Transforming Family Law

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of the School of Law's LAWYER magazine.

Unprecedented $5 million gift to help domestic violence survivors, train family law lawyers

Beginning this fall, Associate Professor Deirdre M. Bowen will hold the inaugural title of Moccasin Lake Foundation Endowed Chair in Family Law at Seattle University School of Law. This endowed chair appointment recognizes Bowen for her expertise in family law, her innovative approaches to helping domestic violence survivors navigate the legal system, and her dedication to educating and inspiring the next generation of family law attorneys. It is funded through the generosity of the Moccasin Lake Foundation.

“Our foundation has long sought to support those who protect the vulnerable and fight for the rights and safety of women and children,” Treasurer Lisa Anderson said of the gift to Seattle U Law. “Providing legal aid and support to survivors of domestic violence has been an underfunded and overlooked area in Washington state, and I am so grateful that this will begin to change.”

The foundation’s $5 million gift is a first step toward developing an innovative and multidisciplinary Family Law Center housed within the law school. The center will offer a variety of legal and non-legal services to survivors and their families, educate students, collaborate with stakeholders in cutting-edge holistic training, and contribute to policy research aimed at eliminating the cycle of violence that harms our communities.

“Our goal is to transform the way domestic violence and related legal issues are addressed in our state,” Bowen said. “We’ll create a hub of knowledge, resources, and collaboration with the community.”

Annual distributions from this endowment support the development and expansion of experiential courses. This curriculum will deliver immersive training for law students to become expert domestic violence advocates and family law practitioners while simultaneously providing increased legal aid access for survivors in underserved communities across the state. The gift allows for a multitude of opportunities for students from a variety of disciplines to engage with each other in offering wraparound services to families through a social justice lens.

The practice of family law is growing significantly, driven by client demand. However, most counties in Washington suffer from a significant shortage of family law attorneys. The endowment will provide scholarships and post-graduate fellowships for law students who have demonstrated a dedicated interest in domestic violence advocacy and family law to help encourage this professional pathway and fill this need.


Evolution of the Center

Bowen’s path to this point began two years ago when stay-at-home orders during the early days of the pandemic exacerbated the rates of domestic violence. Enlisting assistance from Seattle U Law alumni and students, she launched a pop-up Domestic Violence Protection Order (DVPO) clinic to help survivors complete a DVPO petition, the legal document needed to request a protection order from the court.

As with most legal documents, the process can be overwhelming. Often, survivors have no legal representation and do not grasp the legal significance of what must be included in the petition in order for the court to grant the protection order. Students review the petitions for accuracy, and with the assistance of on-call attorneys, many of whom are alumni, provide guidance in how best to answer the questions adequately.

“This clinic was initially intended to be a temporary effort, but over time, it has really blossomed into a vision for the future of family law practice,” Bowen said. “We recognized that the clinic meets a need that is enormous and continues to grow, but what became apparent very quickly was that this effort was only going to help these individuals for a few weeks due to the time-limited nature of DVPOs.”

Bowen explained that the first order is only temporary. It lasts two weeks and then survivors need further help at their follow-up hearing. 

“In addition, we found that survivors often need assistance with an average of six additional legal issues,” she said. “Because there is so much more that needs to be done, we have to create a comprehensive approach.”

While the clinic served as a proof of concept for Bowen’s vision, and the direct benefit to students helped Seattle U Law gain recognition as one of the top law schools for family law by National Jurist magazine.

The importance of experiential learning is evident in the experience of Raquel Enriquez ’21, who started volunteering in her second year of law school. The experience transformed her, as well as the survivors she assisted.

“It was amazing to work directly with clients because many of them didn’t have the resources to hire their own attorneys to help them with what can be an intimidating and complicated process,” she said.


Hundreds of survivors helped

To date, Enriquez and her fellow Seattle U Law students and alumni have helped more than 500 survivors, most of whom are from underrepresented communities.

Enriquez, who is bilingual, remembers helping one client in particular, a mother who spoke only Spanish and was terrified that her abuser – the father of her two daughters – would discover that she had reported him and seek retribution. “When we were finally ready to file with the court, I remember her thanking me, saying she didn’t know if she could have done this without somebody who was able to understand her dire situation,” she said.

Enriquez’s service in the clinic and the courses she took motivated her to pursue a practice in family law. It’s this model – helping clients in need right now while training and inspiring students to become family law lawyers – that Bowen will get to replicate on a much larger scale thanks to Moccasin Lake Foundation’s investment.

Other donor funds enabled Bowen to launch family law and domestic violence practicums where law students represent clients beyond the temporary protection order under attorney supervision. Having a legal advocate available exponentially increases the rate of success for petitions to become permanent and for survivors to remain safe.

Alumni Jody Cloutier ’14 and Javier Ortiz ’16 co-teach these practicums, introducing specific legal concepts and skills via hypothetical cases. Then, using a tutorial model, students meet weekly with a volunteer supervising attorney to work on actual cases, immediately putting the material they have learned into practice. The goal is to mimic a residency program in medical education, providing intense mentorship and building relationships that will last well beyond law school.

“These have been the best, most educational classes I’ve taken in law school,” said third-year part-time law student Heather Shutter.  


Outreach to clients

The Seattle-based nonprofit, Reclaiming Our Greatness, founded by alumna Marshaun Barber ’13, provides a whole-person approach to empowering communities of color with culturally appropriate social services. The nonprofit works in partnership with the law school in referring cases for the practicums.

Clients need assistance with a variety of family law issues, including domestic violence, divorces, parenting plans, and more. “Our clients are so grateful to have the ability to talk with Seattle U Law students and have access to attorneys. The students have been phenomenal, compassionate, and caring advocates,” Barber said.

Domestic violence is a problem of immense proportions, and especially affects women, low-income people, and Black and Indigenous communities. When survivors leave their abusers, they face extraordinary risks. Forty-five percent of domestic violence homicides occur within 90 days of a recent separation and 75 percent occur within six months; a firearm is used in over half of intimate partner homicides. For children, exposure to domestic violence has lifelong consequences.

Bowen is determined to expand the DVPO clinic’s reach to serve communities known as “legal deserts” because so few attorneys practice there. Students will staff a hotline so survivors can get help immediately in filing petitions or accessing referrals to wraparound services such as housing and mental health counseling.

The implementation of the Protection Order Reform Bill (HB 1320) in Washington, requiring hearings over Zoom or the telephone, allows law students to provide family law services remotely. This expansive technological approach to legal service delivery is a game changer.

Enriquez has witnessed firsthand the shortage of family law attorneys. “Many times, people who need legal help in my area need to go to King or Whatcom counties. They have to miss a day of work, arrange travel, or get childcare. They really need access to local attorneys,” she said.


Equal access to justice

“Every person in our state deserves access to legal representation, regardless of where they live or how much or how little money they have. We believe we have a formula that will create oases out of these legal deserts,” Bowen said.

Seattle U Law envisions enrolling students from these regions, training them in family and domestic violence law, and helping them set up a law practice or find positions in their home communities. A complement to this approach is Seattle U Law’s new hybrid Flex JD Program, which enables students who live in rural parts of the state to earn a law degree mostly online.

In line with the Jesuit concept of caring for the whole person, Bowen aims to develop collaborative interdisciplinary partnerships with colleagues and students in the Schools of Social Work and Nursing, to support survivors and their families as they navigate a post-DV life. The Family Law Center will also develop educational campaigns to increase awareness of domestic violence and ways to get help, research on violence prevention, support programs for survivor trauma, and increased access to justice innovations.

The vision for the Family Law Center at Seattle University Law School is to improve the lives of domestic violence survivors and to prevent violence from occurring at all. The center will expand to include education on U-visas for international victims, parentage and state intervention, advanced tribal and international jurisdictional family law issues, post-incarceration family reunification, adoption and foster care advocacy, surrogacy and fertility justice, and Emergency Risk Protection Orders.

For the law school, this lead donation from the Moccasin Lake Foundation represents a watershed moment. “This is the largest single gift in the law school’s history and will have a transformative impact on our family law curriculum, making us the national leader in this area,” said Dean Emerita Annette E. Clark ’89. “More importantly, it allows us to put into practice our social justice mission of helping others.”