Shailey Gupta-Brietzke first became passionate about aiding survivors of domestic violence 10 years ago, while volunteering at a women’s shelter during college. It was then that she decided to become a lawyer so she could devote her life to aiding victims of abusive relationships. “The biggest decisions affecting victims of violence happen in court,” the 29-year-old says. “Having a strong advocate makes a big difference in a survivor’s life.” During a 2007 law internship in New Orleans, Gupta-Brietzke discovered an overwhelming need for domestic violence services. Hurricane Katrina had left one positive outcome in its wake: Many women, and some men, had chosen to leave abusive relationships and start their lives over again. But they needed legal help to piece their lives back together.
Gupta-Brietzke secured a two-year grant, in conjunction with the Houston-based nonprofit Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse, to provide pro bono family-law services. The timing was good, because Hurricanes Rita and Ike soon devastated Texas, creating a flood of additional need across the state line.
After the hurricanes hit, Gupta-Brietzke took the cases of 50 people trying to escape violent relationships. “I have a lot of compassion for folks in this situation,” she says. “I’ve had friends escape abusive relationships, and I’ve seen how difficult it is to get out of them.” Most of her cases were in Galveston. “I was there eight weeks after the storm,” she says. “It was amazing to see how resilient the community was and to watch it bounce back.”
She helped clients file protective orders and represented them in divorce and custody cases. She also traveled to the Texas Capitol to lobby for bills to protect survivors.
The two-year project ended in August 2010. Now Gupta-Brietzke continues her advocacy as a staff attorney in Houston with Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse. She’s helped create several programs in Texas, including Project Harmony, a coalition of South Asian and Middle Eastern advocates, working to end domestic violence in Houston. She’s also a member of the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, which advises law enforcement personnel on how to handle domestic abuse cases.
It’s a difficult but rewarding job. “We spend many hours in court and there’s a lot of overtime,” she says. “But I’m passionate about helping survivors because there are so many barriers to justice.”
One of the biggest barriers is the dearth of lawyers in Texas willing to take on these tough, often heartbreaking cases. More than 30 percent of Texans report having been victims of domestic abuse. But for many, it can take years to summon the courage to ask for help. More than 100 women are killed every year in Texas by their partners.
Gupta-Brietzke, and the six other attorneys at her Houston nonprofit, can take on only the worst of the worst; there is simply so much need. “We see clients after they have been battered multiple times,” she says. “These are the toughest cases and oftentimes the saddest ones.”
There are still too many Texans who think they have nowhere to turn, Gupta-Brietzke says. And in some cases, the shortage of pro bono attorneys does leave victims without representation, which is why Gupta-Brietzke and her colleagues have such an important role. They work diligently to ensure that victims who most need help get their day in court. She’s already represented more than 300 women. “To help survivors and their children get a clean break so they can start their lives over,” she says, “it’s really rewarding.”
Read more about domestic violence prevention in Texas.