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

Brianna (she/her/hers) will provide legal assistance and support to children in the Allegheny County child welfare system with special education needs who have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The goal of Brianna’s project is to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on dependency system-involved children who receive special education services. Since the pandemic crisis began in March 2020, these students have gone months without educational services or with insufficient supports and services resulting in long-term consequences. Without the stability of a secure family, these children are particularly susceptible to receiving an inadequate education, which has a lifelong impact as they transition to adulthood. 

Fellowship Plans

Brianna will advocate for recoupment and/or compensatory services based on the Pennsylvania Department of Education guidance to address the needs of special education students impacted by the extended school closure. She will research and advocate for best practices to be implemented in school districts for their benefit. Brianna will also provide consultations and technical assistance to attorneys and child advocacy specialists on individual special education cases, advocate for children at Individual Education Program (IEP) and other school meetings, and provide support to foster parents and other caregivers in their role as educational decision-maker. 

I am continually inspired by the resilience demonstrated by children facing difficult circumstances. It is a privilege to work toward creating transformative change for educational equity.

Brianna Bell /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Essence works to increase access to race-positive, gender-responsive, and trauma-informed mental health supports and services for Black girls in school through legal representation, community engagement, and systemic advocacy.

The educational needs of Black girls are a critical part of my Project. Black girls are disproportionally criminalized and pushed out of schools compared to their white counterparts. It is imperative that Black girls have less interaction with police in schools and more access to counselors and trained mental health professionals.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

In the first year of the Fellowship, Essence has:

  • Provided legal services to 21 clients, including full representation for a Black girl with disabilities who was pushed into a more restrictive educational setting after the school failed to follow her IEP
  • Prepared and submitted public testimony to Pittsburgh Public School Board that informed the budget for the 2021-2022 school year, changed school policy to no longer allow suspensions for repeated low-level offenses, and removed the offense of “disorderly conduct” from the Code of Student Conduct
  • Served as part of the amicus brief team at ELC in a precedent-setting case in front of the PA Supreme Court on students’ right to free speech outside of school and due process when facing school discipline for that speech, impacting 1.7 million school-age children in PA
  • Gave 10 presentations to community partners and advocates
  • Created an infomercial for Minority Mental Health Awareness Month that advocated for and informed audiences of the importance of recognizing the mental health needs of Black girls in schools

Next Steps

In the next six months, Essence plans to:

  • Continue to provide representation and consultation on matters involving mental health services for students who identify as Black girls
  • Develop family-friendly resources to help parents, students, and advocates understand their rights and advocate for themselves
  • Continue trainings and start informational sessions or legal clinics to support community partners, families, and youth with technical assistance and legal advice

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

Jackie used a combination of direct representation, systemic advocacy, and community engagement to improve academic achievement and reduce educational barriers for immigrant and refugee students.

In 2015, there were over 50,000 students designated as English Learners (ELs) in Pennsylvania. Unlike many cities where ELs tend to share a common language and culture, Pittsburgh is home to a highly diverse immigrant population, including large populations from East Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. This diverse immigrant landscape poses unique challenges for local school, which must communicate with families in dozens of languages and ensure staff are familiar with many cultural backgrounds. Unfortunately, prior to Jackie’s fellowship project many districts in the area were not meetings these challenges. In 2015, only 8% of ELs in the Pittsburgh Public Schools were proficient in Math and only 5% were proficient in English. Less than 50% of ELs in the District graduated high school in 4 years. Districts were also regularly failing to meet the needs of limited English proficient (LEP) parents, including providing families with translation services so that they could actively engage in their child’s education.

Fellowship Highlights

In the past two year, Jackie has:

  • Provided advice and representation to 161 immigrant students on disciplinary, academic, and special education matters, and in criminal proceedings arising from incidents at school
  • Trained 1200 parents, teachers, administrators, case workers, and advocates on the educational rights of ELs. Co-founded the Education Justice Network for Immigrants and Refugees, a group of community partners dedicated to promoting education justice for English Learns and their families
  • Developed 8 resources for LEP families and providers to use in addressing educational obstacles, including a comprehensive toolkit on the educational rights of immigrant and refugee students
  • Worked with 30 community partners to advocate for new policies to promote effective communication with LEP families, which were adopted by the Pittsburgh Public Schools in December 2018

What’s Next

Jackie will be traveling extensively over the next few months. Following her return in the spring of 2020, she plans to join the Education Law Center as a full-time staff attorney.

What’s At Stake When There’s A Language Barrier Between Families And Schools?

A crossroads of languages: How Pittsburgh schools respond to a growing immigrant population.