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FORE Funding Will Support Equal Justice Works Fellow Focused on Helping Families Affected by the Opioid Crisis

May 12, 2021

When she graduates from West Virginia University’s College of Law this week, Emily Neely will be returning to her hometown of Martinsburg, W.V., to create a mediation program that aims to help families driven apart by substance use disorder avoid contentious child custody battles that create additional trauma for children.

Neely will be developing the mediation program for Legal Aid of West Virginia‘s Martinsburg office as part of the Equal Justice Works fellowship program, which provides a pathway for lawyers interested in public service to create innovative solutions to pressing social problems with support from organizations like FORE.

West Virginia has led the nation in rates of opioid prescribing and opioid-involved overdose deaths, contributing to a 24 percent increase in foster care placements between 2012 and 2016, including placements with relatives, known as family caretakers. “Growing up in West Virginia, I watched families fall apart due to opioid-related issues,” Neely says.

As an intern at Legal Aid of West Virginia in 2019, Neely found many programs to support family caretakers and ones that supported biological parents with substance use disorder, but none focused on rebuilding the relationships between caretakers, children, and biological parents. “I always believed those relationships could be rebuilt and I wanted my legal career to provide opportunities for reunification,” she says.

By offering mediation services to families, Neely aims to help families affected by substance use disorder avoid adversarial court proceedings. “The unfortunate reality [is] that low-income families lack the means to access alternative dispute resolution, although many would benefit from its advantages,” she says.

Reports from other states that use mediation to resolve family law issues suggest mediation can lead to faster resolution of disputes and produce more satisfactory and durable agreements, and higher rates of reunification of children and parents than court proceedings, Neely says.

As part of the fellowship, Neely will be creating a referral network with recovery support programs and other organizations addressing the opioid crisis to publicize the benefits of mediation and will work to recruit pro bono mediators who can assist Legal Aid clients with their cases.

“The opioid crisis has taken a huge toll on families,” says Ken Shatzkes, Ph.D., FORE’s senior program officer. “Emily’s expertise and hands-on support can bring healing to West Virginia families while creating a blueprint for advocates working in other communities.”