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Legal Aid Pro Bono Outreach Projects: Leveling the Playing Field for Victims of Domestic Violence

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Legal Aid Pro Bono Outreach Projects:  Leveling the Playing Field for Victims of Domestic Violence

Pro bono opportunities come in many shapes and sizes. Case referrals are the most well known pro bono opportunity; however, this doesn’t work for all attorneys. Sometimes attorneys are prohibited from direct representation due to current employment or other obligations. Taking into account this need for alternate scheduling, Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma offers many flexibly scheduled outreach projects and other pro bono opportunities across the state — enabling attorneys to volunteer their time and expertise to those who otherwise would not have access to the legal system.

One such outreach project was created in 1986 by Oklahoma City attorney Gail Stricklin. In collaboration with Legal Aid and the YWCA, Ms. Stricklin crafted a partnership to support victims of violence. Volunteer attorneys meet in person with shelter residents on a weekly basis. After a frightful escape from an abusive situation, legal advice to shelter residents can be crucial, especially if children are involved. Shelter staff also arranges child care, as need¬ed, and has a liaison avail¬able for consultation.

The project provides an invaluable service to violence victims by providing quick access to legal advice in a secure setting. Jennifer Cluck, YWCA liaison, who has a deep understanding of the project’s benefits to clients, as well as to shelter staff, observes that, “The clients have been very excited to be able to talk to an attorney after entering the shelter. Access to legal advice relieves stress for residents, as well as YWCA staff. To have a consistent group of support for these ladies helps to create safety and justice for them in a world in which they have had neither.”

The project is especially rewarding to the attorneys involved. Laurie Jones, a professor at OCU Law School, is a regular project volunteer. “The impact that we as lawyers can make to help domestic violence victims is immediate, powerful and far-reaching,” she said. “In 25 years of law practice, the work at Passageway is the most rewarding and meaningful work I’ve done as a lawyer.”

These days, Gail Stricklin focuses much of her time seeking to secure legislative changes regarding domestic violence situations. Such changes are needed to ensure the safety of those victims who are trapped in especially perilous situations. Ms. Stricklin said, “Legal Aid pro¬vides an invaluable service to violence victims; as research studies from the University of Arkansas and Colgate Uni¬versity indicate that access to legal services contributes more to the decline in domes¬tic violence than do other sources such as shelters, hotlines or counseling.”

Ms. Stricklin’s most recent efforts in transforming Oklahoma law have resulted in the passage of House Bill 1739, which provides more protections for non-abusive parents and children involved in child custody and visitation matters, including the provision that a parent may suspend visitation under certain circumstances to protect the children.

Occasionally, a case comes along in which a client is in danger of losing her life if she is unable to escape from her abuser. Ms. Stricklin has offered pro bono representation to clients in this type of dire situation. Many times, attempts to flee have been unsuccessful, and the violence has escalated to a point at which the danger of loss of life is imminent. According to Ms. Stricklin, “These cases require the extraordinary measure of seeking a sealed name change to safeguard the client and her children.”

HOW YOU CAN HELP
The generous donation of time and effort of pro bono attorneys throughout the years has benefited many clients. Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma Inc. is a statewide program with offices assisting every county. If you are interested in lending a hand with an outreach project or would like more information about outreach projects, contact Cindy Goble, statewide pro bono coordinator, Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma Inc., by calling (405) 488-6823 or e-mail at cindy.goble@laok.org.

 

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