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Home / Focus / law firms and legal affairs Nov. 2010 / Legal aid agencies offer domestic violence victims free advice, expertise

Legal aid agencies offer domestic violence victims free advice, expertise

Chris Groninger, policy and outreach manager for the Arizona Domestic Violence Legal Assistance Project, helps teach victims of domestic violence to navigate the legal system for themselves. The program also provides training for advocates and volunteer attorneys who represent victims in domestic violence cases. (Photo by Ryan Van Velzer/Arizona Capitol Times)

Chris Groninger, policy and outreach manager for the Arizona Domestic Violence Legal Assistance Project, helps teach victims of domestic violence to navigate the legal system for themselves. The program also provides training for advocates and volunteer attorneys who represent victims in domestic violence cases. (Photo by Ryan Van Velzer/Arizona Capitol Times)

A call to police or a trip to a shelter typically allows a woman to momentarily escape from domestic violence. Often though, victims return to their abusers.

For more than a decade, however, one program has assisted women in leaving an abusive situation permanently by teaching them to fight back through the legal system.

Connie Phillips, executive director of the Sojourner Center, which has been providing shelter and support services for those affected by domestic violence since 1977, says abuse victims often lack resources and are unprepared and uniformed to make a case against their abuser.

She says unresolved custody, housing, medical and financial issues can force victims to stay in an abusive relationship. It’s a situation that leaves them vulnerable.

“Victims are often very vulnerable and nervous about engaging in the court system,” Phillips says. “Legal advocacy allows them to see all their options and to speak for themselves in a court setting.”

The Arizona Domestic Violence Legal Assistance Project has been connecting victims and their families with legal aid since 1997. The program serves approximately 12,000 victims annually.

“Legal advice is really crucial in order to give victims information and provide them with guidance,” Phillips says.

The program, founded by the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services and Education and funded by the Arizona Department of Economic Security, teaches victims to represent themselves in court and helps them find legal representation in certain cases, says Chris Groninger, policy and outreach manager for the foundation.

“It’s the difference between staying in a violent home and being in a safe place with your children when you or an attorney knows how to advocate for child custody,” she says.

The program refers most victims who need further legal advice and representation to Community Legal Services, a nonprofit organization.

Patricia Madsen is an attorney and manager of the family law unit at Community Legal Services, which offers legal aid paid for in part by the Arizona Domestic Violence Legal Assistance Project. Madsen assists domestic violence victims throughout their entire cases, helping with trial preparation and providing legal advice.

“We help victims get on their way to a stable future,” Madsen says. “It’s a more permanent solution than the shelter.”

In Maricopa County, Community Legal Services helps an average of 75 domestic violence victims per month. The most common cases involve orders of protection — similar to restraining orders — child custody hearings and divorce proceedings, Madsen says.

While Community Legal Services does offer direct representation in some cases, the large number of cases it takes has the organization focusing on teaching victims how to proceed with cases on their own.

Ashley Donovan, a staff attorney with Community Legal Services who practices family law, is currently overseeing 20 cases. She is able to directly represent only one of them.

She works with the rest of her clients typically for three to four months. During that time she teaches them how to handle their cases and aids them as they progress. Although it’s frustrating because she can’t represent more people, it’s satisfying to empower victims to represent themselves.

“It’s a sense of accomplishment helping them get their life on track and get custody of their kids,” Donovan says. “It’s something they may not have been able to do on their own.”

When Community Legal Services needs assistance with its load of domestic violence clients or is involved in a case requiring specialized legal knowledge, it typically turns to the Volunteer Lawyers Program.

The Volunteer Lawyers Program is co-sponsored by Community Legal Services and the Maricopa County Bar Association.

Pat Gerrich, director of the Volunteer Lawyers Program, says the organization’s volunteer lawyers have donated $118,000 worth of time this year helping people with legal advice and representation. Gerrich says that just because people can’t pay the $200 per hour fee that some lawyers charge, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have legal aid and legal protections.

“I’m convinced that access to protections from abuse and access to justice should be available to everyone,” Gerrich says.

Myra Ferell-Womochil helps domestic violence victims at the Northland Family Help Center near Flagstaff.

As a legal advocate funded by the Arizona Domestic Violence Legal Assistance Project, she has encountered cases involving everything from human trafficking and mail-order brides to a 22-year-old polygamist with seven children, she says.

Ferell-Womochil isn’t an attorney, so she can’t offer legal advice. But she does offer education, access to attorneys with specific legal knowledge and helps victims build their confidence in advocating for themselves.

“These women blossom, it’s a long process but they become stronger in themselves,” she says “All I do is point them in the right direction.”

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