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Fighting for Families

June 27, 2022

Equal Justice Works Fellow Marissa Schwartz L’22 will advocate for survivors of domestic violence in Philadelphia.

Marissa Schwartz L’22 came to law school to advocate for families. After spending three years immersed in the work, Schwartz is one of two University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School graduates preparing to embark on an Equal Justice Works Fellowship dedicated to representing survivors of domestic violence.

At her Fellowship, which is sponsored by Blank Rome, LLP and PNC Bank, Schwartz will work alongside attorneys at Philadelphia Legal Assistance (PLA) to assist families that have been affected by domestic violence in navigating issues related to child custody and the child welfare system.

“One of my goals, either indirectly or directly, will be building relationships, both with community organizations who are already working with these populations and the legal stakeholders, like judges and other people in the courthouse, who see these parents every day but may or may not really understand what domestic abuse can look like,” Schwartz said. “Though it often is physical or mental violence or manipulation of a parent in their home, it can also be wielding these systems to control families and separate parents from their children, when they are loving parents who should be with their children and who are trying to protect them.”

Developing Advocacy Skills

Schwartz began to develop her skills as a family law advocate in her 1L year, when she volunteered to provide pro bono legal services through the Custody and Support Assistance Clinic (CASAC). Through CASAC, not only did Schwartz gain valuable experience working directly with clients and assisting them through child custody proceedings, but she also made valuable connections with the attorneys in PLA, out of which CASAC operates.

“Meeting with clients who are parents and often survivors of domestic violence helped me to get an understanding of what parents go through on a regular basis in Philadelphia,” Schwartz said. “When I joined CASAC, I started to build my relationship with them and with my supervising attorneys. The incoming CASAC supervisor my 1L year will be my Fellowship project supervisor, so it really was a fortuitous meeting. She has been so supportive; I’ve learned a lot from her, and I’m very grateful for that opportunity and for that connection.”

In addition to working with CASAC, Schwartz also pursued both classroom and experiential learning opportunities that centered family advocacy. Schwartz is an alum of both the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic and the Transnational Legal Clinic, where she gained practical experience representing parents in family court. During her 2L summer, she interned with Community Legal Services, working in both the Health and Independence Unit and the Family Advocacy unit. There, she expanded her knowledge of the breadth of intersecting issues that can arise within child custody proceedings.

Moreover, Schwartz credits George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights Dorothy Roberts’s “Reproductive Rights and Justice” course with opening her eyes to the significant roles that race and class can play within family regulation systems. Schwartz underscored the importance of recognizing both the micro-level effect that family law has on individuals and the broader, systemic implications family law has on communities, particularly communities of color, who are disproportionately affected by the child welfare system.

“I bring some knowledge from my personal experience, but I certainly recognize that I, as a white woman, am not and was never in the position of parents who face multiple barriers of racism, classism, and education level differences,” Schwartz said. “Having come to law school and having learned about these institutional levels of injustice, I want to use my privilege, my legal education, and my power in the courtroom to listen to the parents and get their goals met. I recognize that this is a great responsibility, and I will take that seriously, as part of my work.”

Designing an Impactful Project

Schwartz designed her EJW Fellowship to fill a specific need recognized by PLA attorneys: advocacy on behalf of domestic violence survivors whose abusers have sought to use child welfare and child custody proceedings against them, as a manner of abuse and control.

“Abusers can often use child welfare reports and claims of child abuse to re-victimize their partners. They can use that as a form of control, abuse, and power over their partners,” Schwartz explained. “Also, if the child is either being subjected to domestic abuse at the hands of the one parent, or if the child is present when one parent is abusing the other parent, the survivor of domestic abuse can actually be held to be abusing or neglecting their child, which ends up furthering the cycle of abuse and victimization.”

To help mitigate this issue and advocate on behalf of parents who have experienced domestic abuse, Schwartz’s Fellowship involves a mix of both direct service and strategic education.

First, Schwartz will spend a portion of her time at the Family Court Help Center providing legal assistance on a walk-in basis to parents involved in legal proceedings at the court. In addition to answering questions and providing information on an ad-hoc basis, Schwartz will also be taking on some of those parents as clients and representing them in their child custody proceedings.

“When I represent parents in court, I will be able to shed light and really advocate on the issues related to their experiences in child welfare court and explain to judges, in a trauma-informed and systems-informed way, how an abuser uses the child welfare system and the custody system to maintain power and control over the other parent,” Schwartz said.

As an additional attorney in the space, Schwartz noted that she is excited to build on the important work already being done at the Family Court Help Center and hopes that her presence will help to expand access to justice for the many busy and low-income parents who have very limited time in their schedules to come to family court and take care of matters in which their families are involved. Her caseload will also be comprised of referrals from other legal and community organizations and PLA’s intake line.

“Marissa’s Fellowship is an amazing opportunity to expand our services to families who will greatly benefit from representation,” said Leslie Allen, Supervising Attorney in PLA’s Family Law Unit. “Marissa has spent her law school career devoted to helping families, and we could not be more happy to welcome her as an attorney.”

Schwartz will also develop informative materials that serve to educate attorneys, community members, and judges about the intersections of domestic abuse, the child welfare system, and family law.

“I’m excited to develop materials to help parents in the community who are survivors of domestic violence and have prior involvement in the child welfare system to understand how that impacts their child custody case,” Schwartz said. “I’m also excited to plan events with community partners to meet parents in their neighborhoods to talk about these issues.”

As she prepares to embark on this Fellowship, Schwartz reflected on the many people within and surrounding Penn’s community who supported her along her journey.

“I wouldn’t have been able to do this without the support of my mentors in the clinics, my supervisors at PLA who supported me and agreed to do this project, the upperclassmen and alumni who spent their time giving me advice and helping me prepare for interviews, the faculty and staff at Penn, and my family,” Schwartz said. “I have so much gratitude for everyone who has helped me to prepare for this and learn and get here. It was definitely an effort of many, many people.”

Read more about Fellowship opportunities for law students.