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.