When Every Case is an Emergency

A's handsStartling statistics have made their way to headlines and stirred a national conversation on the topic of domestic violence, and they indicate that abusive partners don’t discriminate. A woman is beaten every nine seconds in the U.S. Men and transgender individuals often are victims as well. Locally, the Chicago Police Department handled 80,935 domestic-related calls in the first half of 2014 alone.

One organization providing same-day, emergency services to victims in Chicago that you are supporting through the Investing in Justice Campaign is the Domestic Violence Legal Clinic. DVLC is conveniently located in the Cook County Domestic Violence Courthouse at Harrison and Clinton. Beyond offering immediate protection, DVLC embraces a more holistic approach in its services.

We’re trying to focus on the outcomes for our clients and their needs, and having our planning and our growth based around what they are telling us, said Executive Director Margaret Duval, who spearheaded DVLC’s new strategic plan and direction.

[pullquote align=”right”]We certainly get involved with the €˜slam dunks,’ but we also want to be involved in the cases where we think the judges might not recognize the abuse.[/pullquote]The bulk of their services involve processing orders of protection, but in recent years DVLC has expanded to provide representation in family law cases involving divorce, custody, visitation, and child support. DVLC further diversified its offerings with the launch of an immigration program, The Independence Project, which is run by an Equal Justice Works Fellow. That project offers free immigration law services to victims of domestic violence in the form of U visas and VAWA self-petitions.

Domestic abuse victims often don’t know what legal options they have or what solution they want to pursue when they enter the courthouse. This screening process will soon be streamlined when DVLC absorbs the DePaul Domestic Violence Pilot Project. This merger will allow DVLC to help unrepresented litigants prepare pleadings, petitions, and affidavits, as well as accompany petitioners in court.

More than half of the clients need help with litigation, which is in part made possible by DVLC’s Pro Bono Project, a collaboration of attorneys from 19 area law firms, corporations, and volunteer networks who provide direct services.

We try to determine what are the cases in which the attorney can make the most difference, said Duval. We certainly get involved with the €˜slam dunks,’ but we also want to be involved in the cases where we think the judges might not recognize the abuse.

Hiring a Client Support Coordinator has been one of the most significant transformations. With clients in the midst of a crisis, having a social worker on staff to figure out the outstanding issues has proved to be invaluable. She connects clients to counseling, but in a true mental health crisis, she has the skill, knowledge and background to talk to someone who is depressed or having suicidal thoughts. She can also connect people to housing (domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness among families) or job training programs, which have been identified as the most pressing needs following protection from abuse.

A recent immigrant from the Middle East, Neda, had been regularly beaten by her husband over the course of their marriage. After the most recent beating, she fled to a shelter with her three small children, but it couldn’t offer them a bed or food. When they arrived at DVLC, the children were crying inconsolably not from hunger or sleepiness, but from the trauma and terror experienced at home.

That same day, DVLC attorneys won an emergency motion and helped Neda find a safe place to stay. She is now in counseling and adamant about ending her relationship. Her children have, as a result, grown stronger, more resolute and more independent.

I have a lot of admiration for our staff, because they are dealing with real emergencies all day long, Duval added. You go in the morning not knowing who your clients are going to be, and you’re going to deal with someone who’s at one of the lowest points of their life. We’ve had really low turnover in the last few years, and it’s just incredible given the stresses and demands of the job.