In my first week serving as a court advocate, I began to get a sense of the extent to which rarely-discussed laws and hardly-known judges control countless lives. Presenting nearly identical cases to two separate judges, or to the same judge on different days, have yielded wildly different results. I am beginning to think that my role is more to support the client than it is to bring them success. I can explain how to fill out the protection request form, but I have very little power to influence the outcome. With some particularly flustered exceptions, most people would have the same result in court without my assistance.
Judges have to be cold enforcers of the law and also compassionate listeners who can protect a child’s best interests. Each judge has a unique personality. The judge who oversaw domestic violence court in my first full week as a court advocate—let’s call her Judge Ridgeport—considers herself to be the tough love grandmother of her community. She makes all of the men in court tuck-in their shirts, and has had people arrested for swearing in court. Judge Ridgeport told one family that it’s good to instill fear in one’s children. She feared her mother, and is proud to say that her children and grandchildren are afraid of her. Judge Ridgeport says that she needs to instill fear in the young men of her Black community because she “want[s] them to survive.” Judge Ridgeport considers her decisions to be matters of life and death.
After a week of observing Judge Ridgeport and speaking to more-experienced court advocates, I came to realize how much weight her own personal opinions carry in the court of law. Strengthening and solidifying families is one of her top priorities. Each time someone—no matter their age—filed a protective suit against a blood relative, Judge Ridgeport would give everyone a long talk about how they ought to behave. Even when a mentally disabled adult’s father kept holding him away from his mother and his medicine, the judge refused to grant a protective order on the adult’s behalf. Even when one woman’s mother and daughter damaged her property, tried to break into her home, and threatened to harm the woman, Judge Ridgeport refused to grant a protective order that would bring further division to the family. Where the law left room for judicial discretion, Judge Ridgeport took it.
I am beginning to think that my primary or secondary role as a non-lawyer court advocate is to provide emotional support. I have seen tension and tears of relief fall from people’s faces when they first feel they can trust the court advocates. I regularly see clients shaking as they fill out their forms and hear them hyperventilating in the elevators up to their courtroom. Because abusers are often very successful manipulators, the people in their lives often struggle to believe that they could possibly commit acts of violence. Thus, many victims anger their friends and family by seeking protection. But they don’t anger us. The biggest difference I can make is in assuring the clients that we are right there with them. Whenever they feel unsafe and whenever they have questions, they can come to us.
Being tasked with providing emotional support rather than having to fix clients’ problems can be liberating. It is scary to feel responsible for “saving” a woman who legitimately fears for her life. I am not and may never be ready for that type of responsibility. On the other hand, feeling powerless to remedy someone’s situation can be demoralizing. How well I can do that will help to give me a sense of how “heavy” my future career can sustainably be. If I can handle the emotional weight of working with people suffering greatly, working in child protection or the court system more broadly may be an option. If I take well to the emphasis on emotional support rather than “fixing” problems, then non-profit advocacy work may be right up my alley. But if not having the power to influence legal outcomes frustrates me, then working in policy or as a judge may be a better career choice for me. In these ways, my summer interning as a volunteer court advocate with the Durham Crisis Response Center will help me determine how to best pursue my purpose in the future.
David Frisch is a rising junior majoring in Political Science from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is one of seven 2018 Kenan Purpose Program Summer Fellows. David is fascinated by the ethics of law, especially as they intersect with family decisions. This summer, he will be working as a court advocate at the Durham Crisis Response Center in Durham, NC.