CAMDEN — Thousands of New Jersey residents are affected by domestic violence every year. In many cases, escaping an abusive relationship requires social support and legal assistance.
Students at the Rutgers School of Law–Camden are answering the call for those services.
Through Rutgers–Camden’s Domestic Violence Project and Domestic Violence Clinic, law students are providing critical legal help to domestic violence victims in New Jersey.
The students assist more than 600 people per year through the combined services of the two programs by providing pro bono legal information and counsel at the Camden County Courthouse.
“I find it entirely gratifying to work with members of the South Jersey community,” says Logan Pettigrew, a third-year Rutgers–Camden law student originally from Tennessee and now living in Philadelphia. “Prior to the clinic, I had no exposure to these factual scenarios, and had never known anyone affected by domestic violence. Without the clinic, these clients, in most cases, would not be able to independently seek representation.”
Both the Domestic Violence Clinic, which students take for course credit, and the Domestic Violence Project, a volunteer program that does not award credit, give students the unique opportunity to receive hands on experience in domestic violence law.
In the clinic, third-year law students provide legal representation to domestic violence victims from South Jersey, most of them from Camden County. There are eight law students enrolled in the Domestic Violence Clinic at Rutgers–Camden this semester.
The students in the clinic counsel and interview victims, gather necessary documentation, and file amendments, all without cost to the client.
“The Domestic Violence Clinic is not only a needed resource for families experiencing domestic violence, but it is also a superior educational opportunity for law students,” says Victoria Chase, a clinical associate professor of law at Rutgers–Camden.
Clinic students say working with clients is the best way for law students to build trial advocacy skills.
The 15 students volunteering for the Domestic Violence Project this semester are working with the Domestic Violence Unit of the Camden County Family Court, where they assist victims of domestic violence in the process of completing complaints and obtaining temporary restraining orders.
“The Domestic Violence Project is vital because a majority of the people who come in for a restraining order rarely understand what it is they're asking for or what a judge is looking for to grant the order,” says John Shindle, a third-year Rutgers–Camden law student who is a student director for the project. “We provide the victims with information on temporary and final restraining orders and their options for going forward in court.”
The students volunteer at the Camden County Courthouse Mondays through Thursdays. In addition to meeting with plaintiffs, they hand out information handbooks that provide legal information about domestic violence.
“The handbook contains information about the cycle of violence, what to do before the hearing, how to amend a complaint, and appropriate conduct at a final restraining order hearing,” says Milly Vazquez, a second-year law student from Haddonfield who helped translate the handbook into Spanish. “I'm really thankful to have the opportunity to help victims of domestic violence through my work with the project. I truly feel that I am making a difference.”
The students involved with the Domestic Violence Project also refer plaintiffs to the Domestic Violence Clinic and South Jersey Legal Services for free legal representation.
“I think it's important to both recognize that the community which we live in has residents who can greatly benefit from our help and that domestic violence isn’t a problem that is confined to any particular community,” says Kathleen Kelliher, a second-year law student from Princeton now living in Camden.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, one in four women will be a victim of domestic violence at some point in her lifetime and 15 percent of domestic violence victims are men.
“Our goal is to do what we can to help plaintiffs be prepared. It’s about being emotionally prepared as well as legally prepared,” says Anne Mallgrave, the director of the Domestic Violence Project at Rutgers–Camden and an adjunct clinical professor of law.
The Domestic Violence Project started at the Rutgers School of Law–Camden in 1995 and the Domestic Violence Clinic was launched in 2002.
“The opportunity to speak with the victims and hear first-hand how severe their struggle can be has really opened my eyes,” says Jeff Kasten, a second-year law student from Collingswood. “There is always the chance that our volunteer work may help a young man or woman get the court’s protection against what could be a very real threat on that person's life, and that is why the Domestic Violence project means so much to me.”
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