Pour It On
Activists Cite Rising Need for Lawyers o Represent Domestic Violence Victims
Posted Oct 21, 2004 2:17 AM CST
By Terry Carter
In some ways, the past decade’s efforts to stop domestic violence have been too successful.
The creation in recent years of so many organizations and agencies to help victims sometimes makes it confusing for them to know where to go for help.
Speaking at a program marking the 10th anniversary of the ABA Commission on Domestic Violence, San Diego City Attorney Casey Gwinn said the movement to stem domestic violence has created “problems from a proliferation of good things” with a “gantlet of help and services” that is confusing to victims already overwhelmed by their situations.
At the same time, helping victims of domestic violence sort through a wealth of resources appears to be a welcome challenge for members of the legal profession and other groups actively involved.
“No one entity can do it alone,” said Diane M. Stuart, director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women, at the program held in August during the ABA Annual Meeting in Atlanta.
Stuart said the next big push is the Bush administration’s Family Justice Center Initiative, which is putting $20 million into 15 communities around the country to offer centralized, comprehensive services for domestic violence victims.
The development of family justice centers that offer one-stop access to all manner of services likely will increase the need for legal help as more victims learn exactly where to go and what to ask.
San Diego’s family justice center--widely regarded as the best in the country--provides some 120 professionals from 24 agencies under one roof to help victims find access to advocates, police, civil attorneys, probation officers, counselors, physicians and other resources.
Which is where the Commission on Domestic Violence comes in.
“We’ve trained thousands of lawyers for this work,” says Laura Stein, the general counsel at H.J. Heinz Co. in Pittsburgh whose three-year term as commission chair ended in August. “The best thing we’ve brought to this is the quality of education materials and training we do. And the biggest need is to increase the numbers of lawyers and amount of legal work providing representation for these victims. As many as 70 percent of them still don’t have that.”
The commission is the only national entity that focuses solely on the legal response to the problem, according to Stein.
The commission has worked closely with the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, a coalition of more than 2,000 organizations. Their efforts include a successful push in 2000 for Congress’ five-year reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. The reauthorized act provided grant funding for civil legal assistance, with some of it going to the commission for its education and training programs.
Leadership from the Bench
Judges as well as lawyers are beginning to take leading roles in the effort to stop domestic violence. Cleveland Municipal Judge Ronald B. Adrine told the gathering that judges need to get beyond their lack of knowledge about the issue and their occasional hostility toward the extra demands such cases often bring.
“That’s changing,” Adrine said. “Judges can’t be activists in individual cases, but we have an affirmative obligation to exercise our leadership in other ways.”
Judges should lead efforts to educate the public about a variety of issues surrounding domestic violence, from the law to research findings to the justice system’s limits in dealing with it, Adrine said. They also can ensure that their own courthouses treat victims fairly and compassionately, he said.
“The system needs to help victims regain control over their lives and hold violators accountable,” he said.