How I Can and Can’t Help

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; Portfolio; Bio

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.

Where the Rubber Hits the Road

Despite increasing polarization, American citizens and political figures almost unanimously agree that government ought to protect people from physical violence. Similarly, there is a near consensus that when government deals with families, it should put children’s needs first. For decades, the family law “best interests of the child” standard has demanded that judges settle custody disputes according to which guardian will best facilitate the “good” life for their child. Believing a connection to one’s parents to be critical, American judges very rarely terminate parental rights. Limiting violence and protecting children are consensus principles.

Politics takes place in the messy application of broad principles to specific situations. Children’s special needs yield tough decisions for courts. What we allow adults to do to themselves, we may forbid for children. While it may be reasonable to allow an eighteen-year old to decide for him or herself whether to smoke, attend formal schooling, or adhere to a given religion, we American law does not allow young children to do the same. Schools, protective services, and judges must determine whether parents’ refusal to vaccinate their kids, exterminate the rats in their house, or bar their previously-concussed children from playing football constitute a real harm to their children’s well-being. Safeguarding against physical harm and protecting children’s interests is philosophically complicated. Do courts do more harm allowing children to maintain contact with the father who abused their mother or by severing their ties with him? Family law puts philosophical principles to the test—it’s where the rubber hits the road.

Interning this summer as a court advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, I will be examining the consequences of the political philosophy I study. My work will be with the Durham Crisis Response Center, a local non-profit that offers court advocacy, a crisis phone line, counseling, an emergency shelter, and more. As an undergraduate, I read and write about government far more often than I participate in it. Guiding clients through the various components of pursuing a protection/restraining order—filling out paperwork, speaking several times before a judge, communicating the details of the warrant to police officers on scene—I will test the waters of the American legal system. I hope that this experience gives me the type of on-the-ground knowledge I could not get in a classroom.

I do have some prior experience here. During the past academic year, I have been working in a more limited capacity with the Durham Crisis Response Center. This summer, more than observing, I expect to be helping on the front lines.

Court advocates are like the E.R. doctors of family law. People in crisis situations seek immediate relief through a finite set of interactions with the crisis worker. These crisis workers often see people in their most terrified, hurt, and confused states. While most of my volunteering has involved sitting behind the advocates’ front office desk, I expect to be working directly with clients this summer. I expect this work to be emotionally taxing. Any reasonable listener is pained by stories of domestic violence and sexual assault, but I think I will be able to remain relatively level-headed. I hope that the strictly defined and limited nature of my role as a court advocate—rather than a long-term therapist or social worker—will allow me to focus on very specific tasks without becoming too invested in lives I cannot control.

My greatest concern about working as a court advocate is that I will feel stuck. Progress in building a better society motivates me, so I often think in terms of theory and policy. E.R. doctors and court advocates do not make progress. That a doctor successfully put stitches in a cook’s bleeding hand does nothing to reduce the number of future E.R. patients. Getting protection for one victim of abuse does little to reduce the number of victims nationally. Computer scientists aim to create technology that puts the programmers themselves out of business, but E.R. doctors and court advocates cannot put themselves out of business. This lack of progress concerns me. The head of the Durham court advocates works with police officers, non-profits, different courts, and a myriad of other community leaders to improve policy and reduce rates of domestic violence, but a regular court advocate does not. As a court advocate this summer, I aim to emphasize the little victories that can save a life and to see value in making tourniquets. Then, maybe in the future, I will be able to make real progress.

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.