Searching for Justice

Searching for Justice and a Few Good Lawyers

Claire Dunning
Dartmouth Partners in Community Service Intern
Women’s Law Project, Philadelphia PA
Winter, 2006

Before interning at the Women’s Law Project this winter, I had a naïve belief that everyone had a right to legal counsel in court and that, once in court, justice would prevail. Once I started working, my over-confident trust in the justice system was shaken as I began counseling women who were battered, poor and had to gather courage to face their accuser in court without the support of a lawyer. Thanks to popular TV shows like Law and Order, I had always assumed that lawyers were appointed to the poor. While this is true in criminal proceedings, in Family Court, often regarded as the least prestigious court, women who couldn’t afford legal counsel are forced to stand alone in a small court room, and face her abuser while trying to understand the legal language and procedures of requesting a Protection from Abuse order. Telephone Counselors, such as myself, were trained by the Women’s Law Project to give legal information over the telephone to women who were going to court alone. I spent the majority of my days as a telephone counselor at the WLP, listening to frustrated, scared and confused women struggling to understand the “justice” system in Philadelphia. The remainder of my time was dedicated to policy research on the availability of emergency contraception for both rape victims and women at large. By counseling women on an individual basis and advocating for reproductive rights at the state level, I was able to get a more realistic view of politics and polices in Pennsylvania and their impact (usually negative) on its female residents.
The telephone counseling service operated by WLP is unique in its approach and services provided to women living in the counties surrounding Philadelphia. The majority of the callers are dealing with issues in Family law, employment, and housing discrimination. Women who call the service are first put in contact with an intake volunteer. During intake, the caller is asked for her name, a safe telephone number and the reason that she is calling the counseling service. She is then informed that, provided there is not an emergency, a telephone counselor will return her call in the next couple days. I was then given the caller’s information and brief description of her concerns. I would call her back and listen to her story and legal question. Often, the story was much more complex and raised more issues in counseling than at intake. Women whose initial question was regarding protection orders, often had to address child support, child custody and divorce. During our first session speaking, I would ask leading questions that would help to give me a better sense of the situation. Was she married to the child’s father? Is he the father of all the children? Are either of the parents working? Does she have a place to move with the children? Has child custody been discussed? When I felt certain that I had all the necessary information, I would explain to my caller that I would call her back in about 15 min, after I had spoken with my supervisor. As indicated, I would then explain the situation to my supervisor, and together we would answer the woman’s questions about child custody, support etc. and try to find any references to other agencies that might be able to represent them. During my second session with my caller, I would explain what my supervisor had explained, being careful to distinguish between legal information and legal counseling. I had to reiterate many times that neither my supervisor nor I was a lawyer, and therefore the information I was giving over the telephone was to empower her to make her own decision as to whether she wanted to file for custody and support or not. Or whether or not she wanted to file a harassment claim with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. It was my job to inform her of her options and legal rights and explain the potential pros and cons of her decision. Ultimately though, the decision was hers alone, and I could only help her make an informed decision. When possible, I would also give my caller then numbers for some other legal agencies that specialized in legal aid for the homeless, elderly, disabled, or battered. The other important part of my relationship with my caller, was to give her some strength for going through the court procedures. Despite my attempts to help her find legal counsel, I would always tell her that, if it came to it, she was strong enough to represent herself in court. Together we would go through the court proceedings, what materials and documents were necessary, what was appropriate language and attire for court, and how to organize the points she wanted to make in court. This was the process that we went through with all our callers. Sometimes the process would only take 30 minutes, other times I would spend hours on the telephone listening, encouraging and counseling. Some of women called once and had their questions answered, and others would keep calling for weeks with new developments in their schedule of hearings or situation.
Before arriving in Philadelphia and beginning my work at WLP, I had tried to prepare myself for the challenges that counseling would bring. Nothing that I had done, read or thought, could fully give me the strength I needed in order to help others find strength. Everyday, I listened to women cry on the telephone and tell me their heart wrenching stories of abuse from their husbands/ boyfriends, and the emotional abuse by the justice system. The stories of sorrow that I heard, where ones you would read about in books or watch in movies – not the sort of thing that happens to people that you actually know and care about. Day in and day out, I listened to women whose husbands and boyfriends had abused them or left them with no money and with their children and in debt. The sorrow and despair in my callers troubled me more than I realized. I was always fine at work, able to do the job and focus on my caller. When I got home however, I was just left with my own thoughts and feelings without the distractions of the office. My boyfriend from home attends the University of Pennsylvania and I became very over sensitive around him, crying easily and getting upset at petty issues. It was very difficult for me to separate work and play, reminding myself that I was in a healthy, loving relationship and that my boyfriend was not like the men I heard about on the telephone. Most of the women I spoke with would warn me about men saying “Claire, you’re too young to realize it now, but men are always going to hurt you” and “don’t ever trust a man with your heart.” It was hard to remind myself that the women telling me these things had just been hurt by men, and that there are plenty of healthy relationships and successful marriages. As my term continued, I learned to ask for support and understanding from my boyfriend, and found ways of separating my work and play. I had never known such evil and malicious ways of hurting people until I was asked to counsel the victims of this abuse.
Despite my good intentions, counseling and information distribution, telephone counseling cannot replace legal counsel. I always encouraged women to call other agencies for legal representation, but knew in my heart, that the chances of her getting real representation were slim. Over time, I became infuriated at the lack of lawyers willing to help women (and men) who cannot afford the exuberant costs of private attorneys. I had been in contact with so many wonderful women who just needed a bit of a break and had a really tough case. They would call me back saying that one agency said that their case was too complicated for them, or that since they weren’t on welfare they didn’t qualify for legal aid, or that their case wasn’t exactly what that agency addressed. For a time, I felt that I wasn’t really helping women that much, afraid that I was giving false hope along with my referrals. My supervisor would remind me that the other non-profit agencies and legal aid offices were strapped for resources just like WLP and the other agencies were trying, like us, to make payroll and pay the rent. Bottom line, it wasn’t the other agencies that caused the problem, but the overall lack of resources and lawyers willing to work for low salaries at non-profit agencies. My Dartmouth Partners in Community Service Mentor actually worked at one of the agencies that I referred to. It was very interesting to hear her own frustrations with the system. Our meeting reinforced what my supervisor had said – that all the non-profit agencies are strapped for money and simply don’t have the resources to help everyone. For the women who worked at minimum wage, yet “were too rich” to qualify for legal aid, the only resource available to find a lawyer, was the Bar Association, which would give out the names of private lawyers. These women would be forced to decide between legal counsel, and food on the table – the private lawyers referred by the Bar Association rarely lowered their fees for poor, working women. I believe that all men and women, regardless of financial status should be able to get legal representation when going to court. I believe that it is about equality and equal opportunities. How can justice prevail when a woman goes into court without a lawyer, opposing her boyfriend/ husband who could afford counsel?
After expressing my frustration with the justice system, and the number of women who were abused by the court system because they did not have a lawyer present, my supervisor arranged for me to visit Family Court and observe in the Protection From Abuse courtroom. On my appointed day, I wandered through a back alley and found a long line of people waiting to go through the security metal detectors. Most of the people were black, most dressed in street clothes, and only a few had lawyers (mostly white) in suits standing with their clients. Everyone was dealing with nerves and stress in one way or another: smoking, reading documents and notes, tapping their feet, and checking their watches. Once inside the building, I was escorted by a security guard to the court where I was to observe. I felt out of place in my fancy work clothes and being escorted by a security guard, when it was clear in my mind, that there were plenty of other women who needed the protection more than I. The guard ushered me into a waiting room where men and women nervously waited – often for hours at a time – to go before the judge. I was in the court assigned to Protection from Abuse orders, so the women in the waiting room were less than 10 yards away from their abusers. My supervisor later told me that many women wait in the bathroom and sometimes miss their hearings because they are afraid of seeing their abuser in the waiting room. For the remainder of the morning, I watched as the judge intimidated, harassed and swore at the defendants and plaintiffs, the clerk ran in and out of the room and in the cramped courtroom. It felt more like a circus than a house of justice. People were constantly beings shuffled in and out of the room, and the judge seemed to arbitrarily issue or not issue protection orders against abusive husbands/ boyfriends. I felt entirely hopeless in the courtroom and wanted to stand next to the women who were alone in the male dominated courtroom. Beside myself, I was usually the only woman in the room – the judge, clerk, guard and court officials were male. My experiences in the courtroom strengthened me as a telephone counselor, and empowered me as an advocate of women’s rights. Once back at the office, I expressed my frustration to my supervisor who said that my experience was not unusual. She explained that many women are attacked leaving the courthouse, walking through the back alley to the subway. I was, and still am, outraged at the lack of escort services for battered women, who are told by the court that they have to serve their abusers with papers and summons to court, and that the police officers will not do it for them. There is something wrong with a justice system that requires an abused woman to confront her abuser and serve him with papers announcing a hearing regarding a Protection from Abuse order.
My other work at WLP was centered on policy research and lobbying for reproductive rights and, more specifically, emergency contraception (EC). A couple of years ago, WLP did some research on the status of EC in Pennsylvania. Since then, many states around the country have passed legislation enabling pharmacists to dispense EC to women without a doctor’s prescription. The approaches taken by each of the eight states that currently allow pharmacists to dispense EC vary quite a bit. Some have specific legislation around EC, others form collaborative drug agreements between pharmacists and doctors, others have clauses hidden deep within other legislation that give authorities to pharmacists. I researched each of the methods used to authorize pharmacists, and examined the current statute in Pennsylvania. At the end of my research, I wrote a memorandum to WLP with my findings and possible routes for passing legislation in Pennsylvania. Throughout this process, I learned a lot about statute and legal language. By dissecting and comparing the statutes from many states, I gained a much deeper understanding of the workings of Congress and the importance of every word
in the legislation.
My lobbying efforts were in conjunction with another intern working at WLP from the University of Pennsylvania. She and I organized a lobby day in Harrisburg for April 4, 2006. (I unfortunately will not be able to attend.) The day at the capital is called “A Women’s Agenda: A Lobby Day on Women’s Rights.” Together with some other agencies, WLP is sponsoring this day and will help bus women from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to Harrisburg for a lobby training session and meetings with legislators. Originally, the day was going to focus on emergency contraception and the passage of the CARE Act (concerning EC in emergency rooms for rape victims.) We then expanded the day to include other issues concerning women, including gender equity in athletics, voting participation for women and pharmacist refusal of birth control. (See the attached flyer.) I am very sorry not to be in Pennsylvania for the lobby day, but I’m sure that it will go well. It is intended as a grassroots movement to encourage women to participate in politics. As indicated on the flyer, Pennsylvanian women are not participating in politics at nearly the same rates as men. Our hope is to help facilitate discussions between women and their legislators – allowing women to tell their legislators how they feel about specific issues. I loved learning about organizing groups of people for political purposes. It was very empowering to encourage women to participate more in politics, a topic I feel strongly about.
All of my experiences at the Women’s Law Project have strengthened my desires to attend law school. Since I was a little girl, I’ve always wanted to be a lawyer, and those convictions were strengthened this winter. I would love to work at a non-profit law firm or legal aid organization to represent men and women who do not have other legal options. My other dream would be to work on class action cases advocating for educational or women’s issues. My research at Dartmouth for History 19 was centered on education policy in Boston from 1960s to present day. Both my desire to work for class action cases and experiences at WLP have confirmed my desire to pursue a Public Policy minor at Dartmouth. I am still formulating my upcoming courses for the Public Policy minor, but I am very excited to pursue my new interest in public policy in an academic setting. I learned so much about policy development, both through class action cases at WLP and through state legislation, this winter, it will be quite interesting to examine similar issues in the classroom from an academic perspective. I hope that my work this winter will allow me to contribute and share in my class on Urban Politics and Policies this spring.
I am so incredibly grateful to the Women’s Law Project for challenging me emotionally and intellectually. I was opened to new experiences everyday and learned about new laws and policies as I dissected each of my caller’s concerns with my supervisor. My coworkers at WLP inspired me everyday with their passion and dedication to women’s rights and equality. At times this winter, the staff did not receive their paychecks because the executive director had to choose between paying the rent or the staff. Everyday the staff showed up motivated and ready to continue the fight for women’s rights. I hope that their dedication to WLP continues and that I will be able to find a career that pushes and challenges me as much as my internship this winter did.