At Domestic Violence Clinic, Team Effort Results in Much-needed Relief for Client

Domestic Violence Clinic founder and director Jeana Lungwitz; photo by Brian Birzer

For victims of domestic violence, one of the most effective legal remedies is a protective order. A recent case handled by Texas Law’s Domestic Violence Clinic enabled a woman and her children to obtain an unusual lifetime protective order thanks to the efforts of 3L Emily Ogden and Daniela Castro, a senior in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. The two students worked under the guidance of Jeana Lungwitz, the clinical professor who founded and directs the clinic.

According to Lungwitz, the client’s situation was extremely serious and urgent. “Her former partner had been abusive and violent to her and their children, and threatened to kill them,” Lungwitz said. “Although our client had already obtained a two-year protective order, it was set to expire in October 2022. It was critical to act quickly.”

DVC teams always include law students and student interns from the social work school because domestic violence is never entirely a legal problem. “The social work interns allow us to more holistically represent our clients,” said Lungwitz. “Survivors often have needs such as childcare, counseling, housing, and employment. Social work interns listen for the non-legal needs of the client and connect them to those resources.”

Social work interns may find themselves in one of as many as five different clinical offerings in a given semester, thanks to a longstanding interdisciplinary arrangement between the law school and the social work school. In addition to the Domestic Violence Clinic, social work interns during the Fall 2022 semester have been placed with the Capital Punishment Clinic, the Children’s Rights Clinic, the Immigration Clinic, and the Criminal Defense Clinic. Interns will likely be in all or most of those same clinics in the Spring 2023 semester.

Ogden and Castro were assigned to the case in August and understood immediately the urgency of the client’s situation. “At the outset, we didn’t know exactly what remedy we’d be seeking,” said Ogden. “But when we heard what this woman and her children were going through, we decided to advocate for a lifetime, protective order.”

According to Lungwitz, lifetime orders are very difficult to obtain, particularly against a parent: “Courts are reluctant to limit a parent’s access permanently,” she said. “But in this case, it was clearly the best solution.”

Ogden and Castro began gathering and synthesizing evidence including medical records, audio recordings, and text messages. While Ogden prepared the court filing for the civil trial, Castro worked to secure counseling and emotional resources for the client and her children. “The legal process is long and hard for victims of domestic violence,” said Castro. “It’s important to remember that they are struggling, and part of my role is to support and empower them – not easy for someone who has been abused for a long time.”

In September, the team filed an application with the court to demonstrate the clear and present danger the former partner posed to their client. This resulted in an immediate temporary protective order in advance of the actual trial. The defendant, who has two felony charges pending for assaulting his current intimate partner, was served, and the trial was held via Zoom in November. The court ordered the lifetime protection order immediately.

As a student working for one of the law school clinics, Ogden was able to get a provisional bar license and appear, with Lungwitz, on behalf of the client. “Emily prepared the case and argued it incredibly well,” said Lungwitz. Ogden’s courtroom prowess is something she developed not only under Lungwitz’s instruction, but through her participation in Texas Law’s trial advocacy program. In fact, the week before she argued the case for her DVC client, Ogden helped lead her trial advocacy team to a dominant victory in the White Collar Crime Invitational Tournament at Georgetown Law, while she was named one of the competition’s Best Advocates.

Castro was no less important to the success at trial. “Collaborating with social work students has improved our clinic services exponentially,” said Lungwitz. “Daniela’s social work expertise was incredibly important to make the case and help the client.” Castro is proud that she was able to help the client become her own advocate: “She was motivated and an integral part of the team, which contributed to the success of our group effort.”

Added Ogden, “I think if you interviewed any law student in the Domestic Violence Clinic, they would tell you how essential the social worker is to the work. Daniela brought a unique perspective to this case, and I don’t believe many law students would think about these issues in the same way.”

For the two students, the experience was indelible: “This was the first real trial of my legal career,” said Ogden, “and I will remember it for the rest of my life.” Castro called it “life-changing.”

For the client, this was a positive outcome that should help neutralize the impact of future threats. Still, said Ogden, “the only reason this is a win we can celebrate is because some very bad things happened to our client. The heartbreaking reality of these cases makes the work very emotionally challenging.”

DVC Helped Create Texas’s Lifetime Protective Order Statute

The case is significant for another reason: A former student of the Domestic Violence Clinic had a hand in crafting the statute that enables lifetime protective orders (not every state offers this kind of remedy). Leslie Friedlander ’08 worked closely with Lungwitz at the Domestic Violence Clinic when she was a student. “Jeana opined that we really need this kind of law in Texas,” Friedlander recalled. “I had some experience in legislative matters from before I went to law school, so I drafted a proposed bill, and Jeana helped shepherd the bill into law. The fact that this is enshrined in the law still amazes me.” Friedlander now works for the State of Texas’s Attorney General in charitable trust enforcement. The statute she drafted, which became law in 2011, would prove crucial to the case handled by Ogden and Castro.

The Domestic Violence Clinic, with six law students and two social work students, handles 30 to 40 cases each year, according to Lungwitz. The goal is to help victims, of course, but also to give students real clinical experience. For many students, experiential learning is a cornerstone of their education at the University of Texas–an important adjunct to classroom teaching.

The clinical experience can also transform career outcomes. “I found a real home in the Domestic Violence Clinic,” said Friedlander, “and learned how to practice the kind of law that really can make a difference.”

“Jeana Lungwitz is a giant her field; she’s very dear to everyone,” said Ogden, who plans to practice family law in Austin after graduating next May. Meanwhile, Castro officially graduated with a Bachelors in Social Work this semester, and plans to become a social worker in the legal field.

The Domestic Violence Clinic is one of 16 different clinics at Texas Law that give students the opportunity for experiential learning with real-world cases, which helps them bridge the gap between academic study and the actual practice of law. Other forms of experiential learning include internships, advocacy training, and legal writing.

“Our clinical program provides many opportunities for students to build their professional skills and knowledge while serving the community,” said Eden Harrington, Associate Dean for Experiential Education. “We are proud of the work done by the students in this case, and it is a great example of how our clinical faculty help students learn about the value of working with other professionals to assist clients.”

Category: Clinic News