The School of Law’s oldest student clinic is marking three decades of important work—representing individuals in crisis, advocating for effective public policy, and working to prevent family violence in Western New York and beyond.
It was in 1992 that a domestic violence clinic was created at the law school by co-directors Suzanne Tomkins ’92 and Dr. Catherine Cerulli ’92, with critical guidance from the late Professor Isabel Marcus. Thirty years later, students and faculty in what is now known as the Family Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic continue to build on that groundbreaking initiative, which established the framework for many collaborations with the community.
The Clinic, now under the direction of Professor Judith Olin, has become one of the key players in a team of community partners working to reduce domestic violence and prepare student attorneys to become effective advocates for victims.
“Student attorneys help to plug the gap to provide civil legal services to otherwise unrepresented survivors of intimate partner violence,” says Olin. “Most of the Clinic’s clientele are single mothers, often working multiple jobs or who may be struggling to achieve autonomy and break free from the abusive relationship.
“From the get-go, student attorneys are trained in trauma-informed practices and are able to work with clients in a way that helps our clients achieve their goals. Students always go the extra mile for their clients, often arranging meetings during evenings and weekends to accommodate the client’s busy schedule.”
The Clinic also teaches student attorneys to make appropriate referrals, with the permission of the client, to family violence community providers to ensure that the client receives needed services. “Student attorneys are required to learn about Erie County’s unique community collaboration of domestic violence services so that they understand that it really “takes a village” to properly address and respond to family violence,” says Olin.
“Interpersonal relationships are among the most complex challenges facing us as human beings,” says Hon. Lisa Bloch Rodwin ’85, who prosecuted DV cases in the Erie County District Attorney’s Office before her appointment as a Family Court judge (now retired). “If you’re going to make those relationships safer and healthier, that is not something you can apply a band-aid to. There isn’t one person or one agency or even one system alone that can bring a metamorphosis to a community.
“The only way to approach increasing safety is through multiple access points: not just family court or the criminal courts, not just law enforcement, not just a shelter, not just a counselor, but many access points that someone could reach out to, to help keep their family safe.”
From the beginning, she says, the Clinic has led the way in building connections with those partners. It’s something that Mary Travers Murphy sees as well from her position as CEO of the Family Justice Center of Erie County, a one-stop resource for those seeking safety from violence in their homes.
Many of the Center’s clients need legal help. Sometimes that’s provided by Neighborhood Legal Services or the Erie County Bar Association’s Assigned Counsel Program. But, Murphy says, “sometimes a client makes a little too much money to be referred to those agencies but doesn’t have enough to pay an attorney. Clinic students can actually represent our clients in family court, and that has been a game-changer for us. Whenever we run into a legal problem with a client, we call them.”
That work often involves seeking orders of protection, but the cases run the gamut. “We have clients who have other legal issues that are nuanced and complex and sometimes dangerous,” Murphy says. “The students are as professional as can be, and their representation is downright phenomenal. The response from our clients is sheer joy and appreciation.”
Tiffany Pavone ’02 also recognizes the Clinic’s influence in her role as a leader in the Erie County Coalition Against Family Violence (ECCAFV), a consortium of providers that works to overcome barriers to effectively address family violence. Student attorneys regularly attend meetings of the ECCAFV to learn about the important work of community collaborators, and train community partners at the Coalition on important student-driven initiatives including the development of a domestic violence court watch and court safety program and advocating for survivors who find themselves in trouble with Child Protective Services.
“The Clinic has been a very active member of the Coalition and has never hesitated to take the lead in mobilizing and addressing issues that arise,” says Pavone, who serves as director of victim services and advocacy programs at Community Services for Every1, supporting survivors with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “In addition, in collaboration with attorneys at Neighborhood Legal Services, the Clinic’s student attorneys regularly train the advocates at Community Services for Every1 on how orders of protection work—empowering these non-lawyers to help their clients seek safety.”
As part of the School of Law, the Clinic also exists to prepare law students to become great attorneys.
“Within my first month as a prosecutor I was assigned multiple cases involving domestic violence, and almost immediately my nearly two years of work with the Family Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic became invaluable,” says Jonathan Francisco ’20, an assistant district attorney in Monroe County. Francisco was recently promoted to Rochester City Court.
“Due to my clinic experience, I was instantly able to use the communication and trauma-informed skills I learned to effectively speak with and guide abuse survivors through the criminal court process while simultaneously helping them fight for justice and break free from their abusers.”
“I wish this was something that existed when I was a student,” says Kelley Omel ’89, a former prosecutor at the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, who now serves as a clinical adjunct faculty member. “It's like practicing law with training wheels. In addition to the class component, students learn through experience." She says students also go out into the community to assist with the training of advocates and police officers and conduct sessions in local high schools on teen dating violence.
Francisco adds, “I cannot stress enough that it was thanks to my work with Professor Olin, my fellow student attorneys, and the incredible experience I gained in the FVWRC that I have been able to tackle a number of challenging, complicated cases with confidence, and in doing so do the best I can to achieve justice for survivors who have finally found the strength to take a stand against their abuser.”