Cassandra Carsrud, 2L
Christian Legal Aid, Los Angeles
Have you ever had an eye-opening experience? One where you didn’t realize that your eyes were closed until you learned something new about the world around you? I have.
This summer, my eyes have been opened to the practical needs of the poor. In west LA, only miles away from homes that sell for millions of dollars, an impoverished community struggles with simple challenges every single day. Justice is practically inaccessible for impoverished people who have civil cases in California. The state will provide a public defender in criminal cases, but what about the civil cases?
Too often, the widow and the orphan are rejected because of improperly filed paperwork. The mentally ill are turned away because they lack understanding of how to file their case. The elderly don’t know how to make their case when they are taken advantage of by creditors or when Social Security tells them they have been overpaid by error and must give thousands of dollars back. Justice is frustrated when people lack an advocate.
One day, “Hannah”, came into our office after going to court by herself to try and change a previous custody order denying her visitation with two of her children. Another relative had full custody of the children because the court found that it was not in the children’s best interest to visit with either parent. In reaction to suffering abuse at home, she had struggled with drug addictions and depression. However, between the previous court order and her recent hearing, Hannah’s life had changed. The judge had previously denied her custody and visitation with her children until she could pull herself together by participating in therapy and parenting classes. Since then, she had completed dozens of parenting classes, support groups, and therapy sessions…much more than the court had ordered. She had gone to a Christian church, and her life had been changed.
When Hannah went to court to check in and present this information to the judge, she thought it would be easier to explain to the judge than it was. When she began to speak to the judge, she was so overcome with emotion that she could not clearly articulate her case and the judge did not change his previous order. Out of concern, he also called Child Protective Services (CPS), who investigated whether she was a fit mother to care for the baby girl, “Ruth”, she currently had custody of. CPS found her fully capable of parenting Ruth and returned Ruth to her. Hannah came to our office shaken and burdened by the situation. At CLA-LA we helped her file a request to change court order based on a change in circumstances. As she told us her story, we wrote a clear, articulate declaration to the court, explaining all of the ways her life has changed since the judge’s previous order. This time, when Hannah goes to court, she will not have to do it alone.
Stories like this all summer long have revealed the needs all around me. Yet even more importantly, I have begun to learn how much can be done about it. Before this summer, I had never seen tears coming down a woman’s face after praying with her, asking God to take care of her, give her strength, and fight on her behalf. I had never seen gratitude on a man’s face after I had helped him prepare a simple declaration to the court. Before this summer, I used to take my computer for granted…when I didn’t realize that hundreds of people don’t have access to the internet, a word processor, and a printer.
Law is not just a battle of the forms. It is a spiritual and emotional battle against fear, depression, and isolation. CLA-LA’s legal aid model has allowed me to act as an encourager, advocate, and prayer warrior, enabling people to go forward and access justice that they were unable to achieve alone. I am so grateful to be a part of the difference CLA-LA is making in Los Angeles, California.