2014 Founders Fellowship
Howard University School of Law
Maria J. Maldonado, Neighborhood Legal Services Program
My Work at Neighborhood Legal Services Program
Family is more than biology or sharing the same last name. Family is the foundation of one’s life and serves as a structure for love, stability, emotional growth and legal rights. When a family is confronted with a challenge, such as divorce, child custody disputes and child and/or spousal support, that core foundation is rattled and as a result, lives will inevitably change. Family law plays an integral part of a person’s life in these cases, and my time as a Founders Fellow at Neighborhood Legal Services Program (NLSP) allowed me to play a role in helping parties come to beneficial agreements for their families and children.
Neighborhood Legal Service Program’s mission is to serve low-income communities in D.C. by providing free legal services in the areas of family law, housing, wills, and public benefits. As an NLSP summer intern, I was responsible for a variety of tasks, including: researching and writing memoranda, drafting motions, participating in and conducting client interviews, following up with clients, participating in depositions, accompanying attorneys to court, assisting in the Small Claims Court Resource Center, and helping conduct community outreach workshops. I focused primarily on family law, specifically child custody, child support and modification of child support, divorce, domestic violence, and paternity. My work helped the legal team build their cases, and helped the larger D.C. low-income community by providing these legal services at no cost to low-income families in need of representation. Additionally, I worked in the Brief Services Unit at NLSP during the last month of my internship. This department offers legal advice and short-term services to low-income individuals. I was responsible for gathering factual information and completing a preliminary analysis of the client’s problem for my supervisor to review. Afterwards, I offered advice or brief services to the client or the case was directed to an “extended services” attorney for further assistance. In Brief Services, I quickly learned the black letter law on landlord-tenant issues, social security benefits, unemployment benefits, and private contracts regarding child support.
In the family law division, I had the opportunity to work on two major trial cases both dealing with child custody and child support. I witnessed first-hand how emotionally volatile family law is and how each parent may have very different parenting styles and views on what is best for their children. As an aspiring lawyer, I learned that I not only needed to have excellent legal analytical skills, but I also needed superb communication and interpersonal skills to effectively communicate with clients. The attorneys did an excellent job of explaining to clients their role as their attorney, while also lending a listening ear and being a soundboard to their clients when they felt the client needed to vent. After all, family law cases can be very emotionally draining, but I learned from seasoned family lawyers on how to manage a client’s expectations while also maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
Specifically, one of the trial cases I worked on required me to write a motion in limine to keep prior bad acts of my client from being admitted into evidence. In this case, both parents had a history peppered with crime, domestic violence, and investigations with child protective services. In the past, a court had revoked custody of the parties’ two children from the mother, the adverse party, for a full year due to child abuse and neglect. The father, our client, had a criminal history spanning decades long which I catalogued by looking through binders full of documents chronicling his criminal charges and arrests since the 1970s. Despite all the emotional ups and downs of this family, it was clear that both parties deeply loved their children and desperately needed free legal services to come to a custody arrangement. The case is still pending. I found this case difficult to work on because I felt that both parents had a malady of personal issues, but with the mentorship and guidance of my supervising attorneys, I was able to focus on the relevant legal issues to ensure a fair trial and that the children’s best interest was at the heart of our legal arguments. No family is perfect and each has its own challenges. This case taught me that every family deserves a chance whether that means the parents share joint custody, one parent has sole custody, or supervised visitations. I felt honored and humbled to play such an important role in helping these families work out their very personal legal issues.
Some of the other high points of my summer were participating in NLSP’s community outreach initiatives. The public interest firm has a strong commitment to community outreach and regularly holds workshops on family law, domestic violence, and wills. These free workshops are aimed at community members and are held at local nonprofits with whom NLSP has partnerships. At one of the domestic violence workshops in Southeast DC, we focused on building healthy relationships and the Wheel of Power and Control in domestic violence. There were about ten people in attendance and the audience was low-income and comprised of mostly men. We began by one of the attorneys asking what domestic violence is followed by debunking some myths surrounding the sensitive topic. Some in attendance shared that they grew up in a household where they witnessed domestic violence or that they had experienced domestic violence in a romantic relationship. I appreciated that NLSP did not limit its domestic violence community initiative to a women-only audience because domestic violence is a serious social ill that affects all demographics. By also educating men on the cycle of domestic violence and healthy relationships, we can start a conversation on how everyone can play a part in breaking the cycle of domestic violence, which disproportionately affects women. NLSP was also very inclusive in these workshops by discussing domestic violence against men and within the LGBT community. Moreover, the workshops informed our audiences on how to file a civil protection order and create an escape plan to safely leave a relationship of domestic violence.
In celebration of Father’s Day, NLSP held a workshop called “Fathers Have Rights, Too” at the Deanwood Public Library and Community Center. NLSP’s family lawyers gave free legal advice and information tofathers on child custody andvisitation and how to modify child support due to substantial and material changes in their lives. Though tailored for fathers, the program was also attended by women and grandparents. Importantly, the program did not shape family law issues as a battle between fathers versus mothers. Instead, the workshop aimed to inform fathers on how they can establish paternity and their parental rights, how to modify child support due to changes in their lives, and how jurisdiction works if the parents live in two different states. The program’s goal was to encourage fathers to be involved in their children’s lives, how to legally enforce parental rights, and ultimately, how to support their children. Empowering fathers helps to inform parents on how to achieve a working schedule and support plan that is in the best interest of the child. In this way, the community outreach workshops I helped coordinate allowed me to take a holistic approach to family law by not only assisting those who came into the office, but also providing information to the community at large about their rights.
My fellowship at NLSP was an invaluable experience. Thanks to the generous contributions of the Women’s Bar Association Foundation, my summer internship cultivated and accelerated my professional growth. The work environment at NLSP was casual, yet productive and always offered high quality legal services. Ms. Turner Roberts and Mr. López took on mentoring roles and were, and still are, invested in my professional development. I became a much more sharp, polished, knowledgeable and empathetic legal advocate for the underserved. More importantly, I was able to help low-income communities and families get the legal services they need without charge, and little by little, empower these communities out of the harsh cycle of poverty.