By Nicole NeSmith, CARPLS Development & Communications Associate
October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which was first started in 1981 by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) to connect battered women’s advocates across the country. We at CARPLS want to highlight the significance of this devastating issue that so many of our clients face. Domestic violence bears a substantial cost to the survivors, but it also endures long-lasting effects on criminal justice, social services, the livelihood of children, and much more.
A Snapshot of Survivors
Domestic violence is a major public health problem in the U.S. The Institute for Policy Integrity’s report on “Supporting Survivors” asserts that domestic violence’s “reach knows no social, religious, racial, or ethnic bounds” (p.1), with 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experiencing severe intimate partner violence in their lifetimes (NCADV). On a typical day, there are over 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide, but organizations struggle to fill staffing gaps with volunteers and advocates (NCADV).
The fact is, access to legal counsel (in the form of advice or direct representation) and social services reduces the probability of future domestic abuse (Institute for Policy Integrity, p.5). Our team at CARPLS excels at aiding people in times of crisis (which may include rape, physical assault, emotional assault, and stalking), advising them about their general legal options, helping clients file papers or get orders, counseling them through the after-effects of abuse, and partnering with our legal and social service partners to address clients holistically. At times, we are the first place where a client is offered both legal and social service options, and their situation is professionally and empathetically acknowledged.
CARPLS Staff Attorney Mary Flynn became a sexual assault crisis advocate five years ago to utilize her social work skills directly on behalf of survivors. She has learned much about the impact you can have on survivors as she has the complexities of this work. Mary tries to help survivors overcome feelings of guilt or shame, as “no one deserves to experience this trauma.” The 40-hours of volunteer training she received for domestic violence, in addition to the 40 hours for sexual assault training, has proven invaluable as she guides victims through the challenges they face at that moment in the hospital and beyond. Her training taught her that the majority of people she helps have been abused by someone they know well.
The Risk Factors
When Mary is at the hospital, she is meeting people on what is “often the worst day of their life,” but the hardships extend beyond the actual physical violence. Domestic victimization is correlated with a higher rate of depression, suicidal behavior, addiction to drugs or alcohol, and other negative health effects. However, only 34% of people who are harmed by intimate partners receive medical care for their physical and mental injuries (NCADV).
Victims of domestic violence also suffer enormous economic losses. Each year, they lose 8 million days of paid work, with the cost exceeding $8.3 billion (NCADV). In addition, survivors of domestic violence may suffer from restricted daily spending and financial planning, with their partners stealing money, preventing financial account access, sabotaging employment and education, and/or causing debt. For the abuser, it’s an issue of control and keeping the victim from being financially independent.
We know from experience that the economic vulnerability of a client can increase the likelihood of being in an abusive relationship (Institute for Policy Integrity, p.4). 2/3 of our clients that visit the CARPLS Domestic Relations Advice Desk, for example, are un- or underemployed. When a client is low income and can’t afford to hire a lawyer and their partner is in a better financial position, their situation is dire. Without CARPLS, many survivors would fall through the cracks. No matter the service, empathy and listening are key ingredients to connecting our clients to the right services when they need them most and when they might be ready to leave a bad situation.
The CARPLS Domestic Relations Desk
CARPLS Staff Attorney Maria Mora, who counsels clients at our Domestic Relations Desk and on the hotline in English and Spanish, is deeply attuned to families at risk for domestic violence. “Domestic violence can be misunderstood. You really need to engage with the client and try to understand their position. Sometimes when I talk to people about this issue generally, they’ll say, ‘Well, why don’t they just leave their abuser?’ But it’s not that simple. As an attorney you have to recognize the clients’ needs and observe the physical, mental or emotional warning signs. We have a roadmap, but it’s not always as obvious as you think.”
Mary Flynn, who also assists clients on the CARPLS hotline, has seen from her domestic violence crisis work that abusers often act out with physical violence for the first time when a victim finally leaves. So, Mary focuses on forming safety plans with clients, including not announcing plans to leave the abuser, as well as the importance of connecting with a social service agency who can help them get housing and benefits in place, and so the client can gain court reports and other useful documentation to defeat their abuser’s position on parental allocation issues.
Maria recalls a single mother with children who self-identified as a victim of intimate partner violence. Unfortunately, she was still living in the same home as her abuser, unable to leave because she financially depends on him. In this type of case, Maria sends the client to 555 W Harrison to get assistance from Ascend Justice’s Domestic Violence Courthouse Desk to obtain an emergency order for protection to get the abuser out of the home. Once protected, Maria directs the client to child support services, the Illinois Department of Human Services to apply for food stamps, and counseling services from a trusted network partner. When a mother is married, Maria may refer an eligible client for representation in divorce proceedings, after the order of protection is in place.
The number one cause of family homelessness is domestic violence. And, 9 out of 10 children directly witness episodes of violence in the family. Only 22 percent of domestic violence programs offer emergency housing, with transitional housing much harder to come by. As a result, many survivors who visit an emergency shelter end up returning to their abusers because of a lack of alternatives (Institute for Policy Integrity, p.15).
“Sometimes you just wish you can get a parent and their kids in a shelter,” Maria says. “It would be so nice if there was more funding. Some shelters don’t take mothers with male children over a certain age, for example, and that can be tough on families. We need some other creative housing for situations like that.” Often, clients don’t have any family to rely on. “People can underestimate the power of these connections,” Maria says, “so we need to be that voice if they need to lean on us.”
Ultimately, if an agency referral isn’t working, Maria will reach out and find another one that will. “I’ll pick up the phone and call various agencies when I need to. Sometimes it won’t get done because of a lack of community resources, and that’s just the reality in domestic relations situations.”
Though more funding is needed, CARPLS clients rely on our advice and referral system to navigate how to get out of domestic violence situations legally and physically. “What we do is give them the tools to move their lives forward. They have to build their lives apart from these destructive relationships,” Maria says.
In FY19, we provided 5500 legal consultations at our Domestic Relations Desk. 80% of our cases to the Desk are referred directly by the City of Chicago Clerk’s desk, which shows a tremendous need citywide. 500 cases involved domestic violence, and within those we made 264 direct representation referrals. We send most of our domestic violence clients to Ascend Justice and Lifespan, along with a diverse network of community partners.
Of course, the number of CARPLS cases that involved domestic violence is likely to be higher than our reported total. For example, many of our divorce cases involve domestic violence but the survivors often withhold that information. The National Domestic Violence Hotline notes that “survivors of abuse return to their abusive partners an average of seven times before they leave for good” and the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that nearly half of all domestic violence incidents go unreported.
Continuing to provide legal assistance and working to expand these services for domestic violence survivors is cost-benefit justified for all involved. Given the tight community resources available, how do we help survivors move forward?
“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” Maria says. “People talk about domestic violence, but I’m not so sure how many people empathize. As a society, we have certain biases that are still in place and we need to do more than just talk because it hasn’t changed. I can continue to do the work I do, but how do I actually get people to listen? That’s the question.”
When we improve the coordination of legal aid and social services for victims, we have a better chance of preventing violence, homelessness and harm to the family and community overall. Some of these changes might include making it easier for survivors to obtain orders of protection, increasing research on the role of attorneys to reduce exposure to domestic violence, more evaluation of how funding for legal aid services might affect the rates of domestic violence, research on how increased access to social services empowers survivors, and free or reduced-cost counsel (Institute for Policy Integrity, p. 21-22).
“No matter what, I tell clients, ‘you know you have more power than you think,’” Maria says. “And I mean it every time.”