Jumping Through Hoops: Student Attorneys Speak On the Experience of Domestic Violence Survivors Seeking Relief

Stephanie Kocubinski and Melissa Light are 3L Student Attorneys in AUWCL’s Domestic Violence Clinic

We first met with our client, a survivor of domestic violence, at the Domestic Violence (“DV”) Intake Center at D.C. Superior Court. The system itself is not user-friendly for survivors. They often have to jump through hoops to receive relief after going through traumatic experiences. For instance, the survivor first tells her story to an intake counselor. Then, if she wishes, she meets with student attorneys, where she has to tell her entire story again. Part of the problem is that the intake center and the attorneys are decentralized, and each has its own privacy agreement with the client. If there were a way to merge the two client confidentiality agreements to allow the counselor and attorneys to share information, the client would have a smoother experience.

“They often have to jump through a lot of hoops to receive relief after going through traumatic experiences.”

Additionally, the divisions of the court that provide services to DV survivors spread over several blocks within Judiciary Square and not easily identifiable. One of our first assignments as student attorneys was to visit many of these locations so we could familiarize ourselves with the locations and services provided. It was very difficult to discern which unit was located where and it was taxing to walk from place to place as if we were on a scavenger hunt. A DV survivor has already suffered a traumatic event, and having to trek from office to office compounds the stress of navigating the system. A DV survivor would be better served if she could inquire and receive services within the same building.

“…the DV Intake Center should be a source of comfort. Instead, in this instance, the lack of complete information served as a source of frustration.”

Next, the DV counselors at the Intake Center seem accustomed to clients who have experienced abuse and counseling in the past. As a result, counselors may assume that clients are aware of the overall process and not convey information with the necessary level of detail. Our client commented to us that she felt that the counselor treated her as though she had experienced counseling in the past, which was not the case. As a result, our client felt that she did not receive the level of information needed to make an informed decision on different housing opportunities. At the end of the day, we circled back to the counselor so that our client could receive counseling on her remaining unanswered questions. Because it was later in the day by that point, the options that would have been available to our client in the morning no longer existed. This meant that she had to figure out her own housing at 5:00 p.m. for the next three days.

DV is traumatic, and the DV Intake Center should be a source of comfort. Instead, for our client, the lack of complete information served as a source of frustration. Additionally, the counselor’s presumptions about our client made her feel stereotyped and marginalized. To make matters worse, after securing housing from one of the community charities associated with the DV Intake Center, our client found the conditions of the housing to be unsanitary. This is because the housing is recycled on a short-term basis and many individuals cycle through a particular housing unit.

We also observed the way the front desk staff interacted with DV survivors seeking help. Often, survivors are vulnerable and afraid, and this is their first outreach for assistance. Our impression of those at the front desk who were accepting Civil Protection Order (CPO) filing paperwork was that they were laconic in their interactions with clients, using a cold tone instead of projecting warmth and empathy.

“…the preventable difficulties our client experienced in making even small steps towards leaving and heightened the trauma she was already experiencing and made the task of escaping abuse even more daunting.”

In our opinion, these issues are with the DV court system, and the DV court system could ameliorate them if the institution were willing to do so. Like many DV survivors, our client came to us from a volatile situation and one from where she kept returning. While her strong emotional ties to her abuser certainly complicated her ability to follow through with her choice to seek a CPO against him, the preventable difficulties our client experienced in making even small steps towards leaving and heightened the trauma she was already experiencing and made the task of escaping abuse even more daunting.

About the Authors:

Melissa Light is a 3L Student Attorney in the Domestic Violence Clinic at American University, Washington College of Law.

Stephanie Kocubinski is a 3L Student Attorney in the Domestic Violence Clinic at American University, Washington College of Law.

Students Testify About Notario Fraud

On October 17, Immigrant Justice Clinic student attorneys Rafael Hernandez and Jeannesis Rodriguez testified before the Judiciary Committee of the D.C. Council in support of the Immigration Services Protection Act of 2016 (ISPA), which aims to prevent notario fraud in the District. Notario fraud occurs when incompetent individuals offer to assist immigrants in their immigration proceedings for a fee, but then fail to provide adequate representation, sometimes leading to loss of immigration status and deportation.  In their testimony, Hernandez and Rodriguez explained the pressing need for legislation to protect the immigrant population from fraud, and also offered several suggestions for improvement based on research into similar bills in other jurisdictions.

You can see the status of the ISPA here.

The Difference a Lawyer Makes

Clinic alumna Makia Weaver (Criminal Justice Clinic, Fall 2015) has had an amazing journey that demonstrates the difference a dedicated lawyer can make. With help from The Children’s Law Center, she went from the D.C. foster care system to the University of Virginia to AUWCL, and from here to a clerkship with D.C. Court of Appeals Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby. We are proud to be part of Makia’s story, and we know she will continue to do great things.

Preserving Community History – American Legion James Reese Europe Post No. 5

The James Reese Europe Post No. 5 of the American Legion met for the first time in 1919 in an empty freight rail car at the Washington Navy Yard to form one of the nation’s first African American veterans’ organizations. The post’s namesake, Lieutenant James Reese Europe, who grew up in Washington, D.C., was a jazz musician and director of the 369th U.S. Infantry Band. The 369th, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, was an African American regiment that served more combat time in WWI than any other unit. Ironically, at the time, it was difficult for African Americans to serve in the military because of racist assumptions about their fitness for duty. Europe and his regiment not only blew apart those stereotypes, but they also helped to spread American ragtime and jazz music all over the world.

Upon their return from WWI, African American veterans were excluded from traditional veteran support organizations, which led to the creation of Post No. 5. The post has been located at 2027 N. Capitol St. NW since 1954. In its 95 years in the community, it has provided support for generations of veterans and their families and served the community through youth programs, service projects, and events to bring people together.

Over the past several years, the AUWCL Community and Economic Development Law Clinic has been working with Post No. 5 to preserve and find a location to house its rich archive of historical documents, pictures, and artifacts. In collaboration with AU School of Communications Professor Angie Chuang and Prologue DC, who have worked on aspects of the research and archiving process, the CEDLC hopes to help Post No. 5 determine the next stage of its mission. CEDLC Professor Brenda Smith says, “I think the Post has a future that it can’t really see yet. I feel that the Post is going to be a place where people come to study the participation of African Americans in conflicts.”

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Everyone Starts Somewhere

Now that the first weeks of Clinic orientations, seminars, and simulation exercises are over, our students are happily (we hope) digging into their cases and learning about their clients. For some students, this can be overwhelming at first. Clients are not just names on paper; they are people who show up and expect you to help solve their problems. They are trusting you. No pressure at all!

Every lawyer has been there. We all have to start somewhere, and we are honored to provide a place for our students to begin transforming into the kinds of lawyers they want to be. By way of reassurance, and after some cajoling, we present photographic evidence from some of our clinical faculty, so that you can see that they were just like you once. They learned their professional style, and so will you.

For Professor Anita Sinha, who directs our International Human Rights Law Clinic, her start was with a Skadden Fellowship with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle in the fall of 2001, not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She remembers, “I was at a conference with my then supervisor and colleague outside Seattle, trying to make sense of what happened and figure out how I could execute my fellowship project in this completely changed environment. Hard to believe, but I didn’t figure it out – but I was grateful for that and other chances to step back, assess, and re-group.”


Professor Claire Donohue (Domestic Violence Clinic) was kind enough to offer an unflinchingly honest view of her law school experience.


“Writing my 2L book review”

“Graduating with a JD/MSW, with a clerkship and an offer from the public defenders”

“I referred to law school as “white collar vocational school” and counted the minutes until I was done. I had some wonderful teachers at Boston College and count many as my friends now, and I have lasting friendships with law school friends too; but the overall experience was not for me. I was so anxious to get out and be a real attorney. I never did clinic in law school, because my social work field placement hours gobbled up those credits. I figured legal practice was something separate from school. . . and I felt done with school before I even began.

“I seriously never would have guessed that one day I would be working in a law school, let alone gratuitously working with students on their comments and notes. My experience as clinical faculty allows me to connect practice to theory in ways I think I was craving in school. Writing is still challenging for me, but there is no more throw up face!”

Some of our faculty didn’t offer as much commentary about what they were thinking at the time, but we can all agree that they looked fantastic.

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Finally, in the process of obtaining the pictures above, we ran across our very favorite early-professional picture: Future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Can someone please get this woman a robe already?

We know that you’re all going to do great things, starting now.

How Clinic Builds Leaders

White House

Those who watched President Bill Clinton’s speech at the DNC last Tuesday in support of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s nomination as the Democratic candidate for the presidency might have noticed not just one, but two brief references to clinical legal education. Specifically, President Clinton noted that Secretary Clinton worked with a clinical project while a student at Yale Law School, and while teaching at the University of Arkansas School of Law, she started “the first legal aid clinic in northwest Arkansas, providing legal aid services to poor people who couldn’t pay for them.”

Regardless of whether one supports her candidacy, Secretary Clinton has proven herself as a leader throughout her career. This got the AUWCL faculty thinking about how clinical legal education promotes leadership qualities.

1. “Clinical education is like cross fit. You have to use different muscles and activities to achieve your goal. It means you are constantly doing balance checks and adjusting.  That kind of practice builds endurance, tenacity and capacity – skills you need to work for justice and to have a long career as a lawyer.”Professor Brenda V. Smith, Community & Economic Development Law Clinic.

2. “In clinic, we teach our students to see the world through the eyes of their clients and then to use that perspective to engage in zealous advocacy that not only accomplishes clients’ objectives, but also projects their clients’ authentic voices in spaces in which they often feel silenced. These are critical leadership skills.”Professor Llezlie Green Coleman, Civil Advocacy Clinic.

3. “Clinical legal pedagogy is about helping great people who want to do great things in the world overcome their fears.” Professor Anita Sinha, Immigrant Justice Clinic.

4. “Engaging in clinical work involves a transformative experience in the way we understand the contributing factors to inequality in society. That new perspective stays with students and professors throughout our professional careers, influencing our decisions and actions regardless of the paths we take.”Professor Andrea Parra, Immigrant Justice Clinic.

5. “Clinic produces great leaders because we give students space to ask, ‘Why? Why the injustice? Why the suffering? And why not? Why not advocate in this way? Why not push back? Why not take a second or closer look?’ We don’t just stop at asking those questions. Then we say, okay do something: act, move, go.”Professor Claire Donohue, Domestic Violence Clinic.

6. “Clinical teachers are reformers, concerned about injustice and focused on changing the institutions that contribute to it. They are advocates for the types of change that only the political system can accomplish.” Professor Elliott Milstein, Civil Advocacy Clinic

Are you an AUWCL Clinic alum? What do you think? If you think of ways your clinical experience shaped your career, please comment below.