Some survivors of domestic violence walk away from abusive relationships and begin rebuilding. But others doubt that they can safely walk away.
Since 2016, Legal Aid of North Carolina and Campbell Law School’s Blanchard Community Law Clinic have provided free legal representation to survivors seeking protective orders, walking them through the first steps toward reclaiming their lives. The partnership has been a fruitful one, but ample opportunity exists for further collaboration with the legal community, said Elysia Prendergast-Jones, a supervising attorney with Legal Aid’s Raleigh office.
Prendergast-Jones, who totes the sort of heavy caseload standard among pro bono organizations, said that private attorney involvement in domestic violence cases was once robust, but has “fallen apart” more recently. She appeals particularly to young attorneys, whom she believes are getting jobs but not litigation skills.
“They need skills, we need people to help with cases,” she said. “Why don’t we come up with a plan to do this together?”
The need is certainly there. Individuals who are physically, sexually, or emotionally abused often stay with their partners because they feel ashamed, intimidated, or financially dependent, experts say. Many are reluctant to “break up” the family. Some believe they deserve the abuse or that it is normal.
“It typically takes an abused person about seven times of trying to leave a relationship before they actually do,” said clinic director Ashley Campbell. “It’s a very real issue, often messy and complex … and we are very motivated to be a part of that process.”
The first step for those seeking court intervention is filing for a domestic violence protective order (DVPO) with the clerk of court. In North Carolina, the process is not overly complex, but advocates say legal assistance can benefit plaintiffs on multiple levels.
“A lot of times when people file on their own, they don’t really know what information is relevant and they’re often in crisis,” Prendergast-Jones said.
In desperation, many plaintiffs do initially file alone, requesting an ex parte hearing and temporary protection order. If granted, that order is valid for 10 days. A judge will schedule a permanent order hearing and Legal Aid can begin preparing a more substantive case.
As they land on her desk, Prendergast-Jones decides which cases she will refer to the law clinic and its handful of students, certified under the three-semester practice rule to represent victims. Legal Aid tries to not drown students in cases full of complex, underlying issues, so she tends to “thread the needle,” keeping the more complex cases for her agency and passing along those most likely to result in a protective order.
“We get assistance because we get overloaded with cases,” Prendergast-Jones said. “Without Ashley, that program would just fall apart. Just taking one case off our hands is so helpful.”
Campbell said that many young lawyers, particularly those in large firms, are doing sophisticated litigation but lack trial experience. Doing domestic violence cases can be a great way for them to acquire those trial skills while also helping people in dire need of legal counsel. DVPO hearings can be a forum for seeking not just protective orders, but also other relief such as temporary support, possession of the home, or custody of a family pet.
“Domestic abuse is a serious societal problem that we’ve had since the beginning of time,” she said. “What’s really good is that we’re now at a place as a society where we recognize it for what it is, and we want to put a stop to it.”