Legal aid for at-risk women and children ensures a brighter future
Arizona attorney January Contreras remembers the day six years ago when a female custodian entered a family justice center where she served. The program had lost funding, and Contreras and her colleagues were packing boxes and getting ready to leave.
“A woman came in and she was in her janitorial uniform. She wanted help because she couldn’t handle the abuse in her home. I will never forget the anguish on her face when I had to tell her we couldn’t help her,” Contreras remembers.
Contreras referred the woman to programs in the community, but she knew she had to do more to empower women and children to have access to legal resources.
“I made a commitment to myself that I would keep making legal resources available. It could be the difference between harm and safety for women and for kids,” she says.
Four months later, Contreras launched Arizona Legal Women and Youth Services (ALWAYS), a nonprofit community legal center working to support women and children aged 24 and younger who have faced domestic violence, human trafficking, homelessness or foster care. Since then, the founding CEO and her team of volunteers and supporters have empowered women and children to achieve stability and independence by overcoming legal hurdles.
“We serve kids and young people who’ve been through unimaginable situations,” says Contreras, who served on the White House Council on Women and Girls under the Obama Administration. “When we have the opportunity to help people open doors for themselves, that’s what we’re proud of.”
Through partnerships with social services organizations such as UMOM New Day Centers, Phoenix Dream Center, Our Family Services, one.n.ten, Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development, and the Department of Child Safety, ALWAYS helps young women and children obtain housing, employment, education and legal immigration status.
“When you put together free legal services with supportive services in a wraparound way, it just multiplies the opportunities for success for those we serve,” says Contreras.
Access to legal counsel is a key component for at-risk women when it comes to seeking safety for themselves and for their children. A report from the Institute of Policy Integrity shows that access to legal services reduces domestic violence by up to 21 percent. Yet in Arizona, no-cost legal services for women and children are hard to come by. A study from the National Network to End Domestic Violence shows that legal counsel is the No. 2 unmet need in Arizona behind housing.
To ensure the safety of families, one of ALWAYS’ cornerstone programs, called Safe and Stable Families, helps women obtain orders of protection, navigate child custody issues and gain access to legal representation.
One ALWAYS client stands out in Contreras’ mind. Having endured ongoing spousal abuse, the young mother never called the police on her husband. After being alerted by neighbors, law enforcers came to her door and transported the woman and her children to the safety of a domestic violence shelter.
But leaving her abusive husband was just the start of the young mother’s journey toward a better life. Terrified and alone, she would now have to face the daunting process of proving that the abuse ever happened and secure protection for herself and her children. That’s when ALWAYS was able to help.
“We pulled the medical records from when he put her in the hospital, we pulled the police reports from when he had abused her, and we were able to share threatening text messages that she had gotten. We were able to give her the representation in court that she deserved and allowed her to get orders in place to protect her and her children,” says Contreras.
Two years later, the mother brought flowers to Contreras’ office when she got her first nursing certificate.
“She was smiling instead of crying,” remembers the lawyer. “When people like her come back and tell us I never would have been able to do this without your help, it’s really gratifying and it inspires us to keep going.”
For undocumented immigrant youth who are homeless or who are victims of trafficking or abuse, the road to self-sufficiency is all too often a dead end. One of the major obstacles encountered by young immigrants is a lack of legal resources. That’s why Contreras launched the Opportunities Through Immigration initiative at ALWAYS.
“We become their lawyers and we help them from day one to the day that they are given a green card or they are sworn in as U.S. citizens,” she says.
Other signature programs, including New Roads to Success and Justice for Survivors, enable trafficking survivors and homeless or abused youth to clear any misdemeanor criminal history, obtain identity documents and orders of protection, as well as gain access to legal representation.
“We’re always grateful to have outcomes that make a difference in people’s lives,” says Contreras. “Our clients have overcome enormous odds and are still trying to scratch their way to achieving their own dreams and it’s a real privilege for us to be able to help them do that.”
Story: Leigh Farr
Photo: Mark Lipczynski