From one of our AWESOME interns, Lauren Restrepo!
It’s hard to give advice on working with domestic violence victims, mostly because they come in all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life. For instance, my current client has been extremely helpful in organizing her U visa application, emailing whenever she has questions and being very proactive in getting all the documents we need. But there are several other clients whose applications I have worked on who have been very shy and less able to take such an active role. In many ways, that can be the hardest part of working in this field, you can never learn the one “right” way to interact with victims of domestic violence. All you can do is be open and take each case as it comes. That being said, there are a couple overall handy tips that I’ve learned since working with Lauren Burke, my supervisor at New York Asian Women’s Center and Atlas: DIY.
The most important thing I have learned is that you need to figure out when to push your client to answer questions and when to just go slowly, let her speak at her own pace, and acknowledge that it will take several meetings before we are finally ready to move forward. This second part can be very difficult, especially because as a lawyer, usually you are meeting with clients to help them prepare some kind of application or legal document that they need in order to stay in the country, or become eligible for benefits, or simply be able to get legal employment. For these reasons I think the tendency is to want to get as much done, as quickly as possible. I remember that at some of my first meetings with clients I wanted to stay at it until we had every bit of information we needed from our client and was frustrated when Lauren would end our meetings after an hour. However, I know now that setting those kinds of time limits is not only necessary for the client but is also essential for our own sanity. As helpful as it can be to let domestic violence victims talk at their own pace and share all of their experiences, if we allowed meetings to go on forever we would never be able to get work done during the day. Additionally, it can unfortunately give our clients the impression that everything can get done and resolved very quickly, which, sadly, is far from the reality. Setting time limits allows not only we the attorneys time to sort through paperwork, write affidavits, and meet with other clients, but it also gives our clients the space to reflect on their story, gather any missing documents we may need, and reinforces their understanding that the legal journey towards accomplishing their goals will take time.
The second piece of advice I can give may seem corny and/or obvious at first, but once you start working with victims of domestic violence, you will learn how hard it can be. That advice is to be positive and be persistent. The legal process, unfortunately (though not surprisingly), can often be absurdly long and tiresome. At some point both you and your client will want to give up, convinced that whatever you have been working for will never happen. Right now, many government processing centers are over a year behind in reviewing applications. On top of that it can sometimes take months (or years!) to get certifications from law enforcement, proving that your clients are eligible for the visas they need. Those kinds of lags are absurd and completely unacceptable. As much as you might want to share your frustration with your client, doing so can sometimes just reinforce in their minds that the system will never work for them. This is the very last thing you want them to feel. Domestic violence victims who are working so hard to get their lives in order, reconnect with friends, and find a place to live where they can feel safe, need as much support and positive energy as possible. What we as legal interns/so-to-be legal advocates can do to support them is to constantly reinforce that we will do everything in our power to make sure their application is accepted, no matter how long it takes. Sometimes this might just mean setting up a time to meet to let them know the status of their case or even just responding to their emails quickly to let them know that you are still there. These kinds of acts might seem trivial but anything that we can do to keep up our clients’ hopes and give them some feeling of trust in a not-so-fair system will help ensure that they stick with it and don’t give up too soon.
I have only been interning at New York Asians Women’s Center and Atlas: DIY for a few months. While I have done domestic violence work before, none of my other experiences have given me the kind of one-on-one client contact that this internship has. I feel so lucky to have been given this opportunity. I know that I have a lot more to learn and am so excited to get started!