Leadership for Justice Fellow will work to help formerly incarcerated mothers reenter the community

March 23, 2012

Elizabeth Hendren '12 was awarded the 2012 Leadership for Justice Fellowship to help mothers being released from prison rebuild their families through legal advocacy.

Elizabeth HendrenHendren will work with the Northwest Justice Project in Seattle on the Reentry Initiated through Services and Education (RISE) Project, which she developed. RISE will provide legal advice through clinics, as well as direct representation, in the areas of family law, housing, and public benefits to formerly incarcerated mothers. RISE also will begin building a statewide network of support through strategic partnerships and increased community education about reentry. She developed RISE based on her experience working with women through other agencies during law school.

"Many women have a difficult time navigating the family law process pro se, and there is no attorney or organization providing direct legal assistance to this population," Hendren said. "Many of the mothers have overlapping housing and public benefits issues to resolve before they will have a strong case for becoming the primary caregivers of their children."

During a summer internship with the Domestic Violence Unit of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), Hendren co-founded the Incarcerated Mothers Advocacy Project (IMAP) with fellow NWIRP intern, Lillian Hewko, to provide legal education and information about family law issues to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated mothers in the state. IMAP delivers presentations to incarcerated women in the state's prisons and offers several drop-in clinics throughout King County where women can obtain general family law information.

"Two of the women I worked with at NWIRP were mothers with theft charges from the periods in which they were homeless after leaving their abusers, and both faced losing their children as a result," Hendren said. "Although I had worked with men with criminal records before, this was my first time working with mothers with criminal records, and I saw how devastating and unbalanced the family law proceedings were when these mothers were forced to proceed pro se against their abusers." 

Hendren's work with IMAP made her eager to learn even more about family law. For her 2L summer and fall semester, she interned with the Family Law Unit of the Northwest Justice Project. Yet Hendren quickly realized that it is impossible for many formerly incarcerated mothers to reunite with their children if they do not have safe or adequate housing. To better understand the housing issues facing these women, Hendren is externing during her last semester of law school with the Housing Unit of the Northwest Justice Project.

"In a perfect world, I would spend the rest of my career working full-time to provide services to people and families who have been impacted by the prison industrial complex to help them gain stability."
Elizabeth Hendren, Leadership for Justice Fellow

Hendren sought to create RISE to address the multiple civil legal issues faced by this population and increase the education of and coordination between community partners, and in one location. The name is based on a Confucius quote: "Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall."

Hendren has been committed to helping vulnerable and marginalized individuals since high school. Her previous work with prisoners and people with criminal records made prison and reentry issues important to her before law school. She witnessed low-income individuals facing injustices that ranged from housing issues, to employment discrimination based on race and sexual orientation, to immigration concerns, to family and domestic violence issues. These individuals were experiencing injustice yet unable to access legal services because of a lack of resources. Among her experience, she volunteered for three years as an organizer for the Seattle Chapter of Common Ground Relief, a survivor-led, grassroots organization that assists Hurricane Katrina survivors with returning to the Gulf, rebuilding and obtaining housing.

 "I decided to go to law school so that I could be one more person providing  much-needed civil legal services," Hendren said.

Hendren hopes that RISE will raise awareness about why people end up in prison in an effort to reduce the stigma associated with a criminal record, as well as the shame felt by many formerly incarcerated individuals.  Reentry support services are critical, because prisons do not address the root causes that lead to the activity that placed individuals in prison in the first place.

"What I have seen again and again is that the people who go through the criminal legal system are usually people who are already socially vulnerable: people living in poverty, people of color, people with mental disabilities, survivors of abuse, or foster care children," she said. "Most of these people end up in prison because society has failed to provide safety nets for our most socially vulnerable." 

Hendren is truly committed to helping formerly incarcerated mothers reenter society and rebuild their families, and it's obvious she loves her work. 

"In a perfect world, I would spend the rest of my career working full-time to provide services to people and families who have been impacted by the prison industrial complex to help them gain stability,"  Hendren said. "This system, and the separation of children from their mothers due to incarceration, is causing irreparable damage to countless families in our state, and disproportionately impacts communities of color."

Seattle University School of Law is the only law school in the state to offer a post-graduate fellowship for a graduate to work with an organization on a specific social justice project involving underserved or marginalized individuals or communities.