Helping Women Who Have Been Abused and Incarcerated

In another path-breaking effort, for 15 years the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law has offered its experience and help to women, mostly mothers and victims of domestic violence, who are incarcerated and to those who have been released. Its involvement makes the Center the only legal services program in LA to reach this very poor group, burgeoning since the 1970s. The Center is one of the few legal aid agencies in the state to focus time and attention on these women. While sharing some of the same circumstances as low-income women who come to the Center for help, their lives are significantly more desperate and bleak. Most are victims of repeated, sexual and family violence since childhood, often intergenerational. Alcohol and drugs are their therapies of choice, leading to bad associations and proximity to crime. Their crimes are largely non-violent offenses related to addiction and poverty. Most have children whose futures are deeply affected by their mothers’ incarceration.

In a significant step during 2018, the Center spearheaded an in-depth examination of the proposed move of almost all women inmates to a remote county jail location, hours from their families and children. The report, entitled Lynwood to Lancaster, highlighted the problems and strongly recommended changes in the treatment of these forgotten women. It exerted an influential role in re-focusing the new Board of Supervisors’ members on the ill-advised plan which has subsequently been placed on hold for consideration of other options. Ricca Prasad, a Public Interest Scholar at the USC Gould School of Law with a Master’s in Public Health, served as the report’s primary author.To read the full report, click here.

The Center’s commitment to this underserved group includes several approaches directed towards increasing their chances for better life outcomes and improved relationships with their children: teaching legal education classes while incarcerated; advocating for gender-based, trauma-informed treatment; offering individual legal assistance; and providing community-based legal workshops for those on probation. 

Teaching: Legal Education in the Jail

Five days a week, the Center’s staff lawyers teach interactive classes on child welfare, custody, domestic violence, support and paternity at the Century Regional Detention Facility (CRDF), the largest jail for women in the United States. Each year more than 3000 women participate, some more than once. For the accomplishment of completing a class, oftentimes one of their only recent successes, women receive a certificate. For participating in the full series, they are handed a “graduation” award which they are able to present in court. The theme throughout the series is to encourage healthy parenting and reunification with children, to present information to help them understand and address domestic violence in their lives, and to comprehend legal processes to better equip them to succeed with their court cases.

 Advocacy: Women’s Gender-Responsive Jail Project

Concerned about the consequences on families and children of a planned LA County move of incarcerated women from CRDF to the Mira Loma Detention Facility in Lancaster (a distance of 90 miles from south LA), the Center created a new project in 2018 to explore this questionable decision. Focused exclusively and full time on this issue during the summer months, USC Gould School of Law Public Interest Scholar, Ricca Prasad, investigated, researched and examined all aspects of the problem, culminating in a report produced by the Center in November entitled Lynwood to Lancaster: Opportunities and Challenges for the Women’s Jail Relocation. The report identified the challenges for the women and their families and made practical recommendations to the LA County Board of Supervisors and the LA County Sheriff in 2018. Recently, the Board has suspended the jail’s move to reconsider its location and to guarantee that the women will have appropriate services to improve their lives in jail and after release. The Center remains engaged in this important public issue affecting the most vulnerable persons and families in LA and continues to pursue its recommendations for the creation of a more gender-responsive system for women that addresses their lifetimes of trauma.

Representation: Individual Legal Assistance

Often, women who have been incarcerated face formidable barriers to re-establishing relationships with their children. They are always in need of legal guidance to address hostility, skepticism and prejudice when seeking to renew their parental roles. The Center prioritizes these cases to help them prepare and organize their cases and meet the challenges of persuading judicial officers that they are able to be responsible parents focused on the best interests of their children.

Learning: Education in the Community

Recently, in partnership with the County Probation Department, the Center is launching a program for formerly incarcerated women and men to bring its successful legal education program to the community. The first sessions are scheduled for February 2019 at the Centinela office. As a companion piece, the Center will offer short term case consultation and referral on family reunification with some individuals eligible to receive ongoing legal assistance.