Pro Bono News

Erica Pulling: Legal Aid Gives Domestic Violence Victims Meaningful Options (WV)

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Erica Pulling: Legal Aid Gives Domestic Violence Victims Meaningful Options

"October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and while many of you may be familiar with the role local domestic violence shelters and law enforcement play in fighting domestic violence, you may not know how the staff and volunteer attorneys at Legal Aid of West Virginia also protect survivors of domestic violence.

Does it surprise you to know that someone charged with domestic abuse has a right to a lawyer, but their victim does not? This is because alleged abusers are handled by the criminal courts, where a constitutional right to legal counsel exists. Legal remedies that might assist the victim, such as personal protection orders, access to property and resources, custody of children, and divorce are issues handled in civil court, where there is no such right. Instead, victims who cannot afford an attorney are often forced to go it alone, representing themselves through processes that can seem complex and byzantine even to trained attorneys.

Tune in to almost any public discussion about domestic violence and you might think the biggest problem facing victims is their own tendency to return to abusers. It does happen, and while there is no single reason for this phenomenon, one thing we know for certain is that victims often get stuck in the bureaucratic and legal morass that engulfs them when they decide to leave. They may find themselves homeless or in a shelter; they may have little or no money; their access to their children may be absent or in jeopardy; and they often find their abusers escalate both real and threatened violence. And while they may understand the courts can offer solutions, without an attorney they fear the overwhelming, incomprehensible legal road ahead.

Faced with these difficult realities, the cost/benefit of breaking free versus going back isn’t a comparison of meaningful pros and cons, but instead a victim’s calculation of what will bring them the least misery. It’s a bitter choice, and many — especially those with children — will choose to take occasional beatings in order to be with their children, have a roof over their head and food on the table.

We can and must do better for individuals and children who have been hurt by family violence. This is where Legal Aid of West Virginia plays a unique and pivotal role: Our staff attorneys and volunteer lawyers offer choices to victims — meaningful legal solutions that keep them safe, secure their access to housing and resources, and ensure their children are out of harm’s way. In fact, a recent study, “Supporting Survivors,” by New York University School of Law concludes that the most effective intervention for reducing domestic violence over the long-term is access to civil legal aid..."

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