Breaking the cycle: Harvard Legal Aid Bureau helps client overcome domestic violence
Post Date: February 2007
Ernestine carrasquillo had just graduated from high school in New Mexico and was on vacation in Boston when she met the man she would marry. "I was a naive 18-year-old country girl," she remembers. "I was swept off my feet." She was married within three months. Around the first anniversary of her marriage, a few months after the birth of their first child, Carrasquillo says, her husband hit her for the first time.
What ensued was a cycle of physical and emotional abuse that lasted more than 13 years through numerous separations and reconciliations. Carrasquillo says that her husband, a deputy sheriff, often threatened to use his law enforcement position to prevent her from divorcing him.
Twice Carrasquillo sought legal help, but she withdrew her complaints both times. "He had put me down so often, telling me that I was crazy," she says. "After a while I began to believe him." The third time she went for help, she was told that Greater Boston Legal Services could not represent her -- their caseload was full, and she had already dropped divorce proceedings twice before. She was put on a waiting list.
Then, just as she was about to give up, Carrasquillo got a phone call that changed her life. Lisa Burnett, a 2L at Harvard Law School, would be representing her in her divorce proceeding. The Women's Bar Foundation had referred Carrasquillo's case to the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, where Burnett does clinical work.
For Burnett, who was assigned to the case on her first day at the bureau and had never studied divorce or family law, the experience was nerve-racking at times. "A lot of this is 'learn by doing,'" she admits. "It makes you learn very fast." With help from a supervising attorney, Burnett worked long hours to prepare for her first time in court, a contested hearing on a motion for temporary orders on alimony, child support and custody. The experience in the courtroom was invaluable, Burnett says. She learned what to expect from a judge and how to negotiate with opposing counsel. "That's something you just can't get in the classroom," she says.
But to Carrasquillo, Burnett's time in the courtroom meant even more. Though negotiations continue and the divorce has not been finalized, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau has helped Carrasquillo win temporary custody of her two children, as well as child support and alimony. Beyond that, Carrasquillo says, she is regaining her sense of self-worth: "Sometimes I even still say, 'Wow - am I really doing this?' But I’m amazed. I'm so proud of myself."
In October, Carrasquillo was invited to speak at the Women's Bar Foundation annual gala about her experience as a survivor of domestic violence. After relating her own story, she emphasized the importance of giving abused women more than one chance to seek legal aid. "It may take many attempts," she says. "But most of us will break free and be survivors instead of victims."
By Mariah Robbins