Restoring Justice for the Abused

June 22, 2016

Pictured: Life Span staff members Donna Johnson (left) and Kris Krafka (right).

The world was quick to turn against a Hollywood actress when she spoke out about allegations of domestic violence. Why? Because the alleged abuser is one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors.

The public was quick to point out, But she was recently pictured smiling! Loved ones rushed to his defense, including his ex-wife, In all the years I have known him, he has never been physically abusive with me.

The incident has given advocates a platform to address the biggest misconceptions surrounding domestic violence, including the fact that an abuser does not always have a history of abuse in past relationships.

One of the biggest misconceptions that Denice Markham Wolf, executive director at Life Span, wants to clear up is that domestic violence is not about hitting. Domestic violence, she explains, is about one person having total power and control over the victim, degrading them, and isolating them from family and friends.

It’s really hard when you’re at DV court and the judge asks, €˜Where’s your black eye?’ when she [the client] is asking for an Order of Protection, says Denice.

Life Span, one of the many impactful organizations you are supporting through the Investing in Justice Campaign, is a Chicago-based organization that offers a range of free services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, including counseling, a 24-hour crisis hotline, advocacy, and legal advice and representation. It stands out from similar organizations in that it takes on the most difficult and complex cases, and is able to do so with the assistance of its in-house counseling component.

Without the counseling service, many clients may not make it through to the end of the legal case. There are emotional effects of isolation and abuse most of Life Span’s clients have not been able to work or finish school because the abuser wouldn’t let them and there is no legal relief to get those years back. With counseling, victims and their children are able to gain stability and support, while lawyers who are not trained to respond to emotional issues can focus on doing an excellent job for the client without the burnout.

What makes a case complex? One client story illustrates a web of complications.

Life Span attorney Nour Bahrani Otremba represented a Syrian woman who came to the U.S. and married a Chicago police officer. Struggling from a serious alcohol problem, he physically abused her and taunted that she couldn’t call the police because he was the police.

One night, he took out his gun and threatened to kill both her and himself. She called 911 and got out of the house, but the abuser filed an order of protection against her, saying she was trying to get him fired. She was homeless, didn’t speak much English, and couldn’t get help from other legal aid agencies, as she was on the wrong side of the order. She was referred to Nour, who took her case and obtained not only a protective order, but also a modest monthly maintenance to allow the victim to find housing and start over.

There are also trauma-related issues stemming from the abuse that complicate a case, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. As a result, the victim is stressed, afraid to lose custody of her children, and may appear disheveled to the judge. The abuser, however, often has the more acceptable public face he is friendly, open, and better situated financially. Despite the victim’s challenges in recovering from the trauma, they are typically still the better parent, and Life Span attorneys work to present a good case for custody for them.

Denice says having her own caseload keeps her current in her knowledge of what Life Span’s clients need and what gaps in services need to be filled. One such gap was the underserved Arab American community. Life Span went from having zero Arab American clients to approximately 200 today, thanks to the addition of Nour, who is fluent in Arabic, and a partnership with Arab American Family Services at the Bridgeview Courthouse.

Denice hopes to be able to expand the organization’s immigrant services. Collectively, the staff speaks Spanish, Polish, Arabic, and Bengali. A diverse staff and partnerships with major ethnic community-based organizations allow Life Span to have an understanding of many different cultures and make its services welcoming and emotionally safe, an important factor given that more than half of Life Span’s clients are immigrants. Staff members, who have immigrant parents or are immigrants themselves, better understand immigrant experiences in cases involving the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) or U visas for crime victims.

I’ve had clients fall into my hands sobbing with joy that they are a legal citizen, said Denice, referencing the impact of VAWA on clients. Before that act, abusers would say €˜you can’t call 911 because they’re going to arrest you and send you back.’ VAWA opens so many doors and shuts down so many fears. It charges me up for months!