Grand Island, NE — Access to legal services is a struggle for many Nebraskans, but those in rural areas have added challenges. Irregular court schedules, farther travel distances, and navigating unfamiliar areas can all prove difficult — difficulties Rural Summer Legal Corps (RSLC) fellow Kimberly Barton can personally attest to.
“Even as someone who is merely new to the area, it was hard at times to find the judge’s courtroom, and I’m a law student,” Barton said, referring to how hard it can be for individuals who are seeking a protection order to simply make it to their court appearance on time and in the right place.
Barton recently completed her fellowship at Legal Aid of Nebraska after ten weeks working with the REACH Initiative (Raising Effective Advocacy for Crime Victims Health and Safety). She was one of only 30 law students in the nation to be selected as a RSLC Fellow. The program, which seeks to bring aspiring attorneys into rural areas and provide direct services to underserved communities, is a joint effort between Equal Justice Works and the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). LSC, which also provides funding to Legal Aid of Nebraska, chose 26 host sites for RSLC Fellows. Barton was based in Grand Island, Nebraska.
“This program interested me because it specifically focused on providing direct resources,” she said. “I also wanted to get to know Nebraska better and make it my home.”
Barton hails from Bakersfield, California, and moved to Nebraska a year ago after working in Washington, D.C. She is a rising second-year law student at the University of Nebraska College of Law. The Nebraska Public Interest Law Fund also supported Barton’s fellowship. UNL Law has initiatives aimed at strengthening the pipeline of lawyers serving rural Nebraskans, such as its Rural Law Opportunities Program.
“Folks in rural areas actually need lawyers,” Barton said. “In D.C., they’re everywhere; you can throw a rock and hit a lawyer.”
During her time as a RSLC Fellow, Barton’s focus was on three main responsibilities: 1) client service, which included assisting Michelle Mitchell, REACH Initiative Program Manager; 2) observing protection order hearings in rural counties; and 3) outreach, including delivering fliers about Legal Aid services to court clerks in the area. Mitchell was happy to have Barton by her side for the past ten weeks.
“Kimberly has shown a great understanding of domestic and intimate partner abuse; more importantly, she has consistently proven her genuine empathy for victims and survivors,” Mitchell said. “Kimberly’s knowledge and assistance, coupled with her investment in making equal justice happen for victims and survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence has been invaluable to the REACH Initiative.”
When asked why she serves domestic violence victims and survivors, Barton explained she spent three years volunteering at a domestic violence shelter in Alexandria, Virginia. That experience gave her insight into the challenges survivors face in accessing the legal system.
“Rural victims and survivors of domestic violence face unique issues that folks in metropolitan areas don’t,” she said. “Things like transportation, housing, and having one day of court for the entire county — that’s very challenging.”
One experience in particular stands out to Barton as a gap in legal services for victims and survivors of domestic violence. As she observed protection order hearings, she noticed a lack of consistency among courts.
“Many people don’t understand the protection order form because it’s not clear,” Barton said. “Judges also often don’t say why a protection order is denied. One victim’s protection order was dismissed because she could only provide her testimony as evidence. Representation by a lawyer could have made all the difference.”
This was a particularly frustrating issue Barton said she saw repeatedly: victims and survivors who don’t have access to an attorney and are self-represented.
“There is a definite need for more representation in these areas,” she said. “It was hard to just watch and not be able to help.”
Barton hopes to make this work a career but is first focused on passing the Nebraska bar exam. Legal Aid of Nebraska is proud to have had her on their team this summer and wishes her all the best in her future legal endeavors.