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Professor Jaya Connors returned to Albany Law School in the fall as a Visiting Assistant Professor and Director of the Family Violence Litigation Clinic (FVLC), a course in which students provide legal representation in family court proceedings to survivors of domestic violence.
We recently caught up with Professor Connors to discuss her year with the FVLC, the work of its students, and more:
Tell us about the Family Violence Litigation Clinic.
The FVLC, one of Albany Law School’s "in-house" clinics, has a longstanding tradition of teaching participating students both the substantive law and skills necessary to provide excellent representation to an underserved population in our community: women and men who have been subjected to violence in its many forms. Within a structured, supervised setting, second- and third-year law students give these clients the support and advocacy they need so that their voices are heard in local family court matters. The FVLC clinic students apply the knowledge and skills they acquire in our weekly seminar to the urgent problems their clients present. Beginning with sensitive client interviews, and moving forward through both client counseling sessions and rigorous fact investigations, our students are well-prepared to advocate for their clients, securing favorable orders of protection, orders pertaining to custody or visitation, or child support. This past year alone, the FVLC students have provided legal services to 21 individuals and successfully advocated in over 30 court proceedings—15 custody cases, five visitation matters, five child support matters and five family offense cases, creating stability and safety for their clients and their families.
These are tough cases. In general, how do your students respond to the work?
They are tough. Our clients are fearful and do not know whom they can trust. They often blame themselves for the violence they have experienced. My students are amazing and rise to this challenge, though. As part of the classroom component, there is an emphasis, throughout the semester, on understanding the dynamics of family violence and the ways in which to establish and develop productive trusting relationships. Our students give it their all, ensuring that their clients know that they have been heard through active listening, and helping their clients to more clearly view their current situation and future options. Both clients and students alike are empowered by this collaborative process. By learning to trust their interns, our clients begin to find strength and hope for themselves and children. By listening to their clients and allowing them to make informed decisions concerning advocacy goals, interns gain self confidence in their ability to use their legal skills to empower others. Our classroom discussion also addresses strategies which interns can use to identify and cope with vicarious trauma. This helps students emotionally and allows them be effective trauma informed advocates.
You returned to Albany Law in the fall of 2017 after taking some time off from teaching. What were you working on in the interim?
For the past nearly seven years, I was the Deputy Director of the Office of Attorneys for Children, Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department. I helped provide oversight, training and ongoing legal education to over 500 attorneys for children practicing in the 28-county area that makes up the Third Department. While the work was challenging and rewarding, my passion has always been working with students in the clinical legal setting at Albany Law School. So, when the opportunity arose to come back, I jumped at the chance to do so. I see great hope for the future of family advocacy as a result of the spirit and dedication of the students with whom I am fortunate to work.
Do you see a difference in the students today than say, eight years ago, when you were directing the Family Violence Litigation Clinic? Or even 20 years ago when you were instructing students in the Domestic Violence Clinic?
While there have been substantial changes in the law involving domestic violence and considerable advances in technology in the past 20, or even the past few years, the students who are in the clinic continue to show the same dedication, passion and insight that they have always shown. While the family violence clinic itself has undergone some incarnations, the dedication and commitment of students in their goal to pursue justice and safety for their clients remains the one strong thread throughout these years and gives me hope for the future. I am happy to see my students from years ago have become professional leaders who are willing to serve as mentors to our new graduates seeking to practice Family Law.
Do you have any upcoming projects, presentations, or anything else on the horizon?
I recently presented at Widener Law School’s Law Review symposium on March 23, 2018, and expect a law review article featuring my comments on “Advocating for Child Clients in Custody Cases Involving Parental Alienation Issues” to be published this fall. I continue to be a part of the Statewide Domestic Violence Task Force, the Domestic Violence Stakeholders Collaborative and look forward to adding my voice to advocacy reform affecting the rights of minors in family court proceedings. I have been experimenting with incorporating new technology into my classes, including platforms which allow me to give immediate feedback to students’ performance in simulated recorded exercises. I look forward to collaborating with my faculty colleagues, both in and out of the clinic, to further strengthen the excellent experiential opportunities we offer our students.