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Tough Economic Times Means Increased Legal Need at Domestic Violence Clinic

Friday, May 23, 2008

  • By: Thomas Adcock
  • Organization: New York Law Journal

Economic Downturn Drives Rise in Domestic Violence

New York Lawyer
May 28, 2008

By Thomas Adcock

The tenth anniversary of the Domestic Violence Clinical Center, an initiative of the New York Legal Assistance Group, comes at a time when its attorneys and law students expect greater need, given the historic corollary between economic downturns and the abuse of women and children.

"When you speak with victims of violence, they talk about the stressors in their lives and the stressors in their abusers' lives - loss of a job, loss of income," said Lisa Rivera, a staff attorney at the center and supervisor to a flock of law students who counsel low-income clients in Family Court proceedings, as well as hearings before the Integrated Domestic Violence Court.

She added, "We've begun seeing an increase in [non-custodial parents] who can't pay child support, or ask for decreases in child support payments because of the economy."

Increased stress on already pressured households, said Kim Susser, director of the Legal Assistance Group's matrimonial and family law unit, are liable to roil a vicious cycle.

"It goes both ways," said Ms. Susser. "Poverty causes domestic violence, and domestic violence causes poverty."

All the more important, both attorneys say, is that the clinical center celebrate its decade of existence - a benefit dinner is set for June 12 - as a means of growing its program of serving women and children, and training some 100 law students to date in litigating matters of family offense, custody and visitation rights.

Statistics show that homelessness is yet another social ill related to domestic violence.

A 1990 Ford Foundation study, for instance, found that 50 percent of homeless women and children in the United States had fled or were fleeing abuse. Likewise, a 2005 study by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that half its member city administrations identified domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness among women and children.

A September 2004 study released by the National Institute of Justice, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, revealed:

• Women whose male partners experienced two or more periods of unemployment over the five-year course of the study were three times more likely to be abused.

• Couples under "financial strain" had triple the domestic violence rate of others.

• Women in low-income neighborhoods are "substantially more likely" to be repeatedly injured by male partners.

According to the federal study, "[J]ob instability and not employment status itself was a major risk factor for violence against women. . . . [S]ervice providers may want to monitor changes in the local job force because cutbacks could potentially increase the level of intimate violence."

The Domestic Violence Clinical Center takes on second- and third-year law students for one-year externships in which they work 15-20 hours a week on citywide caseloads of as many as five clients.

"I love litigating, and I love Family Court," said Ms. Susser, a former Brooklyn Legal Aid lawyer in the juvenile rights division.

"You can make a world of difference in that court," she said. "You get much more effective remedies for your clients in terms of equitable distribution, spousal support and child support. None of that comes out of criminal court."

Student externs, said Ms. Susser, "learn not just to use the sympathy factor, but to use the tools of law, which are quite strong."

Thomas Adcock may be reached at
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