student headshots

Community Engagement & the Family Law Clinic

March 8, 2021

Students use community engagement opportunities to support parents involved in the child welfare system

Alexandria Brown, Digital Media Manager, sat down with 3Ls Ellie Pittman, Tori Pivirotto, and Carly Wright to discuss their work in the Jeanette Lipman Family Law Clinic. In this interview, transcribed below, the students explain how they focused on community engagement projects to support parents involved in the child welfare system.

Interview excerpted and edited for clarity and brevity.

Did you enroll at Richmond Law with an interest in family law?

Tori Pivirotto, L’21: It was always the plan to do everything that I could related to family law at this school.

Ellie Pittman, L’21: I came into law school knowing that I was interested, just not knowing exactly how it was going to pan out.

Carly Wright, L’21: I think I came in with an interest, and I think it's something that is really personal for a lot of people.

Can you tell me more about work you did as part of the Jeanette Lipman Family Law Clinic?

Ellie: We all had to do what were called Know Your Rights projects in the community. I spoke directly to social work students throughout Virginia about the child welfare system. They were all very, very receptive to my presentation. I was so happy, and it gave me a lot of hope for the support that's going to be provided to families in Virginia in the future.

Carly: Ellie and I did a joint one. The goal of our presentation was to educate these people on how using substances and being a parent creates a risk for you to be involved in the child welfare system. Another really big part of our presentation was changing the narrative. We may be the only actors in the legal system and the child welfare system who actually see these people as people, and not as a sum of whatever bad mistakes they have made previously.

Tori: I did something on shaken baby syndrome/abusive head trauma. I was working on a legislative piece which was discussing the legislation related to this issue, and why it was outdated. Then the other part of what I did was a video. It was mostly targeted towards social workers, but also just anyone who wanted to know more about it. 

What were some of the biggest takeaways and challenges? 

Ellie: One of the biggest takeaways I would talk about from the campaign that Carly and I did together, and I think she hit on it, they felt like we were the first group of people who were coming from a place of help, and a place of aid, and a place of knowledge to empower them. 

Carly: That's the whole point of the holistic defense is looking at these people as actual people. It's hard to get into a different mindset than one you've lived with all your life, and especially in the legal system, which is, I think, inherently very conservative. 

Tori: With my project, specifically, a lot of medicine has already completely debunked a lot of what I was talking about, but the legal system is about 15 years behind the medicine. There were still a lot of convictions happening under this, and there are still a few doctors who were espousing these outdated views, which broad evidence had disproven, but it was just an interesting dynamic to be a part of being such a minority in a widely accepted view.

How do you think your work with the clinic will impact how you practice law?

Ellie: I think Victoria's Know Your Rights presentation is so clear about that, there is literal medical evidence disproving a lot of our underlying theories. The reasons that we can continue to use these narratives is because the way that our system is set up is to rely on prior narrative, and prior findings that we can point to, and say, "Judge, this has always been accepted, and what's always been accepted is good." The clinic challenged that idea with the focus on holistic representation of finding ways, legally and otherwise, to challenge the underlying assumptions that we have, and finding new ways forward. It was one of the best experiences that I've had as a student of law at this point, learning that sometimes there's room for creativity, and changing the way that we think.

Carly: I also think it's made a difference of how I live my life, especially with the language that we use about people, and what we signal when we use certain words. A big one for me that I had never thought about [was] just talking about substance use, and saying, "Clean," like a drug test being clean, and what that implies about that person. That if it's not clean, then it's dirty. Just those types of words, and that language that we use, and how it matters.

Tori: One thing that all of us learned, I think, was we came into the clinic really with this child-centered mindset, and I think that one thing that we all learned through the clinic was shifting to a more parent-focused mindset. One thing the clinic taught me was to truly consider the wellbeing of children, you need to consider the wellbeing of parents. Things that we learned in the clinic are going to contribute to my advocacy in every way, just how the language that you use matters. And like what Ellie said, challenging precedent and tradition, and framing how you're representing a client around what inherent assumptions, like Carly said, and what bias am I bringing into this? I think that that is something that, no matter what I end up practicing, it's going to help me be a better advocate.