through local partners and CPS community conversations
- Expand her caseload to increase her direct representation impact
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
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.
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.
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
2021 Fellow Joey Carrillo Provides Legal Services for LGBTQ+ Survivors of Domestic Violence
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.
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