In honor of National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, Pro Bono Net has lined up a variety of guest bloggers from law firms, legal aid organizations and elsewhere to share their pro bono ideas and experiences. Check back each day between Oct. 22-26 for new posts, and visit the Celebrate Pro Bono site to learn how you can get involved in events near you.
Below, we are pleased to present a guest post from Cynthia Domingo-Foraste, Supervising Attorney at Safe Horizon, a victims’ services agency that provides victims of domestic violence, child abuse, human trafficking, rape and sexual assault, as well as homeless youth and families of homicide victims, with a wide range of comprehensive support.
When I met Jane in Bronx Family Court, she pulled the hood of her baggy sweatshirt down over her eyes, revealing just enough so I could see her staring me down. I introduced myself and received silence. Jane was 24 years old, a mother since she was 15, and living in a shelter with her three young children – about a month earlier, she had narrowly survived being killed by husband. We were in court because he now wanted custody of the children. I have committed my career to providing free legal services to those who, like Jane, cannot afford them. Today, more people than ever need these resources, yet there are fewer and fewer to go around.
A few months back, Jane had left her husband. She had grown tired of the weekly beatings that left her bruised and bloodied. She received a five-year order of protection from the Criminal Court; she thought she was free. One night, she heard a knock at the door – probably the neighbor’s kids who often visited. After she opened the door, her husband pushed his way in. He immediately threw Jane to the floor and wrapped his hands around her neck. She screamed, praying that someone would call the police. Her cries woke the children, who ran from the bedroom to see their mom gasping for breath. When the police finally arrived, they had to knock down the door to save Jane. She and her children entered a Safe Horizon Domestic Violence Shelter – they were safe. Yet here we were in court just a few weeks later. Jane and I spent three years together fighting to keep her and her kids safe. The custody case was contentious and difficult. At times, Jane yelled at me when she couldn’t understand the Court’s decision, while other times she wouldn’t speak at all because she felt too overwhelmed. After numerous court appearances and countless motions, however, she was granted final custody of her children.
On our last day of court, Jane wore a blouse and slacks. She smiled at me when she saw me across the hall. She is now a single mother of three, goes to college, works part-time, and volunteers at her children’s school. Jane is a different person, and I know that she and her children will have a different life because Safe Horizon was committed to her.
People often remark that my work must be rewarding; I usually don’t know how to respond. Most days, I would describe it as challenging. The truth is that the trauma that my clients have endured affects all of the work that we do together. I am certain that this work is necessary and worthwhile, and no matter what the outcome may be, no one should have to confront legal matters around their personal safety or custody of their children on their own.
Unfortunately, for every Jane that I am able to help, I must turn another away; such is the case with the overwhelming needs of our clients. Pro bono work can go a long way toward closing this gap. As lawyers, we have the tools to help those in need, but we have to commit to using them. I keep hearing that there are too many attorneys these days. But I whenever I look around the courthouse, I see countless people representing themselves. It will take commitment from the legal community at large to ensure that there is always someone at court to meet Jane.