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A View from the Other Side: Hilly McGahan’12 Talks About Working With Victims


Hilly McGahan

An often-overlooked side of criminal law is that of the victims.  The defendant hires or is appointed counsel, and the prosecution represents the state throughout the process, but the victims of crimes can find themselves left to their own devices on how to seek redress for the wrongs done to them.  Hilly McGahan ’12 is working to bolster the voice of victims in her work with victims of domestic violence.

McGahan  grew up in Arlee, a small, picturesque town in western Montana on the Flathead Indian Reservation.  Growing up, her parents were in the beekeeping business, and McGahan lived a rural, farming-style childhood.  During the summers she and her family worked on the farm, but when the long, cold winters came they travelled south – not just to Arizona or California, but to Mexico, and sometimes further south into South America.

Inspired by her travels, McGahan studied political science and Spanish in her undergraduate years at the University of Montana.  After graduating she spent a year working in northern Guatemala.  There she worked to support persons who had witnessed the military massacres that took place there, as they were to soon testify against the government.  McGahan’s experiences in her travels sparked her interest in human rights law.  As she looked at law schools, Cincinnati stood out because of the Urban Morgan Institute.

Having grown up in a rural lifestyle, Cincinnati was quite a change when she moved here for law school.  “I really grew to love Cincinnati,” she explained, though she admitted it took a while to adjust.   Findlay Market was one of her favorite Queen City destinations, and she said that she and her (then) boyfriend (now husband) took advantage of the “Enjoy the Arts” program that included numerous shows and cultural events that take place around the City.

Today, McGahan works at SAFE Harbor back home in Montana.  Formerly called DOVES, SAFE Harbor has a grant from the Office on Violence Against Women (part of the Department of Justice) to provide holistic legal services to victims of domestic violence on the Flathead Reservation and Lake County, Montana.  “The grant allows us to provide legal services to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking,” she explained.  Her work takes her to both state court and tribal court, and deals with tribal law, family law, and immigration law, as well as international law in some situations.  While she is the only staff attorney, SAFE Harbor contracts with a supervising attorney, and the organization also has a domestic violence shelter and a “Men’s Accountability Program” which provides court ordered services to men convicted of domestic violence related offences.

McGahan’s background and experiences travelling inspired her to do the work she’s doing today, but she also received inspiration from her time at the College of Law. She largely came to Cincinnati for the Urban Morgan Institute, and she was impressed with the program while she was there.  “I really enjoyed the group of people I worked with on Human Rights Quarterly,” she said.  Further, she was impressed with the speakers that the Urban Morgan Institute brought in, noting that she was particularly impacted by Professor Michelle Alexander’s (OSU’s Moritz law school) lecture on The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  McGahan also valued her experience with UC Law’s Domestic Violence Clinic, which allowed her to represent clients in civil protection order hearings and to gain practical experience that prepared her for her current position.

When asked if she had any advice for students who may want to do similar work, she shared the following:  “Get lots of practical experience in law school (as much as you can), working with clients, dealing with people from different backgrounds – these experiences are really invaluable.  I think that focusing on what you are passionate about and on what sorts of communities you are interested in working with is important.  Ultimately passion will take you where you want to go, and employers can see that when they interview you.”