Women, Childcare, and Access to Justice

July 8, 2019 by Benjamin Kamelhar

by Maggie White

In Washington, DC’s oppressive summer heat, the children in front of me only wanted to play in a sparkling wall of water outside the National Gallery of Art. Though they did not have a spare set of dry clothes, playing in the water made them so happy that I could not bring myself to stop them. Passersby smiled at us and commented on how cute the children were. For a few minutes, I forgot how I came to be playing with them for the day.

I was only introduced to the children because their mother was a client of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, where I was working for the summer. I was a temporary intern for the Domestic Violence and Family Law unit, and the children’s mother was in the middle of a contentious legal battle for custody rights. Shortly before her deposition, she called her attorney, my supervisor, and informed her that the previous childcare arrangements were no longer feasible. The client explained to my supervisor that she would not be able to attend her deposition unless she found someone to watch her children. I became a childcare solution for that day.

Little research has been conducted specifically on the subject of how childcare availability impacts women’s access to the legal system. It is well-documented that women’s ability to access justice is limited by both structural inequalities and pressure resulting from traditional stereotypes.[1] Women in poverty are especially vulnerable, as many of them are afraid to risk alienating those that support them, either financially or otherwise, by initiating legal proceedings.[2]

Combined with other inequalities, women’s ability to access the legal system is negatively impacted by lack of adequate childcare.[3] Women are responsible for the majority of unpaid caregiving for their children around the world.[4] Additionally, some women report that they become the default primary caregiver even when attempting to split childcare responsibilities equally with their partners.[5]  At twenty-three percent, children living with a single mother was the second most prevalent family structure in the United States in 2017.[6] This data shows that women who provide unpaid childcare while in a relationship continue to provide unpaid childcare even after the relationship dissolves. In 2017, women in households with a child under the age of six spent over an hour per day providing physical care to the child, while men spent about twenty minutes doing the same.[7]

Paying for childcare is often a problem for low-income women because it is cost prohibitive.[8] The average annual cost of full-time care for one child ranges from $3,000 to over $20,000 depending on age, type of care, and location.[9] One advocacy organization has identified that “child care deserts,” places where child care providers were particularly sparse, were positively correlated with low-income communities.[10]

The experiences of family lawyers at the Legal Aid Society confirm that inadequate childcare is a significant problem for that organization’s clients.[11] Legal Aid takes various types of cases in the domestic violence and family law practice areas, including divorce, child custody, and civil protection orders.[12] Attorneys say that their clients frequently have child care issues, regardless of what type of case they bring.[13] However, the attorneys did note that lack of adequate child care was less of an issue with divorce and custody cases.[14] They thought it might be because those are two types of cases where hearing and trial dates are scheduled far in advance.[15]

Legal Aid’s clients have particular difficulty obtaining child care for civil protection order cases, which in the District of Columbia are scheduled around two weeks out due to time restrictions on Temporary Protection Orders.[16] With such short notice, clients may be unable to find child care. Additionally, many civil protection order cases are set for 8:30 a.m., around the time that many children need to be at school.[17] Legal Aid attorneys mentioned that many of their clients had special difficulty with that time slot because they were responsible for transporting children to school.[18] Because civil protection order cases involve intrafamily offenses, clients with those types of cases are particularly vulnerable.

If a client is unable to find child care, she may face an additional obstacle if she attempts to bring a child with her to court. DC Superior Court judges have different policies on whether children are allowed in the courtroom.[19] I spent a semester as an intern with a District of Columbia Superior Court judge, and he allowed children in the courtroom as long as they were not children involved a case that were old enough to understand what was happening in that case. However, not all judges are open to children in the courtroom. The Legal Aid attorneys I spoke with could easily identify judges that did not want children in the courtroom.[20]

The District of Columbia Superior Court does offer on-site child care. However, the child care center does not allow children of all ages and requires caregivers to submit extensive medical records.[21] Legal Aid attorneys themselves faced delays of thirty days or more when requesting medical records.[22] The medical records I requested during the first week of my summer internship had not been returned to Legal Aid when I left two months later. The limited service combined with burdensome requirements makes DC Superior Court on-site childcare ineffective for many Legal Aid clients.

Sometimes, the myriad challenges that female, low-income litigants face when continuing legal action are too much to bear. The Legal Aid attorneys that I spoke with were able to recount multiple stories of clients that decided to drop cases due to child care difficulties.[23] They believed the root of the problem is that their clients are “poverty-stricken single parents” who have often alienated their support systems in the process of bringing legal action.[24] As a result, low-income women who most need access to justice are unable to get it.



[1] CEDAW: General Discussion on Women and Access to Justice, Women’s Int’l League for Peace & Freedom (Feb. 22, 2013), https://wilpf.org/cedaw-general-discussion-on-women-and-access-to-justice.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] UN Women, Turning Promises Into Action: Gender Equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development 2 (2018), http://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2018/sdg-report-summary-gender-equality-in-the-2030-agenda-for-sustainable-development-2018-en.pdf?la=en&vs=949; Kendra Milne, High Stakes: The Impacts of Child Care on the Human Rights of Women and Children, West Coast LEAF 10 (2016), http://www.westcoastleaf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/High-Stakes-low-res-for-web.pdf.

[5] Milne, supra note 4, at 10.

[6] The Majority of Children Live With Two Parents, Census Bureau Reports, U.S. Census Bureau (2016), https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-192.html.

[7] American Time Use Summary, Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018), https://www.bls.gov/news.release/atus.nr0.htm.

[8] Parents and the High Cost of Child Care, Child Care Aware Am. 39 (2016), https://usa.childcareaware.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/CCA_High_Cost_Report_01-17-17_final.pdf; Patti Neighmond, Poll: Cost of Child Care Causes Financial Stress for Many Families, NPR (Oct. 26, 2016 4:35 AM), https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/10/26/499166418/poll-cost-of-child-care-causes-financial-stress-for-many-families.

[9] Nat’l Women’s L. Ctr., Fact Sheet 1 (2019), https://nwlc-ciw49tixgw5lbab.stackpathdns.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Child-Care-Fundamental-1-2019.pdf.

[10]> Child Care Aware of Am., supra note 8, at 13.

[11] Interview with Stephanie Westman and Trisha Monroe, Domestic Violence and Family Law Lawyers, Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, in Washington, DC. (Nov. 2, 2018).

[12] DV/Family Law, Legal Aid Soc’y D.C., https://www.legalaiddc.org/dvfamily-law (last visited Mar. 13, 2019).

[13] Interview with Stephanie Westman and Trisha Monroe, supra note 11.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Courthouse Design and Finance State Links, Nat’l Ctr. for St. Cts., https://www.ncsc.org/topics/courthouse-facilities/courthouse-design-and-finance/state-links.aspx?cat=Childrens%20Waiting%20Rooms%20and%20Day%20Care%20Centers#DC (last visited Mar. 13, 2019); Id. 

[22] Interview with Stephanie Westman and Trisha Monroe, supra note 11.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.