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Law School program aids abuse victims

Students can also get involved in social justice projects.
Monday, April 3, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:18 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

Among the many points on the MU campus where student learning intersects with real-world experience is the Family Violence Clinic at the School of Law. There, law students can work at the clinic for credit while helping victims of domestic violence navigate the legal system and get their lives back on a safe track.

The clinic, established in 1992, has been led for most of its existence by Mary Beck. Victims of family violence are referred to the clinic by shelters, physicians, courts and the police.

“We are very networked with other organizations in Missouri,” said Beck, a clinical professor in the law school.

The victims are represented by law students at the clinic, under the supervision of faculty. They serve people in 24 counties and handle about 60 cases a year, Beck said. There are eight students at the clinic this semester, working in groups of two.

Kelly King, a second-year law student, wanted to do the program because she felt passionately about domestic violence. She had volunteered for shelters in Kansas City and Columbia.

“And practically speaking, it is a fantastic experience,” King said of her clinic work. “You get to go into the courtroom, and you really don’t get to do that otherwise.”

The clinic does more than just file for civil protection orders. “We take care of their lawsuit, help them make an action plan to go to school or get a job, seek independent housing, make a safety plan,” Beck said.

“We help our clients with the legal aspects of their case, but then we also try to point them in the right direction,” said Mark Haddad, a law student now working at the clinic. “We help them with other things. We give them a lot of information on resources for domestic violence and different places they can go for help. Our specialty is the legal area, but we don’t leave them hanging after the case is over.”

Another aspect of the clinic’s work is social justice projects. Haddad is working on an amendment to the Missouri Putative Father Registry and will write legislative briefs on the proposed Proud Father Act.

A putative birth father registry is a listing that a man must sign if he thinks he may be the father of a baby in order to be notified if that baby is being placed for adoption. The Proud Father Act would link putative father registries among states that have them. Right now there is no such communication and men must register state to state.

King is working on a clemency project to free Lynda Branch, who was convicted of murdering her husband and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 1986. Branch was a victim of domestic abuse and is seeking parole after her sentence was commuted to a regular life sentence with parole in 2004.

The students find the clinic work valuable. “I love working with people, so, for me, it was fantastic to get to sit down and talk to a client,” King said. “I want to litigate, so it was exciting to be in the courtroom.”

Lindsay Biesterfeld, a second-year law student, has worked on two cases along with King.

“It was a very rewarding experience,” Biesterfeld said. “The judge ruled favorably in both the cases.”

Haddad said it was satisfying to help people.

“You get to make a difference,” he said.


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