2017 Founders Fellowship
The 2017 recipient was Melissa McClure, a law student at Georgetown University Law Center.
Personal Essay on Summer Internship at The Legal Aid Society of DC
My experiences as a summer intern at The Legal Aid Society of DC reaffirmed my passion for assisting survivors of gender violence. I came to law school so that I could represent women and girls experiencing domestic and sexual violence. Thus, I was thrilled to devote my summer to assisting survivors as a full-time legal intern in the Domestic Violence/Family Law Unit at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia. The Legal Aid Society assists people who are up to 200% above the federal poverty line in issues relating to family law, public benefits, housing, and consumer protection.
I focused on assisting survivors of gender violence by completing a number of projects. My primary task was preparing for civil protection order hearings by interviewing clients and any witnesses, writing opening and closing statements, writing direct and cross examinations, and gathering and reviewing evidence. I accompanied attorneys to court two to three times a week to assist with the cases for which I prepared hearing notes. I also assisted in the preparation of a substantial trial during the summer, which involved completing these tasks with much more detail and writing a research memorandum on stalking and assault. I performed additional requested research projects, observed and took notes at related hearings at DC Superior Court, and attended strategy meetings.
I also did some work that was unrelated to domestic violence, but instead focused on men and women who are marginalized in our community and experience different types of trauma. For example, I also wrote a child support motion in support of a client who experienced homelessness and assisted clients in deep poverty at the Child Support Resource Center at DC Superior Court.
During this summer, I saw how intersecting traumas work together to further marginalize those most in need. Poverty traps domestic violence survivors and forces them to make unimaginable choices, such as choosing to stay in a violent home instead of becoming homeless. Many of the clients I worked with also struggled with affordable housing and homelessness, affording food for themselves and their children, and disability. Helping my clients with their civil protection or child support cases was often only the first step in a long journey to finding safety and security.
Working with domestic violence survivors poses many challenges. Abusers work in a cycle of violence, where the violence slowly escalates over time. Domestic violence involves an abuser systematically and strategically taking control and independence from a person. It can involve cutting that person off from their friends and family, or showing up at the person’s work and watching them from outside. I have talked to many survivors of violence who did not realize until months or years of abuse that they were experiencing domestic violence. For these reasons, survivors often have trouble opening up to an attorney or distancing themselves from their abuser. They sometimes miss appointments or hearings or do not trust their attorney.
I also learned this summer that domestic violence not only affects survivors, but also their children. The children who witness domestic violence experience long-term mental and physical health effects. They have an increased likelihood of abusing alcohol and drugs, suffering from depression, and becoming victims of domestic violence themselves. However, I have also learned that the remedial effects of domestic violence can be decreased if someone intervenes. Thus, the role of an attorney can potentially be very important in the life of a child who witnesses abuse.
One case from this summer demonstrates the multiple facets of domestic violence. Ms. L’s husband, Mr. B, started off abusing Ms. L gradually. He would bark at her and grab her arm when he was angry. Mr. B would continually apologize to Ms. L for his actions and would promise it would never happen again. Thus, Ms. L stayed with Mr. B for many years because she depended on his income and wanted to believe the abuse would stop. However, Mr. B began abusing Ms. L in front of their children, at one point holding their two-year-old in one arm while repeatedly punching Ms. L and smashing her face into the refrigerator door with the other. At this point, Ms. L came to legal intake.
When my attorney supervisor and I met with Ms. L, she was confused and embarrassed about what had happened. My supervisor and I were patient with Ms. L as she tried to remember details about the events. Ms. L’s two young children were with her at intake, so my supervisor and I took turns playing with the children. We tried to maintain some lightheartedness during the interview so that the children would not be too worried. When we helped Ms. L, I hope that we showed her kids that adults would help them and support them, and decreased their chances of experiencing damaging physical and mental health effects.
To gain Ms. L’s trust and to empower her throughout the process, I and the attorney assisting Ms. L explained to her all her legal options, carefully detailing how these options would play out in court. Ms. L then chose which legal options to pursue. It was important to respect her choices, because Ms. L knew which course of action best suited her needs and priorities. By explaining the civil legal process and making assurances that I can keep, I built trust with clients like Ms. L. I arrived early to Ms. L’s court hearing, as I did for every client, because I wanted her to know that I was there to support her and advocate for her. With some hard work and Ms. L’s trust, the Legal Aid attorney successfully obtained a protection order for Ms. L and evicted her husband.
I am committed to devoting my career to representing survivors, because my experiences with Ms. L and others have shown me the life-changing impact that I can have in a survivor’s life. I have waited years to devote my time to assisting survivors, and I was finally able to do that this summer with the support of the WBA Founders Fellowship. Without the Fellowship, I would have struggled financially and been unable to focus on my legal aid work. I often feel like it is impossible to do what I am passionate about and stay afloat financially, but that was not the case this summer thanks to the WBA Foundation. Additionally, it has been great to know that I have the support of the WBA Foundation to pursue my dreams. Representing survivors of gender violence is difficult and trying work, but I am inspired to continue such work because your organization believed in me. I am immensely grateful to the WBA Foundation. I will take the lessons that I learned from this summer and use them to help other survivors in my career.