Hendren’s desire to assist women who lose custody of their children because of incarceration has much to do with the lack of access to legal representation for mothers once they are released from prison. In private custody battles for their kids, these women frequently go against fathers with whom they have a history of abuse.
Hendren is also concerned with relatively recent—and well-intended—legislation that compels the state to begin a process to permanently terminate parental rights when a child becomes a dependent of the state for a year.
The law addresses the lifelong consequences for children who never progress from foster care to adoption. The same law, however, affects an increasing number of women in prison who lose their children even though these moms may have no history of abuse or neglect. Mothers who are African American, Latina and Native American are more likely to be impacted, Hendren notes, because of racial disparities in the state’s criminal and child welfare systems.
Ever since her high school years when she began working as a community organizer Hendren, a 2012 School of Law grad, saw a need to assist the vulnerable and marginalized. Her unwavering commitment to those with criminal histories spans housing, employment discrimination, immigration and family and domestic issues.
“I felt as though people in my life were rarely able to access an attorney when they needed one because there were not enough attorneys who provided free legal services to low-income and poor people,” she says.
In 2012, Hendren became the law school’s Leadership for Justice Fellow. SU is the only law school in Washington to offer a fellowship for a graduate to work with an organization on a specific social justice project for underserved or marginalized individuals or communities.
Of all the schools in the Northwest, Seattle University’s School of Law had the deepest commitment to social justice work, she says. She describes SU’s Access to Justice Institute as critical both to connect her to opportunities and to nurture her growth in social justice law.
Ada Shen-Jaffe, professor from practice in the School of Law, has been an active member of the equal justice community at the local, state and national levels for more than three decades. Hendren was among her students.
“Elizabeth came to the School of Law as a community organizer, already possessing a passionate drive to use her energy, education and talents in the service of justice for communities and individuals written off and made invisible in our society—incarcerated mothers,” says Shen-Jaffe.
Hendren interned with the domestic violence unit of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the family law and housing units of the Northwest Justice Project in Seattle, where she developed the Reentry Initiated through Services and Education (RISE) Project. With RISE, Hendren plans to build a state-wide network of family law, housing and public benefits’ support for formerly incarcerated mothers through strategic partnerships and greater community education.
Recent School of Law graduate Elizabeth Hendren is making a difference and providing a voice for formerly incarcerated mothers.