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Combating Domestic Violence with Legal Services

By Evelyn Pursley

What Is Domestic Violence?
Domestic violence occurs when one person in an intimate relationship uses a pattern of coercion and control against the other person during the relationship and/or after the relationship has terminated. It often includes physical, sexual, emotional, or economic abuse.

Domestic violence occurs in all kinds of families and relationships. Persons of any class, culture, religion, sexual orientation, marital status, age, and sex can be victims or perpetrators of domestic violence.

Why It Is Important to Combat Domestic Violence in North Carolina
• North Carolina ranks 4th in the nation in homicides committed by men against women. (The NC Department of Justice reports an average of more than 100 domestic violence-related homicides annually from 2008 to 2010.)

• One in four of our women will report violence at the hands of an intimate partner.

• It is estimated nationally that intimate partner violence costs employers over $5 billion annually.

• Approximately one-fifth of patients treated in hospital emergency rooms are treated for injuries inflicted by someone with whom they have an intimate relationship.

• One study found 54% of employees living with domestic violence missed at least three full days of work per month.

• Every nine seconds a woman is abused. Domestic violence is the #1 reason women and children become homeless in the US.

• Each year, intimate partner violence results in an estimated 1,200 deaths and two million injuries among women. About one-third of female victims of homicide were killed by their current or former husbands or boyfriends.

• A child's exposure to the father abusing the mother is the strongest risk factor for transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next.

• More than 13% of high school students report experiencing physical violence by a boyfriend or girlfriend.

(Information from the North Carolina Council for Women, a women's advocacy agency within the North Carolina Department of Administration.)

NC Domestic Violence Victim Assistance Act
In 2004 the NC General Assembly passed comprehensive legislation designed to address the problem of domestic violence. Part of that multi-faceted program was to provide access to legal representation for domestic violence victims through established legal services programs under the Domestic Violence Victim Assistance Act.

A study by economists at Colgate and the University of Arkansas (Amy Farmer & Jill Tiefenthaler, Explaining the Recent Decline in Domestic Violence, 21 Contemp. Econ. Pol’y., 158, April 2003) has shown that the availability of legal services decreases the likelihood that women will be battered. The study notes that while shelters, hotlines, and counseling are vitally important crisis-intervention services, it is legal services that offer women certain important alternatives to the abusive relationships. The economists theorize that by helping domestic violence survivors obtain protective orders, custody of their children, child support, and sometimes public assistance, legal services programs help the women achieve physical safety and financial security and thus leave their abusers. Because legal services help women achieve self-sufficiency, they are a good place to spend public money.

Funding through this NC statute is used (1) to provide legal assistance to domestic violence victims; (2) to provide education to domestic violence victims regarding their rights and duties under the law, and (3) to involve the private bar in the representation of domestic violence victims through cases that address actions for protective orders, child custody and visitation issues, and legal services that ensure the safety of the client and the client's children.

The state funds are provided from court filing fees ($.95 on each) sent to the State Bar for distribution to Pisgah Legal Services in Asheville (serving Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, Polk, Rutherford, and Transylvania counties) and Legal Aid of NC (serving the other counties statewide). Allocations to the two programs are based on: 20% divided equally among all NC counties and 80% allocated according to the numbers of 50b protective orders filed in their program areas during the previous state fiscal year as established by AOC statistics. In the 2011-12 state funding year, $1,205,404 was distributed specifically for these purposes.

Pisgah Legal Services’ Mountain Violence Prevention Project
The Mountain Violence Prevention Project (MVPP) is a collaborative effort of Pisgah Legal Services (PLS) and domestic violence prevention agencies in six western North Carolina counties. By integrating legal and other supportive services, the MVPP provides a continuum of care for low-income victims of domestic violence in that region.

The Mountain Violence Prevention Project helps victims of domestic violence take legal action to escape abuse and rebuild their lives. Through MVPP, Pisgah Legal Services helps victims secure court protective orders to improve their safety. PLS also helps victims address a range of other issues to live apart from their abusers, including child custody and child support, divorce, division of marital property, housing, and consumer issues.

Funding for this program comes from the state of North Carolina; a Violence Against Women Act grant from the US Department of Justice; NC DSS Family Violence Prevention; the Governor’s Crime Commission; and three local United Way programs. Support also comes from the Mountain Area Volunteer Attorney Project, a pro bono referral program made up of more than 325 active private attorneys who volunteer their services to help meet the need for civil law representation of low-income residents of Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, Polk, Rutherford, and Transylvania Counties. Formed in 1983, the program is lead by an advisory board consisting of private attorneys.

Unfortunately, PLS lost $350,000 of its $600,000 in annual funding for MVPP this year when three federal grants were cut. The NC Governor’s Crime Commission did not renew a $211,000 grant of federal funds passed through to the state. The US Department of Justice reduced the amount that could be sought per year from $230,000 to $100,000. A third grant was lost when the US Department of Housing and Urban Development eliminated funding for supportive services in transitional housing for victims of domestic violence. PLS is attempting to replace that $350,000 in order to serve more women and children victims of domestic violence.

Legal Aid of North Carolina Violence Prevention Initiative
The Domestic Violence Prevention Initiative (DVPI) is a specialized, statewide project of Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) that provides legal assistance to victims of domestic violence. It is comprised of attorneys/advocates based in LANC field offices (geographically located across the North Carolina) and a project director located in Raleigh. These DVPI attorneys/advocates are trained in the laws available to help increase the safety and self-sufficiency of victims, as well as the dynamics of domestic violence and safety planning.

Legal Aid of North Carolina's DVPI works closely with community-based programs, agencies, and task forces serving victims of domestic violence. The DVPI has existing formal collaborative agreements and referral protocols with more than 60 domestic violence victim services organizations throughout the state, and informal working relationships with at least 20 others. The DVPI also partners with the University of North Carolina School of Law, at which a DVPI attorney trains and supervises law students in the domestic violence clinic to represent victims of domestic violence.

The types of services that are provided vary between office areas as a result of funding resources and restrictions. LANC supports domestic violence work with funding from the state of North Carolina. LANC also receives funding for domestic violence work from a Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grant to provide emergency-only services, such as obtaining and enforcing protection orders.

Why This Work is So Important—One Woman’s Story
“Elizabeth’s” alcoholic husband held her captive and tortured her for three terrifying days. During the attack, their two-year-old clung to her mother, crying. When her husband finally passed out, Elizabeth escaped to the hospital—having been almost beaten to death. A legal aid attorney helped her secure a court protective order, divorce, and custody of her daughter. Legal aid allowed Elizabeth to escape abuse and rebuild her life. She now works as a school principal and is married to a kind man. Her daughter is thriving in kindergarten. They are just two of the many who need assistance each year to rebuild safe and productive lives.

Evelyn Pursley has been the executive director of NC IOLTA since July 1997.

This article was written using material from the NC State Bar Report to the General Assembly regarding the Domestic Violence Victim Assistance Act.