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Representing Victims Of Domestic Violence

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

  • By: Nora Jones
  • Organization: Volunteer Legal Services Project

When survivors of domestic abuse come forward for assistance, it can be difficult for legal counsel to accept a change of heart - the victim's decision to return to the abusive home.

"But it is her choice," explained Mary Aufleger from Alternatives for Battered Women, in the opening segment of the training for Nicki's Hope volunteers. "We can advise her on her rights, but we can't make her decisions. And yes, it can be very difficult to understand once you've managed to open a dialogue about what's been going on in her life."

The most recent seminar to train Rochester area attorneys to handle pro bono cases in the area of domestic violence included presentations by some of the area's most experienced professionals who deal with these issues every day.

A combined effort of the Volunteer Legal Services Project, the Greater Rochester Association for Women Attorneys and the Legal Aid Society, the training was the most recent installment in efforts to recruit new volunteers to handle cases that might otherwise slip through the cracks for lack of agency resources or legal assistance funding. Known as Nicki's Hope, the program was named after an individual who, with the help of volunteers, pulled herself out of an abusive relationship to start anew.

Aufleger, court advocate for the Domestic Violence Intensive Intervention Court, explained that many victims don't think of themselves as "battered," particularly if the primary abuse is emotional or verbal. Her office is in the Hall of Justice where she sees clients daily.

"Typically it's an issue of control, and the woman loses sight of the fact that she has been intimidated into submission," she relayed. "If her partner rips the phone off the wall, he has not been violent to her, but he has effectively eliminated her potential means of seeking help. It may take some time to get her to open up about such incidents."

Another story Aufleger shared concerned a woman who adamantly denied any physical abuse. However, as she opened up about events that brought her to seek protection, she admitted that her husband had held a loaded gun to her head on more than one occasion. Abuse doesn't always involve black and blue marks or broken bones.

Aufleger went on to recommend ways to build trust to get the victim to open up, explaining the dynamics and effects of abuse.

"She may be very reluctant to open up because she feels no one will believe her," said Aufleger. "She fears the judge won't believe her and she will just make her situation worse. Patiently listening and helping her regain her confidence can be critical to her ultimate safety."

M. Carey Travis, Domestic Violence Court coordinator, joined the presentation to provide insights on practice in the local court.

Other segments of the presentation included discussion of Article 8 proceedings, jurisdiction, and burden of proof, presented by Carla Palumbo of the Rochester Legal Aid Society.

Cynthia Carroll, Domestic Violence Program director at the Legal Aid Society focused her remarks on client counseling, negotiating strategies and ethical considerations.

Facilitating the program was Mary Beth Conway from VLSP.

The program was video-taped and can be loaned to those who were unable to attend or to those interested in a refresher program.

Only a handful of new volunteers attended this training, so the combined sponsors hope others will come forward to earn continuing education credits through pro bono assignments.

"The course is free provided attendees commit to representing domestic violence clients," explained Conway.

Caption One:

TEAM OF EXPERTS -The Nicki's Hope training program on Sept. 15 was presented by Cynthia Carroll, Mary Aufleger, Mary Beth Conway (moderator) and Carey Travis. (Absent from the phot Carla Palumbo who spoke later in the session.)

Caption Tw

DYNAMICS OF ABUSE -Mary Aufleger of the local organization, Alternatives for Battered Women, shared her insights having talked with many victims of abuse. "Women from the suburbs are often even more reluctant to open up, explaining away the inappropriate behaviors as a result of career and financial pressures."

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