Kristen Bojarski has been practicing family and estate law for 11 years. But one of her most challenging cases came through a pro bono opportunity with JFCS in the summer of 2021. Kristen was introduced to JFCS Immigration Legal Services through a Continuing Legal Education course that was presented by JFCS and Allegheny County Bar Association about unaccompanied children. Through learning about Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status and the legal struggles that unaccompanied children face, Kristen decided to sign up to be a pro bono attorney with JFCS.
Her first case
She started working with two siblings from El Salvador in the early summer of 2021. “I think that the biggest challenge for me was working with Spanish speaking individuals and interpreters,” Kristen explained. “For a typical English speaking client, they come to my office, I talk to them, call them, email them—in this case, I had to arrange everything through an interpreter and get information to the clients in a way that they could understand. That was challenging.”
The children that Kristen worked with were applying for SIJ status so that they could stay here in Pittsburgh with their father. The SIJ status is applied for once a family court finds evidence of abuse, neglect, or abandonment. Kristen was already familiar with family court, having worked with divorce cases, custody cases for adult family, estates and wills, and other family issues in her day to day job.
“There wasn’t much of a learning curve. This was my first case so I didn’t really know what to expect and asked a lot of questions,” she said. “It wasn’t hugely different from what I do in my regular practice, but the case carried a lot more weight than my typical cases.”
The impact of representation
Kristen is just one of many pro bono attorneys who has volunteered to help meet an increasing need for unaccompanied minors. Representation is vital for unaccompanied children as they go through court proceedings, with only 12 percent deportation rates for those with an attorney, compared to 80 percent deportation rates for those without one. JFCS has had 100 percent success for SIJ status cases in the last year.
“The pro bono attorneys who work with JFCS allow us to help far more children than we otherwise could,” explained John Cavicchio, Family Law Council and Pro Bono Coordinator for JFCS. “And to be clear, these children are some of the most vulnerable and at-risk anywhere. Many face being returned to a home country rife with violence and privation. It is no exaggeration to say that our pro bono attorneys have saved many children’s lives.”
A lasting impact
And the attorneys helping out find that working with these children leaves a lasting impact on them as well. For Kristen, while she knew the hardships her clients had faced, was struck by their experiences and stories from their home country and their journey to the US.
“Where they are from, in countries where gang violence is a normal thing, it’s kind of shocking to hear what some of these people experienced and had to go through,” she expressed. “I’ve always been sympathetic for people trying to escape a horrible situation and better their lives—but knowing a family in that situation, it really puts things in perspective.”
For JFCS Immigration Legal Services’ clients, pro bono attorneys are vital to the success of their cases and to continue the work we’re doing, in a time when the need continues to grow. Kristen’s work on her first case is almost completed, with a favorable decision to grant SIJ status to both children!
Kristen said that while the case was challenging, she enjoyed the experience. “I enjoyed working with John. He was so helpful, and everyone else was too. They almost make it easy with how helpful and organized everybody is and how willing everybody is to help the attorney volunteers—the same with paralegals and interpreters as well,” she said. “JFCS is a great organization. I’m so glad it exists. It is important work.”
Are you interested in learning more about our Continuing Legal Education opportunities or volunteering as a pro bono attorney with JFCS? Contact us at 412-904-5966 or firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more or submit a volunteer application here.