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Pro bono programs seek to break cycle of domestic violence

[Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories looking at various ways that attorneys across the state are providing pro bono legal services.]

The legal needs of domestic violence victims can be complicated, especially if they’ve had to flee an abusive situation under extreme duress. From child custody to immigration issues, domestic violence victims have legal needs that go beyond the criminal case of their alleged abusers.

Legal Aid of North Carolina provides free legal services in civil actions to the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault statewide, with services offered through field offices serving residents of all 100 counties. The advocacy group says North Carolina sees more than 30,000 filings a year for protective orders.

“We can always use more help,” said TeAndra Miller, managing attorney of Legal Aid of North Carolina Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Project. “We have grants that support roughly 45 to 50 full-time attorneys.”

Legal Aid of North Carolina’s domestic violence work is primarily funded through the Governor’s Crime Commission Grants, which has steadily received funding for its prevention initiative.

Miller said in 2019, 6,500 of the group’s 7,500 clients were new clients. Those clients need help with problems ranging from immigration and foreclosure, to human trafficking.

“Beyond a protective order, people need help sometimes with other things like employment and housing, and what is really neat, when we have someone come into Legal Aid, they get the benefit of the domestic violence attorneys but they also get the benefit of attorneys that have expertise in those other areas,” Miller said.

Some victims of domestic violence are economically reliant on their abusers, or have not been able to leave their abusers because of concerns for their children, religion or culture. Beth Posner saw this in the two decades she worked in private practice before becoming the director of the Domestic and Sexual Violence Clinic at the University of North Carolina School of Law. She said the victims hope the civil justice system will offer them a way to safety and economic self-sufficiency, a way to keep their children safe, and a way to change their lives to a positive direction.

In her classes, Posner encourages students to practice empathy, to always make decisions that are best for their client, and to abide by their client’s wishes.

“All practice of law, especially in the domestic violence and sexual assault realm, must be infused with an understanding of trauma,” she said.

Posner said protection orders are the temporary Band-Aid for a larger problem that victims must deal with. Domestic violence victims need holistic legal services. Because of the lack of assistance available, child custody or other cases could take months for domestic violence victims to resolve–and may not be resolved before the order of protection expires.

“We don’t have anywhere near enough lawyers who will do pro bono child custody cases, pro bono divorce, equitable distribution, child support matters. We don’t have enough attorneys who will do pro bono immigration. We don’t have enough attorneys who will do pro bono housing cases for survivors of domestic violence who are having trouble with housing. We don’t have any pro bono attorneys who will do employment discrimination cases based upon domestic violence,” she said.

Those cases are more time-consuming for an attorney than a protective order, said Sherry Honeycutt Everett, legal and policy director for the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She described it as an unmet legal need.

“When you get into things like child custody, child support, spousal support, equitable distribution of property, which are all things that survivors also need, the amount of help available dwindles because those cases are intensely time-consuming and really can last 18 years because custody can last until a child reaches the age of majority,” she said.

Volunteering attorneys don’t have to commit to full representation, Everett said. Oftentimes, survivors just need an initial consultation regarding their rights and options, which could be as brief as an hour. Legal Aid offers a Lawyer on the Line program in partnership with the North Carolina Bar Association, in which attorneys can provide legal advice and brief service over the phone.

Miller welcomes more attorneys willing to assist pro bono. Legal Aid has a centralized intake system to connect attorneys with cases they have time to take. It offers statewide training, some of which qualifies for continued legal education credit. Posner said there is a particular demand for Spanish-speaking attorneys.

Domestic violence victims who can’t afford an attorney because they’re trying to keep a roof over their head, gas in the car, or food on the table, will have to wait for help from a pro bono attorney. If they don’t get the legal assistance they need in a timely manner, the cycle may continue, Posner said.

“It causes them to make decisions about their safety that we wish they would not otherwise have to make,” Posner said. “So we see clients returning to abusive partners because they do not have the stability that they might otherwise have if those more comprehensive issues were taken care of.”

Follow Renee on Twitter @BobcatRenee

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