Zoe Russell

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

Through a medical-legal partnership between the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia and MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s Community Violence Intervention Program, MJ (they/them/theirs) will provide civil legal help to survivors of gun violence and collaborate on systemic advocacy efforts with clients and colleagues.

Gun violence negatively impacts hundreds of Washington D.C. residents every year. 81% of gun violence survivors receiving services from MedStar Washington Hospital Center’s Community Violence Intervention Program have at least one unmet civil legal need. Many survivors do not seek legal help due to distrust of lawyers and the legal system. Survivors of gun violence are at risk for reinjury and retaliatory violence when their civil legal needs go unmet.

Fellowship Plans

Through one of the first medical-legal partnerships in the country with a hospital-based violence intervention program, MJ and their colleagues from the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia will promote the recovery and stability of gun violence survivors through trauma-informed civil legal services and systemic advocacy. Areas of civil legal help will include public benefits support, criminal record expungement, consumer debt relief, and family and housing law matters. Systemic advocacy will address chronic barriers to stability faced by gun violence survivors, such as food and income security, homelessness, access to healthcare, and the collateral consequences of over-policing and over criminalization.

Media

Greenberg Traurig Names its 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellows

I want to be part of efforts to address community violence through compassion and harm reduction rather than criminalization and incarceration.

MJ Smith /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Paulina (she/her/hers) will advocate on behalf of incarcerated people in Georgia who were sentenced to life in prison as children through direct representation in parole proceedings, education, and policy reform.

In Georgia, more than 600 people are serving life sentences for crimes they committed as children—some as young as 13 years old. 78% of these individuals are Black. Each is supposed to receive a meaningful opportunity for parole, but they do not. Parole applicants in Georgia have no legal right to appear before the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. They have no right to counsel, present evidence, call expert witnesses, or even access their parole files.

Having a parole lawyer in Georgia is critical. A lawyer is able to submit a written advocacy packet to the Board, which tells the story of who that child has become in the past decades. Without this advocacy, people serving life sentences since childhood will have little to no opportunity to obtain release, as the Board will continue to make decisions based primarily on the Department of Corrections paperwork, which is often incomplete and deficient. Such paperwork certainly does not show who these children were, who they have become, and the community support they would have if paroled.

Fellowship Plans

During the Fellowship, Paulina will provide parole representation for people serving life sentences for crimes that occurred when they were children and assist those clients who are granted parole with their reentry into society. She will also train other lawyers and student lawyers on parole representation in Georgia and create a Georgia Juvenile Parole Handbook. Finally, with the help of the Southern Center for Human Right’s policy experts, she will draft model legislation to reform parole proceedings for individuals serving life sentences since childhood in Georgia.

Media

Greenberg Traurig Names its 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellows

Because I refuse to live in a society that gives up on children, I will fight to ensure that people serving life sentences since childhood have a meaningful opportunity to obtain release. Having a real shot at parole is especially important in the Deep South, where the legal system is plagued by systemic racism and overcriminalization.

Paulina Lucio Maymon /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Zoe (she/her/hers) will work with young people who attend alternative and nontraditional public schools in greater Philadelphia to educate them on their civil rights and support them in building power to advocate for more meaningful, accessible, and effective pathways to graduation.

One in five Philadelphia ninth-graders will attend an alternative or nontraditional school during their educational career. Many of the approximately 5,000 students who currently attend these schools have had their education interrupted by being pushed out of traditional schools, experiencing homelessness, or being incarcerated, on top of continually experiencing the effects of interlocking systems of racism and criminalization of poverty. Instead of reversing discriminatory patterns of pushout and helping every student remain in school and graduate, alternative schools often exacerbate pushout by adopting exclusionary policies, collecting limited data about barriers students encounter, and having very little accountability. These problems persist despite federal and state laws that protect all Pennsylvania students’ ability to access public education.

Fellowship Plans

Zoe will build on the Education Law Center’s existing relationships with Philadelphia-area youth organizations and child-serving providers to address the concerns of young people who attend alternative schools. She will undertake individual representation to enforce students’ federal, state, and local education civil rights in enrollment, special education, anti-harassment and bullying, and school discipline matters. Her work will ensure that alternative schools enroll students promptly and provide appropriate special education services, English language instruction, and due process in school discipline proceedings. Informed by community relationships and research into accountability gaps, she will support young people who attend alternative schools to build power and develop a focused advocacy campaign that pushes alternative schools to provide more meaningful, effective, and accessible programming.

Media

Greenberg Traurig Names its 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellows

In my six years as a high school educator, my students’ feedback pushed me every day to build a more supportive, inclusive classroom. My goal as a lawyer is not only to make sure that my clients receive a high-quality public education; it is to help them build power so they have a say in advocating for schools that fully support them and help them thrive.

Zoe Masters /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Stacy will advocate for Los Angeles County’s secure track youth with disabilities to ensure their right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) through direct representation, education, and policy reform.

With the closure of the state-run Division of Juvenile Justice in California, over 800 secure track youth now depend on individual counties to house them, educate them, and provide them adequate programming. Secure track youth will be detained in county detention facilities for long periods of time, and advocates are still brainstorming how to ensure robust programming for these youth.

Secure track youth with disabilities will now depend on counties, such as Los Angeles County, to meet their needs. However, despite having a legal right to an appropriate education, detained students with disabilities in Los Angeles County rarely receive an appropriate education and related services.

Stacy’s passion for education equity motivates their commitment to ensuring every student’s right to an appropriate education that meets their needs.

Fellowship Plans

During their Fellowship, Stacy will represent secure track youth to address their individual FAPE violation claims. They will collaborate with other advocates, such as community-based organizations and formerly detained persons, to inform the development and implementation of Los Angeles County’s reimagined youth justice system. Additionally, they will develop a policy report discussing the issues impacting access to appropriate services for detained youth with disabilities.

Media

Greenberg Traurig Names its 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellows

An appropriate education has given me so many opportunities to lead a fulfilling life, and I believe everyone should have the opportunity to lead a fulfilling life too.

Stacy Nuñez /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Elizabeth (Lizzie) will provide education advocacy to children with disabilities in Austin, Texas. Here, she hopes to prevent and correct misplacement in segregated special education programs, disciplinary alternative education programs, and juvenile justice facilities.

Widespread systemic issues impacting the Austin Independent School District’s evaluation system resulted in delayed evaluations of thousands of students in violation of federal and state laws. This delay resulted in the misplacement of students with disabilities in segregated schools, disciplinary settings, and the juvenile justice system for unsupported disability-related behaviors. Children with disabilities are already overrepresented in these settings. What’s worse, the physical restraint of students, which is inherently traumatizing, is far more likely to happen in segregated behavior settings and to students who have disabilities. Moreover, under-resourced families are disproportionately represented in these systems, yet, are the least likely to reach out to protection and advocacy organizations for help.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Lizzie will provide direct representation and advocacy to students with disabilities at risk of and currently navigating the juvenile justice system and provide advocacy coaching to their families. She will use Disability Rights Texas’ protection and advocacy access authority to monitor segregated special education placements in the Austin area for compliance with federal disability laws and advocate for youth who have been misplaced in those settings to be returned to the regular school environment. Additionally, she will develop relationships with juvenile justice system actors and educators to locate children in need of legal services and promote a lasting reduction in misplacement of children with disabilities.

Lizzie is determined to better serve children with disabilities through a legal career in special education advocacy.

Media

Greenberg Traurig Names its 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellows

As a speech-language pathologist in the public school setting, I repeatedly encountered situations where children were not served appropriately due to areas of disability that were unidentified, and therefore, unsupported. I realized that my therapeutic training was ineffective if my students were barred from accessing it.

Elizabeth Allen /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Alexandria (Alex) (she/her/hers) will advocate for Black parents and families in Miami to prevent unnecessary removals of children from their homes by providing civil legal services and collaborating with parent-led advocacy groups to empower families.

Removing a child from their family is traumatic and fails to address the hardships facing families, yet it is often the result of child welfare system involvement. In Florida, most children are removed for neglect, a vague legal category that serves as a proxy for poverty and race, which often results in the separation of families for inadequate housing, childcare, and poor nutrition. In Miami, the inflection point occurs at the moment the Department of Children and Families decides to investigate and deems the child to be “at risk,” thereby allowing the child to remain with their family or be removed from their home. In 2019, Black children were 43% of children investigated, 41% of children confirmed as maltreated, and 56% of children removed, though they are only 20% of Miami’s child population.

Her family’s experience with her sister’s adoption, though different from experiences of families entangled in the child welfare system, led to Alex’s exploration of and commitment to supporting and strengthening families.

Fellowship Plans

Alex will prevent the unnecessary removal of children by providing direct representation to parents and caregivers before an investigation has taken place or before a petition for removal has been filed. She will advocate for families confronted with eviction, domestic violence, and public benefits matters, enabling them to continue caring for their children safely within their homes. She will collaborate with local parent-led advocacy groups to amplify community and parent voices within the child welfare system.

Media

Greenberg Traurig Names its 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellows

I have learned through years of working with families who have been torn apart by the child welfare system that separation deeply harms everyone involved and does not address the systemic poverty and racism that led to the removal in the first place. When given proper support, I have seen that children and their families can remain safely together and thrive.

Alexandria Cinney /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Sarah (she/her/hers) will provide direct representation to people seeking clemency who were “emerging adults” between 18-25 years old when convicted under Illinois’ felony-murder rule.

The over-prosecution of Black emerging adults drives mass incarceration in Illinois. Incarcerated at a rate 9.4 times that of white emerging adults, this group is also disproportionality prosecuted under a controversial state law: felony-murder. Felony-murder carries a sentence range of 20 years to life, allowing the State to charge a person with first-degree murder if another person dies during the commission of a felony, even if the person charged did not actually or intend to kill them. Sixty percent of people serving sentences in Illinois under this law were emerging adults when convicted, and 75% of those people are Black. While research has established that emerging adults share key developmental characteristics with juveniles and have an enormous capacity for change and rehabilitation, no sentencing protections exist for them, and there is no right to legal representation in clemency proceedings in Illinois.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Sarah will provide direct representation in clemency proceedings to people currently incarcerated in the Illinois Department of Corrections. She will train lawyers on the felony-murder rule, emerging adulthood, and the devastating impact of the rule on people in this age group and the communities they come from. Sarah will elevate personal stories of emerging adults sentenced under felony-murder to educate the broader public on these issues and advocate for change.

Media

Greenberg Traurig Names its 2022 Equal Justice Works Fellows

Mass incarceration is a crisis born of the criminal legal system’s refusal to acknowledge the capacity to change. Few people remain the same as they were between the ages of 18-25, and addressing the unique characteristics of emerging adults gives us one more tool to build a collective future where no person is defined by their worst act.

Sarah Free /
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