Photo by John Meiu
Members of the Family Law Assistance Project: (l-r) Bill Knight, Paula Zimmer, Karen Staszel, Shelley Hibburt-Gomulinski, Delia Miller, Jena Santa Maria, Nina Prashad, Ashley Lowe, Marie Wolfe, Catherine McGee, Matt Andres, Echo Kiser, Dana Demey, and ReAnn Gorton.
Local legal aid group receives annual award
By Debra Talcott
Earlier this month members of the Family Law Assistance Project (FLAP) were honored as recipients of the 2012 Oakland County Domestic Violence Prevention Award.
Nominated by Richelle Duane, civil advocacy supervisor of HAVEN, the staff of FLAP was recognized for its standard of excellence and compassionate service to the citizens of Oakland County. A ceremony was held in the Oakland County Board of Commissioners Auditorium to honor the volunteers and to memorialize those victims who have lost their lives in the past year at the hands of their abusers.
FLAP was formed in August 2006 after the former provider of family law legal services, the Women’s Survival Center, unexpectedly closed its doors. The Oakland County Bar Association then reached out to Cooley Law School for help, and under the direction of Professor Ashley Lowe, Cooley formed a partnership with Lakeshore Legal Aid to start the new organization.
“At that time, I was developing clinical programs at the Auburn Hills campus and working with the Women’s Survival Center as an externship placement for Cooley students,” says Lowe, who previously had given up her practice with Dickinson Wright to advocate for survivors of domestic violence and others who cannot afford legal representation.
“Lakeshore Legal Aid is a legal services organization with significant expertise in handling domestic violence matters,” explains Lowe. “Together we formed FLAP to provide free legal services to low-income citizens of Oakland County with family law matters.”
Cooley Law School and Lakeshore Legal Aid share the costs of staffing FLAP. Positions include two staff attorneys, a pro bono coordinator, an office manager, student clerical workers, and Director Lowe.
“My responsibility is to teach the classroom component of the program, supervise the legal office, supervise the legal work of the students and staff, and help with fundraising,” says Lowe.
Lowe takes pride in explaining that FLAP gives priority for direct representation to survivors of domestic violence.
“The students and staff at FLAP work tirelessly to help ensure that survivors of domestic violence have the protection of the courts and the necessary resources to start a new chapter in their lives without violence. The work is not easy, because our clients’ lives have not been easy, but it’s our job to set the stage for a better future,” says Lowe.
Clients access FLAP’s services by attending one of the walk-in clinics held every other week at the Oakland County Law Library, which is located in the Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac. Clients who qualify as low-income and low-asset, as defined by the Federal Poverty Guidelines, and who reside in Oakland County or have a family law matter in Oakland County, are eligible for services.
“When the client arrives, FLAP does a conflict check and eligibility determination. If there is no conflict and the client is eligible, she or he completes a questionnaire then meets with an attorney. That attorney might be a staff attorney, a volunteer attorney, or a student attorney under my supervision,” explains Lowe.
During the private meeting, the attorney confirms the client’s eligibility, gathers background information, provides legal advice and referrals, and provides the forms and assistance so that the client is prepared to represent herself or himself. Following the intake clinic session, FLAP staff and students meet to decide whether FLAP will be able to provide additional services to the clients from that session. Upon acceptance for direct representation, each client is assigned to either a pro bono attorney or a law student supervised by a staff attorney.
“Besides providing direct representation to survivors of domestic violence, FLAP serves people being denied access to their children, and anyone who would be denied access to the court system for any reason, such as language barriers, literacy, and physical or mental health barriers,” says Lowe.
Cooley Law School students who join FLAP must commit to two consecutive law school terms. Since Cooley offers a year-round program, FLAP enjoys student participation for all but a few weeks during the break in any term. Students begin the term by attending a two-day clinic orientation, and they receive additional instruction in a class that meets weekly for three hours. Each Cooley student is responsible for 7 to 10 cases that are completed under the supervision of an attorney.
Current third year student Jena Santa Maria works in the FLAP office every weekday, earning course credit for 20 hours a week and volunteering an additional 10 or more hours every week.
“The most gratifying part of working with FLAP is helping to make a difference in people’s lives,” says Santa Maria. “By representing domestic violence victims, we are able to assist them not only in court, but in regaining control of their lives. Volunteering at FLAP has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”
Former student Karan Nayee recalls fondly his involvement in FLAP during his final year of law school in 2009.
“It was an honor to have been a part of FLAP during my time at Cooley Law, and I cannot think of a more deserving program or one that makes a bigger impact on the surrounding community. Their contribution to the often overlooked and stigmatized area of domestic violence is truly invaluable. By way of example, Professor Lowe and her dedicated staff taught me and my peers the true meaning of selfless public service, which chipped away at the public’s common stereotypes of attorneys. That lesson showed us the importance of not only using our acquired legal skills to advocate a position, but for the more human side of compassion and one’s personal obligation to society.”
Now in his third year of law practice in Tampa, Nayee speaks of his interaction with the clients he served and the merits of the program.
“When they came to us, they were often alone, helpless, abused, depleted, and defeated. FLAP gave them not only the opportunity to exercise their legal rights, but it respectfully reinstated their dignity then kept that dignity intact. For me, being a part of that process was not only gratifying, but humbling. It was the simple notion of knowing that I was part of a team that made a slight difference in the life course of a person — something that transformed them from being a victim to a survivor, from hopeless to hopeful, from a self-perceived nothing to a meaningful something. That is what FLAP does.”
Former student Coryelle Christie, now a research attorney at the Michigan Court of Appeals, wholeheartedly concurs.
“I’ve done quite a bit of community service in the area of domestic violence, and I have never felt more influential and effective than when I worked for FLAP. This organization is critical to the community; without FLAP, survivors of domestic violence that try to battle the complicated legal system would have no help, and they could end up losing their children, their homes, or their income.”
For the Cooley students involved in FLAP, high-profile celebrity cases are not necessary for understanding that domestic violence is pervasive in our society or that their hard work and compassion can be transformative in the lives of others.
“Our students work far more hours than they are required to work, often at the expense of other school work, family, and friends,” says Lowe. “They do it because it makes a difference and because they care about our clients. They learn to be excellent attorneys and will go on to improve the practice of law and the services available to survivors of domestic violence.”