Pro Bono Q&A: The DC Volunteer Lawyers Project (DCVLP)

Pro Bono Q&As

Sara Tennen, executive director of the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project (DCVLP)DLA Piper is proud to partner with the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project (DCVLP), a non-profit organization that provides direct legal aid and advocacy assistance to domestic violence victims, at-risk children, and other vulnerable individuals. Here, Sara Tennen, executive director of DCVLP, discusses ways the organization and the people it serves have been impacted by the pandemic.

Q: Tell us about the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project.

Sara Tennen: The mission of DC Volunteer Lawyers Project is to advocate for domestic violence victims, at-risk children, and other vulnerable individuals through comprehensive pro bono legal services; to empower victims with knowledge, resources, and on-going support; and to broaden our impact by engaging, training, and supporting a network of volunteer lawyers and community volunteers.

Since 2008, DCVLP has been providing comprehensive legal services to domestic violence victims on issues including protection orders, custody, and immigration; and serving as court-appointed attorneys for vulnerable children living with abuse, neglect, and other dangerous circumstances. To ensure that clients have the support they need to escape violence, our advocates provide safety planning, trauma informed crisis intervention, emotional support, and access to critical social services.

Q: How has the pandemic changed your day-to-day operations?

Sara: Our caseload is four times what is was one year ago. Not only has the number of clients increased, but their respective needs are much greater than what we have historically seen.

We typically operate five community-based clinics and one court-based clinic at DC Superior Court. These clinics provide an opportunity for victims to learn about their legal rights regarding family law, immigration, criminal proceedings against their abusers, housing, employment, and financial matters, and to receive support services from our advocates. At our court-based clinic, our attorneys offer legal assistance, including representation, to victims seeking safety through protection orders. All of these have been converted to a daily Call-In Legal Clinic. The call volume on both our daily Call-In Legal Clinic and the Court’s virtual Domestic Violence Intake Center, which we staff two days each week, is off the charts.

Q: What do you think is one of the more pressing situations facing your clients right now?

Sara: Approximately 75% of our clients are African-American or Black and living in some of the most underserved wards of the District of Columbia. As a result of the pandemic and serious racial inequities, our clients are facing increased severity and frequency of violence, job loss and economic devastation, and unstable housing. This segment of the population has been disproportionately affected by the health and economic impacts of COVID. As stay at home orders are lifted, the need for our services has skyrocketed.

Q: How can people help?

Sara: The significant increase in need for our services is happening at a time where federal and local funding is being cut. Additionally, we rely on a large in person gala to generate almost one third of our operating budget. Due to COVID, we had to shift the event to a virtual event in the Spring of 2020 and will have to do so again in 2021. We are experiencing funding cuts at a time with incredibly significant need. Anyone wishing to support the work of DCVLP can go to www.dcvlp.org/donate.

Additionally, to continue broadening our impact, we always need volunteer attorneys to represent the interests of domestic violence victims and vulnerable children. To learn more about volunteering with DCVLP, please go to www.dcvlp.org/volunteer.