Story by: Beth Fitzpatrick
For victims of domestic violence, confronting their abusers in a courtroom often takes extraordinary courage. Too often, victims must go to court alone–without the benefit of qualified legal counsel—because they lack the financial resources to retain lawyers to help them seek safety, security and justice.
For the past several months, The Center for Family Justice has been helping victims access the legal protections they need and deserve through an innovative program which has enabled the Bridgeport-based nonprofit to provide a growing number of its clients with the free services of a new team of staff attorneys.
In just a few months, CFJ’s legal team has been able to provide hundreds of hours of free legal services to victims in need of restraining orders, divorces, support with child custody issues and other complex legal matters common in domestic violence dynamics.
“Imagine the terror of facing your abuser in court when you desperately need protection, but lack the skill or legal expertise to argue your case on your own,” said Debra A. Greenwood, President & CEO of The Center for Family Justice. “It is not only empowering for victims to be able to have attorneys at their side, but potentially life-saving for some of our clients who live in real fear of their abusers and need a strong, compassionate advocate.”
The recent hiring of these staff attorneys, Uswah A. Khan, J.D. of Trumbull and Jennifer Ferrante, J.D., was made possible with the support of two significant grant awards CFJ received last year.
Last spring, Impact Fairfield, a Greenwich-based philanthropic giving circle whose members include women from throughout Fairfield County, awarded a $100,000 two-year grant to CFJ. This grant allowed CFJ to hire Attorney Khan, an experienced family law practitioner, as its first staff attorney.
In Dec. 2019, The Hearst Foundation awarded CFJ $75,000 to support additional expansion of legal services. This generous grant made it possible for CFJ to promote Jennifer Ferrante, J.D., to the full-time role of staff attorney.
Attorney Ferrante continues her role as coordinator of CFJ’s Justice Legal Center, Connecticut’s first legal incubator.
Greenwood explained that for CFJ, the ability to offer victims free legal services is a game changer because so many victims cannot afford skilled counsel. This reality often forces victims to represent themselves in complex legal proceedings pitting them against people who may have already physically, emotionally and financially abused them and may also have the benefit of legal counsel.
The expansion of CFJ’s legal services program is also timely, as concern grows throughout the state and nation about the many challenges abuse victims face when engaged with the criminal and civil court systems. Reforms are being proposed in the next session of the Connecticut General Assembly to address some of the many hurdles victims face when they seek protections and justice from their abusers in court.
“Having staff attorneys is a significant first step in addressing some of these challenges and inequities,” says Greenwood. “We are proud and grateful to our benefactors to be able to offer our clients this vitally important and free on-site legal support.”
In just a few months CFJ’s program, which runs under the supervision of CFJ’s Director of Civil Legal & Court Advocacy Services Angela Schlingheyde, J.D., has made a noteworthy impact in the lives of some of its clients.
During the first six months Attorneys Khan and Ferrante were on CFJ’s staff, they received more than 69 client referrals and provided more than 450 hours of free legal service to domestic violence victims. In today’s market, that translates to more than $165,000 worth of free legal services to clients who could otherwise not have been able to afford the advice of a private attorney.
The cases they assisted on included those involving complex child custody matters involving violent abusers, violations of restraining orders and custody agreements, as well as interactions with law enforcement on behalf of her clients.
In a follow-up survey of CFJ’s Civil Legal clients, 80 percent reported feeling safer and 70 percent reported that they had more financial security because of their legal representation.
The addition of these staff attorneys is part of a more comprehensive program that works to as many of CFJ’s as possible with legal services. This includes its legal incubator, launched in 2017, which provides attorneys launching their private practices with on-site offices at CFJ in exchange for providing some reduced fee or Pro Bono legal services to its clients.
CFJ has also cultivated a network of local private practice attorneys willing to help some of its clients with their complex legal matters.