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Gabriella Sayger

The Project

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.

Fellowship Plans

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

The Project

Dawn (she/her) will help tackle the legal needs of South Jersey residents with opioid and other substance use disorders (SUDs) by providing direct legal services, developing and sharing resources, and advocating for systemic change, with a particular focus on housing justice and tenant rights.

The opioid crisis continues to exact a devastating toll on South Jersey residents. Patients seeking treatment must address the medical and psychological impact of addiction, as well as the myriad of legal issues stemming from years of active use. Dawn’s Fellowship will expand legal offerings to practices and clinics serving primarily Black and Hispanic Camden residents with substance use disorders. She will also include educational, reform, and advocacy components to amplify its impact. This work includes providing education to patients and medical professionals regarding legal issues as well as trainings for attorneys and courts regarding substance use disorder.

Dawn draws from her lived experience as a person with substance use disorder and the adversities she faced in overcoming the obstacles in early recovery. She has strong ties to the South Jersey area and is excited to be based in Camden.

Fellowship Plans

Dawn will represent SUD patients facing civil legal needs including housing, child welfare, family law issues such as child custody and DV, and benefits. She will also develop and pursue policy reforms to address identified issues for New Jersey SUD patients with a particular focus on housing justice.

It is a gift to work with others who are where I once was: experiencing the daunting task of rebuilding their lives. It is critical to offer holistic support to ensure the best possible outcomes for patients and our communities.

Dawn Ericksen /
2023 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Emily (she/her/hers) provides mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution in West Virginia to low-income families impacted by the opioid epidemic.

Due to the impact of the opioid epidemic, many low-income children have been placed with their grandparents while their biological parents are in the recovery process. When disputes over these children arise between the parents and grandparents, the only option for low-income families is to go to court because they cannot afford alternative services to resolve the matter. Such court proceedings can be adversarial, confusing, and highly stressful for all parties involved, and the results can be traumatic for the children affected.

By offering free mediation to opioid-impacted families, Emily’s project helps families work together to create a personalized and practical plan for reunification and permanency, thereby reducing trauma to the children and supporting individuals in recovery.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

In the first year of the Fellowship, Emily:

  • Developed an intake system and drafted required documents that allow Legal Aid of West Virginia to aid mediating parties
  • Developed relationships with service providers and courts to create a case referral system
  • Created informational handouts and distributed them to community partners, to individuals in recovery, and at networking events
  • Completed three successful mediations for opioid-impacted families
  • Conducted outreach and met with a number of groups to build collaborations, including the Berkeley County Day Report Center, the Eastern Panhandle Empowerment Center, the Mountaineer Recovery Center, Jefferson County Community Ministries, ChildLaw, Healthy Grandfamilies, Hampshire County Pathways, and Greater Recovery and Community Empowerment
  • Secured court-recognized mediator certification, which opens additional avenues for referrals through the court system

Next Steps

In the next year, Emily plans to:

  • Continue to expand outreach and bolster relationships with service providers and community partners
  • Develop relationships with court systems in the area to expand the reach of service
  • Continue to conduct more mediations for opioid-impacted families
  • Continue to collect data to inform future service development


Event to celebrate 20 years of growth for Legal Aid of West Virginia

Emily Neely Is Using a Fellowship From Equal Justice Works To Help Low-income West Virginia Families That Are in Recovery Navigate Their Legal Issues

Helping Families Affected by Opioids

Growing up in West Virginia, I watched families fall apart due to opioid-related issues. I always believed those relationships could be rebuilt, and I wanted my legal career to provide opportunities for reunification.

Emily Neely /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Alayna established an innovative and replicable advocacy program providing specialized legal support to children whose parents struggle with opioid addiction and are involved in juvenile court dependency cases.

In Allegheny County, KidsVoice has seen a 300­child increase in the number of children involved in dependency cases due to opioids. Though opioid addiction is on the rise, it is possible for people to recover and lead more stable lives while providing better parental care; by keeping children in the home with their families and providing 24/7 support, further trauma will be prevented and children will be ensured safety. During her Fellowship, Alayna was assigned to a specialized group of cases involving children and their families who were impacted by parental substance use and the opioid epidemic.

Fellowship Highlights

Alayna acquired specialized knowledge on dependency issues related to parental substance use and identified cases in which it was possible for children to remain in their parents’ care while they received the necessary treatment and supervision to ensure the entire family’s safety.

Alayna was a member of two task forces and during her time with one of those groups, she collaborated with system leaders in fields of child welfare, drug and alcohol, and healthcare in order to develop a county-wide protocol for infants born affected by substance use or withdrawal symptoms resulting from prenatal drug exposure or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, pursuant to federal and state laws.
Alayna created resources on subjects including Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome and sobriety, in collaboration with subject-matter professionals, which will be utilized by child advocates and judicial professionals for years after her fellowship ends.

Next Steps

Following her Fellowship, Alayna will remain at KidsVoice as a Staff Attorney. She is excited to have the opportunity to continue working on her current caseload, which consists of dependent children impacted by the opioid epidemic. Alayna will also take on additional cases that will further enhance her competency as a dependency guardian ad litem attorney.

I have always been drawn to work that involves advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves. Children impacted by the opioid epidemic deserve staunch advocates in their corner and I am proud that it gets to be me.

Alayna Bartko /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Brendan helped West Virginians recovering from substance use disorder through Medication Assisted Treatment regain control of their lives by educating communities and removing legal barriers to their recovery through advocating for their access to employment, housing, and economic stability.

While there is no one demographic that been left unharmed by the opioid crisis, rural West Virginia has been the epicenter. Those lucky enough to survive and begin the long road to recovery face substantial socioeconomic barriers, including access to legal counsel to protect their rights.  Brendan’s project with Legal Aid of West Virginia provides access to legal counsel to address all the underlying issues to effectively mitigate key relapse factors.

Fellowship Highlights

During the Fellowship, Brendan:

  • Maintained the states only substance use disorder medical-legal partnership.
  • Trained attorneys/advocates statewide on substance use disorder advocacy and person-first language.
  • Represented clients on expungements, employment, housing, custody, and license reinstatements.
  • Worked with community partners to raise awareness and combat stigma against people in recovery.

Next Steps

Brendan’s project has secured funding to extend until at least 2022 and he and his host organization are in the late application stages for long-term, sustainable funding. Brendan and Legal Aid of West Virginia plan to expand the project to additional counties and recovery organizations.


How the Pandemic Is Impacting the Opioid Crisis and People in Recovery

Helping My Community Take Action to Overcome and Heal from the Opioid Epidemic

Law graduate to offer assistance to those recovering from addiction

Wood '19 awarded Equal Justice Works fellowship

What it Takes to Keep a Promise

I became a lawyer so that I could help my community take action to overcome and heal from the opioid epidemic.

Brendan Wood /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Expanded access to necessary medical care for incarcerated people with opioid use disorder through innovative litigation, advocacy, and training.

At least a quarter of America’s prison population suffers from opioid use disorder and twenty-four percent of people who are addicted to heroin pass through America’s jails and prisons each year. Yet most jails and prisons have an outright ban on medication for addiction treatment (MAT), the medically approved way to treat people with opioid use disorder through a combination of counseling and the FDA approved medications methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. The consequences of such inadequate medical care are deadly—one study found that in the first two weeks after release from prison, an incarcerated person’s risk of dying from a heroin overdose is forty times as high as the general population. But providing MAT saves lives—making it seven times less likely that a recently incarcerated individual will die of an overdose.

Joseph is from rural Ohio, which has been severely impacted by the opioid epidemic. Joseph spent the summer after his first year of law school in Cincinnati, Ohio working with incarcerated people, where he saw firsthand the toll that the opioid epidemic has taken on vulnerable communities. Joseph envisions a world where people suffering from any addiction are able to get the treatment they need and live whole lives, free from stigma.

Fellowship Highlights

Throughout his Fellowship, Joseph filed cases against jails and prisons in Illinois, New Mexico, and New York for failure to provide MAT for incarcerated people with opioid use disorder. The litigation in Illinois resulted in his client being the first non-pregnant person in the DuPage County Jail to receive methadone in five years and also sparked an expansion of the Jail’s methadone policy. He also published a report giving an overview of MAT-in-corrections policies throughout the country and providing a roadmap for policy change. Joseph worked on legislative and policy advocacy efforts alongside ACLU affiliates across the country to change prison and jail policies on MAT, as well as working on COVID-19 related litigation in jails and immigration detention facilities.

Next Steps

After his Fellowship, Joseph will clerk for Judge Roy McLeese of the D.C. Court of Appeals.


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