Sometimes that’s all the time Kara Swasey has to build trust with victims of domestic violence
Published in 2018 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine on May 18, 2018
When Kara Swasey was a junior associate in the corporate litigation group at Wilmington’s Bayard, she was looking for any kind of experience she could get. She found it with Curtis Bounds in the family law group.
“I asked him, ‘What do I need to do to be a family law attorney?’ He said, ‘Go to PFA day, get some court experience, and see what it’s like.’ I’ve been a family law attorney ever since,” Swasey says.
In addition to her regular caseload, Swasey works with the Limited Legal Assistance Program, the Federal Re-entry Legal Assistance Program, the Office of the Child Advocate and two subcommittees for the Access to Justice Commission, but spends most of her pro bono efforts on Protection from Abuse orders through the Domestic Violence Advocacy Program and Delaware Volunteer Legal Services. Swasey has been donating her time and knowledge to PFA days at least once per quarter for more than seven years, and now also serves on the DVLS board of directors.
“Every day they have a volunteer attorney who is there to help the most serious cases. You pick up the case that day; you meet your client that day; and you go to court that day,” she says.
During an 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift, volunteer attorneys handle a series of consecutive cases that often involve domestic violence.
“One that I had ended up with had a lifetime PFA order, which is the only one I’ve seen,” she says. “The facts were pretty frightening, and came to me that morning, so I didn’t have time to sit with it, but the woman was held hostage by her [partner.] He was hulking over her with a knife, wouldn’t let her leave, and she was essentially terrorized for an entire night.”
While the facts and circumstances of each case vary, emotional toll and baggage come with each one.
“Victims of domestic violence, and especially those with potential immigration issues, tend to be very fearful of approaching the court,” Swasey says, adding that when they do get to court, victims are often forced to relive trauma and face their abusers. “I remember one where my client had been slammed in a door, repeatedly, and she was black to the tips of her fingers. The opposing counsel made her stand up in the courtroom and go to a doorway to illustrate what happened. … There are a lot of tears on PFA days, and their emotions run the gamut. I try to be human: I try to put them at ease, let them know it’s OK to express their feelings. The balance there is: You have to get to the heart of the issue because you might walk into court any second, but you also need your client to feel emotionally comfortable. You have to build a trust, and very quickly. Sometimes you have five minutes.”
The baggage can be heavy the other way, too. “I compartmentalize,” she says. “I have two kids, and I cannot ever, in that moment, put myself in my client’s shoes or imagine their situation is mine. I can’t go there. I have to think about the task. When the job is done, that’s when it might get emotional.
“The commissioners and people who work in the court talk about vicarious trauma quite a bit. There are some days you feel like going back to your office and sitting by yourself in the dark for a while. Some of them you’re reminded of from time to time. The names float away over time, but the way people felt and looked in court, and how much help they needed, that really sticks with you.”
Last year the state bar took notice of Swasey’s work and honored her with the Christopher W. White Distinguished Access to Justice Commitment Award and the Young Lawyers Distinguished Service Award, both for her pro bono work in the community.
“I feel like it’s my responsibility because I know how to access the court; I know what forms to fill out; I know what motion to file; I know the law,” she says. “I can’t help everyone in my private practice, but I can do this.”