It was a summer internship after freshman year in college that gave Gigi Parris ’96 the first glimpse into her future career. Working with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) in Brooklyn Family Court, Gigi worked on cases that involved getting children out of foster care and either reuniting them with parents or with family members who wanted to care for them. “I remember meeting with a mother who had a terminal illness and a number of children, and sitting there, speaking to her, I made this really valuable connection. I thought, if I can help in any way, then this is a career path that I need to look at.”
Gigi honed her leadership skills at Fay, where she graduated in 1996 as the Founders’ Medal winner and ninth grade class president. “At Fay, I cultivated many values that I still hold dear, such as the value of hard work and community service,” she says. After Fay, she went on to Deerfield Academy and Harvard University. She earned her J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law in 2006. Although she continued to volunteer her time in college as a foster care case reviewer with the Massachusetts Department of Social Services, she was initially lured by the prospect of working in corporate law at Paul, Weiss in New York. Gigi “stuck it out” in corporate law for a few years, but it was the pro bono opportunities that she saw while at Paul, Weiss that really captured her interest.
In 2009, Gigi became a staff attorney at The Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit that provides “ innovative, holistic, and client-centered criminal defense, family defense, civil legal services, social work support, and advocacy to indigent people of the Bronx.” As a staff attorney, her job was to defend parents accused of abuse or neglect. Humanizing those parents before the court is one of her greatest challenges. Family court does not have the same presumption of innocence that underpins the regular judicial system. To protect children, allegations are assumed to be true. “However, a family is a system,” says Gigi, “and we can’t only care about one player in the game, so my job is to break down the stereotypes, assumptions, and negative connotations that come with being accused.” In 2014, Gigi moved to the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, another public defender organization, to assist in building its family defense program by supervising and mentoring young attorneys.
Gigi knows that she’s working in a field where victories are hard-fought and sometimes hard to come by. One of Gigi’s longstanding clients, who has since passed away, struggled with drug addiction. The client’s parental rights to two older children had been terminated, and she was fighting hard to maintain her sobriety to parent two younger children. When she gave birth to a baby who tested positive for drugs, her children were placed in foster care. Gigi worked alongside the client as she continued to fight for her sobriety and bring her children home. “I think of her case a lot,” Gigi says, “because she was such a fighter.” While she didn’t ultimately win that client's case, Gigi has learned through hard work that victory doesn’t always come in traditional forms. “It can come in smaller packages, like having the opportunity to prove who you are to the court or that what you are accused of doesn’t define you as a person,” she says. “[My client] felt like a winner at the end of the day, and I think of her a lot because I think we have a similar warrior spirit. That spirit is what encourages me and pushes me to fight even harder.”