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

Corina’s (she/her/hers) project will provide post-conviction legal services and legislative advocacy on behalf of incarcerated survivors of domestic violence who are eligible for resentencing or a new trial in New York state.

In 2019, New York passed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA), which recognizes domestic violence as a mitigating factor in certain criminal cases and allows eligible incarcerated survivors of domestic violence to apply for resentencing. Unfortunately, prohibitively high evidentiary standards have prevented survivors from obtaining the relief intended by the law. The legislation must be amended, but in the interim an alternate avenue of relief has emerged: reinvestigation of cases frequently reveals wrongful conviction issues, such as ineffective assistance of counsel.

Corina’s commitment to challenging gender-based violence and mass incarceration motivates her to secure tangible relief for system-involved survivors of domestic violence through both direct representation and policy advocacy.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Corina will bring ineffective assistance of counsel claims on behalf of survivors of domestic violence. She will also advocate for amendments to the DVSJA to eliminate the needless procedural barriers that bar clients from obtaining the relief the legislature intended to provide. Additionally, Corina will develop a comprehensive body of post-conviction advocacy materials to educate attorneys and judges on the evolving legal and legislative landscape.

Survivors of domestic violence deserve legal advocates who will infuse their humanity into a criminal justice system that often attempts to dehumanize them and decontextualize their cases.

Corina Scott /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Daniel’s project focused on preserving housing stability by providing legal services to older adults victimized by elder abuse that threatens their ability to stay in their homes.

In Los Angeles, where the cost of living is high, housing stability for people in low-income communities is crucial. Elder abuse and housing-related fraud can force older adults from homes they have lived in for decades. This Fellowship sought to protect older adults from those threats to keep them in their homes.

Fellowship Highlights

During the two-year Fellowship, Daniel:
  • Provided assistance with Elder Abuse Restraining Order petitions to over 35 older adults and referred over 60 older adults to other sources of aid.
  • Gave 4 presentations to local community groups on elder abuse, reaching nearly 200 seniors and senior service professionals.
  • Conducted outreach to community organizations throughout Los Angeles County to share information about Bet Tzedek’s homeowner protection efforts and to ascertain the most pressing threats to low-income homeowners throughout the County.

The Project

Kate (she/her/hers) will provide client-centered legal representation and systemic advocacy to ensure adolescents in foster care access personalized comprehensive services for their transition into adulthood.

The Massachusetts foster care system consistently fails to provide the children in its care with federally-mandated comprehensive services to support their transition into adulthood. This failure causes devastating harm to Black, Latinx, and disabled children who are disproportionately separated from their families and placed into foster care. Adolescents in foster care have the lowest high school graduation rates in Massachusetts and face increased risk of homelessness, poverty, and further trauma as adults.

The children in foster care deserve a lawyer who will advocate alongside them to ensure that the state implements policy and action so that every child in their care accesses the personalized community-based resources necessary for their transition into adulthood.

Kate’s project is motivated by her experiences working with resilient young people facing challenges from systems involvement, disabilities, and/or mental health issues. Kate is dedicated to disrupting the oppressive systems that harm young people by ensuring that systems-involved young people have their voices heard and are given the personalized community-based resources they need to achieve their goals.

Fellowship Plans

During the Fellowship, Kate will work with teens in the foster care system to provide legal representation on educational matters regarding their rights to access tailored transitional services. She will survey young people previously or currently in the foster care system to understand the qualities of effective community-based resources that will inform policy advocacy, as well as build connections to resource providers in the under-served Springfield area. Kate will also train child advocates and pro bono attorneys on legal advocacy techniques for getting comprehensive transitional services for youth in foster care and/or with special education needs.

It is essential to center the expert voices of young people in foster care when making decisions about their lives so that they will receive the resources, community supports, and self-advocacy skills they need to thrive as adults.

Kate DiVasto /
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

The Project

Ariana worked to improve outcomes for Harlem youth involved in the criminal legal system by expanding access to special education, disability, and mental health services through direct legal representation and policy advocacy.

Young people in Harlem who are involved in the criminal legal system have no right to civil legal counsel and, as a result, are often unable to access or enforce their right to special education, disability, and mental health services. This issue is particularly pressing given that an estimated 75% of youth involved in the juvenile legal system have disabilities and 65-70% of youth who have been arrested have mental health conditions. This project served to fill a gap in services by providing youth with greater opportunities to advance in school and accomplish their goals.

Ariana’s previous work with system-involved youth—who faced significant challenges when their disabilities or mental health needs were not adequately addressed—motivated her to undertake this project. Ariana is passionate about ensuring that all youth with unique and complex needs have a meaningful opportunity to achieve their goals.

Fellowship Highlights

During her two-year Fellowship, Ariana:

  • Provided legal representation and advice to youth and families in over 200 instances to address issues related to special education services, school discipline, education rights in detention centers and jails, rights of youth experiencing homelessness, and more
  • During the COVID-19 Pandemic, provided representation and advice to address issues related to lack of access to educational services, remote special education evaluations and services, informal suspensions and school discipline, and more
  • Collaborated with attorneys and non-profit organizations to address the systemic challenges that youth with disabilities face in accessing educational services 

Next Steps

Ariana will continue working at the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem as an education attorney. As a staff attorney, Ariana will expand her representation to clients across all practices.

The Project

There is desperate need for free legal services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Chester County. It is also a critical time to focus on advocacy with law enforcement and community organizations to encourage survivors to seek relief. Alison provided immigration legal services for and advocacy on behalf of immigrant survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. 

Alison has vast experience working with immigrant survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault and has experience in community-based advocacy work. 

The Project

Trafficking exists where you look for it. In other words, trafficking survivors can be found in a cross-section of social, class, ethnic, age, disability, immigration status, and racial groups. Megan was confident that there are trafficking survivors who are in removal proceedings. Thus, her project not only focused on screening for potential trafficking survivors but also representing trafficking survivors who were in removal proceedings. Further, given the increase in detention of non-citizens, it is ever more pressing to identify trafficking survivors who are detained to ensure that they can seek relief from removal. 

As an Equal Justice Works Crime Victims Justice Corps Fellow, Megan’s project focused on trafficking survivors.  She screened  individuals who are potential trafficking survivors. Further, she represented trafficking survivors in petitions to USCIS, and helped expand her host organization’s capacity for representing trafficking survivors in removal proceedings. 

Megan’s professional experience made her the right person for this Fellowship. She brought two years of experience as an attorney advisor in the Executive Office for Immigration Review, Department of Justice to this position. Further, Megan has past experience providing direct services to asylum seekers in the United States and abroad. 

The Project

The Washington metro area hosts a significant immigrant population and is one of the nation’s human trafficking hotspots. Unfortunately, the intersection of immigration and human trafficking is an evolving area of legal practice, and there are not enough attorneys with expertise to meet the high level of need. Ayuda has been a pioneer in developing and expanding immigration legal services to survivors of severe forms of human trafficking in the D.C. area. 

Katie strengthened Ayuda’s capacity to serve low-income immigrant trafficking survivors by providing holistic, client-centered representation on immigration matters.  Through the fellowship, Katie provided direct legal representation to qualified individuals, assisting them to obtain legal status in the United States and opening up pathways to essential services. Katie also supported survivors through victims’ rights advocacy, where possible and appropriate. 

In addition to providing direct representation, Katie developed and delivered trainings to partners, to enhance advocates’ abilities to identify trafficking and improve awareness about legal remedies available to immigrant trafficking survivors. 

The Inspiration