As a partner in a large New York City law firm, Catherine Douglass (’65) knew very little about domestic violence. But when a friend asked her to join the board of a battered women’s organization, she agreed.
Immediately Douglass saw women desperate for legal help to escape abuse, stay in their homes, secure support for their children and retain custody. Wanting to do more, Douglass founded inMotion in 1993, a non-profit organization that provides free legal and social services to indigent and poor working women and their children in New York City.
The first year it was open, Douglass, one paralegal assistant and the volunteer attorneys they recruited provided legal aid to 30 women. Since then, inMotion has grown to a staff of 31, with offices in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Last year, more than 2,000 women and nearly 2,600 children were helped by staff and volunteer attorneys from 74 law firms, who provided nearly 80,000 hours of legal aid valued at a total of $30 million.
“InMotion gives high-powered lawyers from major law firms to women in family crisis,” Douglass says. “Having these lawyers puts inMotion clients on an equal footing with their adversaries in court. All of a sudden, the playing field is leveled when crucial issues such as child custody and support, orders of protection, divorce and legal residency are at stake.”
The organization serves women in all five boroughs of New York City. But 43 percent come from the Bronx, the poorest borough, and 26 percent from Queens, which has the largest number of immigrants. Nearly 75 percent are domestic violence victims and most have children. Many have language barriers and cannot access the legal system without an interpreter.
The volunteer attorneys are trained and supported by inMotion staff attorneys—making it possible for them to venture into the difficult and often unfamiliar area of family law, Douglass says. Lawyers who volunteer to represent women referred by inMotion also have a chance to manage their own cases and get into court sooner than they might at a big firm. InMotion staff attorneys mentored volunteer attorneys working on an average of just over 700 cases throughout last year.
“It wakes these lawyers up to what’s really going on in family court,” she says. “This is not part of their world. In addition to domestic violence, we also combat poverty and reallocate family resources to the mother and children to keep them in their homes. The lawyers from the big firms see women living below the poverty line and start admiring what they do to stay in their homes, hold a job, and get the kids to school every day.”
Douglass, who has won numerous awards, including a 2010 LSA Humanitarian Service Award, says she’s undeterred and that she’s buoyed by the successes she has witnessed.
“It takes your breath away to see what one human being is willing to do to another to maintain power and control,” she says. “We had one case where the woman was attacked so brutally she could not resume her career as a nurse. And then last week I saw a former client volunteering at our annual benefit who escaped a dangerous and abusive relationship. She wanted me to know her daughter was going to college.
“I say, let’s take the cases that are the most challenging where we can make the most difference.”