A Sit-Down with Margaret Duval, Executive Director of Ascend Justice
Ascend Justice works to empower individuals and families impacted by gender-based violence or the child welfare system to achieve safety and stability through holistic legal advocacy and system reform.
Reports say that COVID-19 lockdowns, combined with growing unemployment and financial stresses, have set the stage for a surge of family law and domestic violence issues. What are you seeing now at Ascend Justice?
We are seeing conflicting data right now. Local domestic violence hotlines and our partners at agencies who provide shelter and counseling have been reporting high – and in some cases, record – demand for services. At Ascend Justice, we are experiencing high demand for all of our services except our court-based Order of Protection work. While the demand for help with those petitions remained steady as we began providing remote assistance, we have not seen the surge that we would expect given the increase in crisis calls and demand for other services.
I’m concerned that the lengthy near-shutdown of our courts and the imperfectly coordinated court re-opening have created new barriers to justice that are incredibly difficult for unrepresented litigants to surmount.
In your family defense work (which IEJF funds), you provide legal assistance to parents and caregivers wrongly accused of abuse and neglect. What are some of the challenges these parents face that might bring them to the attention of DCFS and how do you help them navigate these hurdles?
As a parent, what often strikes me about these cases is how very ordinary many of the circumstances are: toddlers with unexplained bruises, medical conditions with multiple treatment options, split second decisions to leave the kids (safely) in the car while you pick up some milk.
However, the reality is that Black and brown parents’ lives are more heavily policed than other parents’, and those accidents, illnesses and decisions are way more likely to lead to child welfare system involvement and children needlessly removed from their homes. Poverty is another significant factor, with parents penalized because they do not have stable housing, access to childcare, or a full refrigerator. Finally, the child welfare system has historically struggled to support families experiencing domestic violence and the parent experiencing the violence is penalized, adding trauma upon trauma.
We represent parents at all stages of DCFS investigations and have a high success rate in ensuring there is no finding of abuse or neglect due to poverty, race or other stressors, or that previous wrongful findings of abuse or neglect are overturned. In talking to parents, I often hear about how our attorneys and staff helped restore their dignity and belief in themselves as parents.
COVID-19 is leading to a crisis in our court system. Are most cases being heard now – and how is the backlog being addressed?
On July 6, when the court started re-opening, it faced an enormous backlog of cases. It appears that there is huge variability among court divisions in Cook County and no doubt even more around the state. I believe that the court is making efforts to address the backlog with status dates, but there are a number of significant problems. First, many cases are being set months and months out. In our cases, these delays have real life consequences, as families are forced to endure situations that may not constitute a legal emergency but are nonetheless unsafe.
Additionally, setting a court date is not the same as providing access to the courts. Confusion over court dates, delayed and inaccurate notices are widespread. And just as putting a case on the calendar is not the same as access to justice, entering an order is meaningless if (in the case of Orders of Protection) it isn’t entered into the state police database, served on the Respondent or provided to the Petitioner.
It’s clear legal aid needs to be part of Illinois’ response to, and recovery from, the pandemic. What specific policies and reforms would you like to see implemented to ensure that more people have access to the justice system?
Here are some of the significant reforms necessary:
- Comprehensive investment in and overhaul of court (and clerk) technology. For instance, why do survivors of domestic violence have to spend the better part of a day at court to have a five minute ex parte hearing?
- The court needs to be accountable for communicating basic information to the public. For survivors who require emergency relief, it’s unacceptable to not be able to find daily filing deadlines for Emergency Orders of Protection.
- Ultimately, many of our challenges can be rooted in the conflict among the multiple entities (judges, clerks, court administration, law enforcement, etc.) that constitute what we refer to as “the court”. Admittedly, I’m not sure that there is an easy policy recommendation, but the current system undermines accountability, facilitates finger-pointing and leads to many reforms failing.
On a personal level, how are you and your family adjusting to this ‘new normal.’?
I am privileged and lucky to be able to do my job at home while my three children play and ride bikes, but boy, is it loud sometimes! I feel like the past few months have witnessed some of my proudest and most excruciating moments, both as a parent and as a professional. It’s stressful when my children loudly and insistently demand my attention in the middle of an urgent work issue, but there has been a sweetness to this summer and our unstructured, chaotic togetherness.