The Human Aspect: Schneider Works With Abuse Victims in Queens

samantha schneider

Samantha Schneider, MCAS ’18, walked into the Queens District Attorney office.

“How’re you doing, Charlie?” she asked.

A disgruntled Charlie, who had quit his previous job of 15 years at a private law firm in order to “save his soul,” replied that after leaving work at 3 a.m., he had slept for an hour, showered, kissed his sleeping wife goodbye, and then arrived back at the office before sunrise. Charlie’s experience only begins to encapsulate the demands of working in the domestic violence bureau, as Schneider, who spent last summer as an intern there, would soon discover.

After experiencing the welcoming, open environment of Boston College, as well as its quintessential New England campus, Schneider knew she wanted to attend BC. The many opportunities offered, such as the PULSE program, appealed to her and offered a way to interact with the environment around her and connect with people to a degree unmatched by other universities.

As a freshman, she was captivated by her psychology courses and the reasoning behind behaviors of the human mind. She decided to commit to a major in psychology, but she couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that she just couldn’t see herself pursuing a typical psychology-based career path. Luckily, her logical thought processes as well as the way she mediated conflicts with others pointed her toward her true vocation: law.

Playing devil’s advocate came naturally to her—she remembers spending her freshman year in a cramped forced triple, arguing with her roommates about seeing the other side of their disagreements. Even if she didn’t associate with the other person’s opinion, her persistent empathy as well as her interest in psychology constantly encouraged her to understand the reasoning behind a particular thought process or course of action.

She began to look more closely into the possibilities of going pre-law. Like many budding lawyers and pre-law students, one question haunted her: would she be able to defend someone she knew was guilty? As she began to have more conversations with her peers and let her natural tendency to think like a lawyer take hold, however, she began to realize the complexities behind such an oversimplified connotation.

“I don’t think the term ‘guilty’ is as set in stone as we think it is,” Schneider said. “I think there’s so much more depth to that. There are two sides to every story and it’s so important to hear both sides.”

Last summer, Schneider decided to get some real-life experience in the field of law to increase her exposure and perhaps narrow her focus. She applied to a variety of different internships. From working with small businesses or big college organizations to overviewing legal matters in a law office, the opportunities seemed endless.

Unexpectedly, Schneider was accepted to an internship concerning an area she was extremely unfamiliar with. She would be working directly with victims of domestic abuse at the district attorney in Queens, N.Y. Even though she applied for the job seeking to challenge herself and dive headfirst into uncharted waters, it wasn’t one of her top choices. In fact, her lack of experience in the area of domestic abuse cases and her apprehension toward the heaviness of the cases almost stopped her from applying altogether. When asked why she pursued this internship specifically, she simply replied, “This one came back.” But that doesn’t mean she had a negative experience in Queens. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

As the state side of the law, the Queens DA’s office represents the people. It consists of several smaller sections, including the domestic violence bureau, which specifically covered partner domestic violence. Unlike other offices, the atmosphere when Schneider came in to work bright and early every morning was bustling and full of positive energy. Despite the gravity of the subject matter, the employees and interns made a collective effort to make their workspace a happy environment, which Schneider believes was integral to handling the heavy and emotionally taxing content.

On a typical day at the office, Schneider would greet her boss, assistant district attorney Brian Kotowsky, and check in with him about if he would be in court, his office, or meeting with victims during the day. She would then grab her stack of 20 to 30 blue manila files and peruse them for any missing information regarding the scene of the incident or the backstory of the subject. She would then reach out to the victims over the phone—some would answer, more would not. Her next resort would be meeting directly with police officers to glean as much evidence as possible and fill in any missing evidence. She would always inquire what the first thing that happened when the police arrived on the scene was, listening for any mention of an “excited utterance,” which is a statement made when the victim is in a hysterical state in response to a traumatic incident, which under the rule of law can be used in the court case as part of the police’s statement.

After conducting police interviews, which would generally take about three hours, Schneider devoted the rest of her day interviewing victims and hearing their stories. This was the hardest, as well as the most gratifying, part of the job for Schneider. Talking to the victims allowed her to fill in the large gaps of the case at hand, and also put a face to the file that she had been studying and building for days.

Connecting with them on a personal level was always one of Schneider’s top priorities. She would always make sure to give the victims her phone number and encourage them to reach out. Some of them began calling daily. Often times, she would see repeat victims who would come back into the office time and time again, each time getting more comfortable around her and revealing pieces of themselves they had kept hidden for so long.

“Ironically, the [cases] that ended up being the most complicated usually started as the most simple, or the most far-fetched ones coming in,” she said.

These background interviews would often reveal complexities dating back years. Despite often hearing of years and years of emotional and physical abuse, each case only concerned one isolated incident. This was especially hard for Schneider, who had to work to prevent bias from clouding the case at hand. While a case could simply concern the victim being slapped in the face on the surface level, Schneider would carry around horrifying information, such as the victim being choked on a daily basis or isolated from the world.

Her work in Queens was particularly stimulating because of Queens’ demographics—it’s the most ethnically and linguistically diverse county in the nation. There, she learned about languages she’d never known existed, often relying on the help phone translations or even victims’ children. Immigration status wasn’t a contender in the Queens DA’s cases, so many of the victims had recently immigrated to the United States and were unfamiliar with the legal system, which Schneider often had to clarify. With each victim, she made sure to give them the necessary background they needed and explain that she was there to protect them.

Although Schneider expected hearing the painful stories of the victims to be hard, something she didn’t predict was how many victims would choose not to proceed with their cases, even if it was clear that there had been a vast history of abuse. It took her a while to process why people would struggle with pressing charges. Now, she has a better understanding of the issue, as she’s chosen to take a psychology course at BC called Interpersonal Violence, taught by Amy Tishelman. The class concerns the psychology behind the actions of domestic abuse victims, as well as the “legal, psychological, and social ramifications of extracting women and children from abusive homes.”

But this doesn’t mean it wasn’t still difficult even recalling the tragedy of many of the cases and stories she heard. Schneider cites cases involving pregnant women, children, and medical dependencies on abusive partners as the hardest. Many of the victims would bring the children in with them, often acting as translators or providing emotional support.

“Some of [the children] were my age, some of them were my sibling’s age, and some of them were young,” Schneider said. “It really affected me, just seeing the resilience of the kids, or the fear in their eyes, or so many tears as people retold their stories.”

Schneider looks back at her time in Queens fondly. She credits it with being one of her most grounding and fulfilling experiences, and one that has made her eternally grateful for her many blessings and strong support system. Being exposed to the resilience of the victims as well as their steadfast appreciation for life and drive to move forward, despite everything they had been through, was particularly gratifying for Schneider.

“Ironically, it brought back a lot of my faith in humanity,” she said.

Her most rewarding memory from her internship was the simple action of being thanked by a victim after her case had been completed. Schneider had called her with the results of the case, and the victim was so grateful for the time and attention Schneider had given to her. She’d been through the process before and been rushed through it, but as an intern, Schneider had the time to devote herself fully to the case and see it through to the end.

“It made me realize how much the small moments can do, and how meaningful they can be, even if you don’t realize it at the time,” she said.

Schneider has also exhibited her tenacity and dedication as a BC student through her involvement with the Vice President of Student Affairs office, the nonprofit service club Charity Water, and the R.E.A.C.T. club, an organization raising awareness for human trafficking.

“Sam is one of the most genuine and compassionate people I know—she has the biggest heart which really does show through in her friendships and involvement here at BC,” Rose Foody, CSOM ’18, said.

After graduating from BC, Schneider hopes to go directly into law school and get her J.D. While she doesn’t know if she wants to pursue a career in public or private law, she knows that she wants to work with people because of her time in Queens.

“I think so much can get lost when you’re just looking at papers all day,” Schneider said. “I definitely don’t want to lose the human aspect, or the light that you see in people’s eyes … or the light you can bring to people’s eyes sometimes.”

Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor