I have the best job in the world—I represent victims of domestic violence in Order of Protection proceedings. The work is challenging and litigation-intensive, and the best part is that I don’t have to worry about getting paid—at least, not by my clients! I work for the Will County Legal Assistance Program (WCLAP), which provides free civil legal services to low-income and senior citizen clients.
We are not a governmental agency, despite our name. Our funding flows from a variety of grantors including (among MANY others) the United Way, the Illinois Bar Foundation, the Legal Services Corporation, the Equal Justice Foundation, and the Lawyer’s Trust Fund. Specific funds for my work come from the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority under a VOCA (Victims of Crime Act) grant. As many readers of The Catalyst are aware, VOCA funds have been cut sharply this year. In fact, many legal aid funding sources are becoming more and more uncertain as the economy deteriorates. Some factions are advocating for the idea that what few resources are left should be used primarily to help consumers weather the recession. While these needs are pressing ones, it has been our experience here at WCLAP that a primary effect of the struggling economy has been an upswing in substance abuse and in domestic violence. A glance at our local paper reveals at least three major incidents of domestic violence over the last week, all of which resulted in serious injury or death.
Women, men, and children facing domestic violence can attempt to protect themselves by obtaining an Emergency Order of Protection at their local courthouse. If they are able to obtain an EOP, it will generally provide for a no-contact order between petitioner and respondent for a period of three weeks. At the end of that time, assuming the respondent has been served, the petitioner may return to court to request a Plenary Order of Protection, which can last for up to two years. The process seems simple enough. Unfortunately, many petitioners are not aware that they may face a contested hearing at their plenary court date. The respondent often appears at the hearing with an attorney. Caught off guard, terrified, and ill-educated about the legal process, victims of abuse may find themselves on the losing end of the case. My job is to help balance the scales by providing these victims with expert representation. I have been doing this work for ten years. The following is a sample of what many of my mornings are like:
Court starts at nine a.m. sharp. This is the part I call “kamikaze lawyering.” All of the victims I represent are in crisis, and all want to know what to expect on their court date. I have educated them on the spectrum of possible scenarios, but the beauty of specializing in Order of Protection litigation is that the next three hours will be impossible to predict.
I usher my three clients whose cases are up this morning out into the hallway. I find safe spots for each of them to stand so that I can speak to them in privacy. I’m careful to ask whether they see the respondent in their case, or anyone who might have come with him. All my clients have been told ahead of time that I have a number of cases up each morning, and they are prepared to be patient.
Today, I am representing “Shirley,” a white woman in her 50s, who has two adult children with her for support. She has an Order of Protection against her husband of 30 years, who has become increasingly violent over the last year. She suspects he may be suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s, but he refuses to get treatment and has repeatedly injured Shirley over the past several months. Shirley has two other adult children who have told her they plan to testify on behalf of their father, and who are blaming all of the problems on Shirley. She is nervous but determined—she wants to proceed with a divorce as soon as possible.
Next up is “Martha.” She speaks no English. She arrived in Illinois from Mexico a few years ago, and fell in love with “Raul.” She was unaware, until after she became pregnant, that he was a gang member and had a long history of domestic violence arrests with a variety of partners. Raul was physically violent with Martha from almost the start of the relationship, and Martha had accepted that violence as part of “a woman’s place.” However, Martha recently found out that Raul was having an affair. She confronted him about it, at which point he took her infant son out of her arms and proceeded to beat her until she had a broken nose and two broken ribs. Raul was arrested but is currently out on bond. Martha has no family in Illinois and no job. She does not really want the Order of Protection, but DCFS has become involved as a result of Raul’s recent arrest, and has told her that she will lose her child if she does not pursue the order.
My last client today is “Traci,” a housewife with three children. Her husband “Tom,” against whom she has her Emergency Order of Protection, has problems with marijuana and alcohol use. He has become increasingly convinced that Traci is cheating on him, and has begun following her everywhere. He is so obsessed that he was fired from his job as an architect with a Chicago firm. While there has been no physical violence, Tom has a habit of making references to the Drew Peterson case and asking Traci what she thinks happened to Staci Peterson. He has talked about the fact that hiding a woman’s body would not be difficult, and that Peterson’s children are probably happier now that they are not under the influence of their mother. Traci is terrified. She is also extremely angry and has repeatedly stated that she wants to make sure that Tom never sees the children again.
Any or all of these cases may go to trial. Today is a good day, because all of my clients have appeared for court (often clients reconcile before the court date). I prep each client on what will happen if their cases are called for trial, and I enlist the services of courthouse and shelter advocates to help my clients cope with the emotional reality of the courtroom.
At the end of the court call, my clients have fared relatively well. Shirley’s husband appeared for court, but physically assaulted both myself and the bailiff prior to our hearing. He was arrested, and Shirley’s Order of Protection was granted. She did not have to endure a trial. Martha’s husband appeared and agreed to an Order of Protection. While he could have asked for visitation, he asserted that he did not want to see either Martha or his child. Her order was extended for a year, and I have referred her for counseling, safety planning, immigration help, and financial assistance. Traci’s husband showed up with an attorney, and we had a contested hearing. I had prepared Traci for the fact that her case could go either way, based on the evidence, but her husband was erratic and belligerent during the trial. She was granted a two-year order of protection, and her husband was given supervised visitation with their children. She is not happy with me (remember, she wanted NO visitation), but on the balance, it has been a good day’s work.
Without legal aid, none of these women would have had an attorney for their trial date. Shirley might have gotten discouraged by the sight of her children lined up to testify against her. Martha would not have been able to advocate for herself and might have been too frightened to appear at all. Traci would have been outclassed by her husband’s experienced attorney. Legal aid representation has, hopefully, changed the course of these clients’ lives. I am proud to be involved in this important work, and I am grateful for grants, like the VOCA grant, which enable me to continue serving my clients. If this is a cause that appeals to you as well, remember that you CAN help! For more information on how you can support our funding or volunteer your time, call your local legal aid office or e-mail me directly.