October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and while many of you may be familiar with the role local domestic violence shelters and law enforcement play in fighting domestic violence, you may not know how the staff and volunteer attorneys at Legal Aid of West Virginia also protect survivors of domestic violence.
Does it surprise you to know that someone charged with domestic abuse has a right to a lawyer, but their victim does not? This is because alleged abusers are handled by the criminal courts, where a constitutional right to legal counsel exists. Legal remedies that might assist the victim, such as personal protection orders, access to property and resources, custody of children, and divorce are issues handled in civil court, where there is no such right. Instead, victims who cannot afford an attorney are often forced to go it alone, representing themselves through processes that can seem complex and byzantine even to trained attorneys.
Tune in to almost any public discussion about domestic violence and you might think the biggest problem facing victims is their own tendency to return to abusers. It does happen, and while there is no single reason for this phenomenon, one thing we know for certain is that victims often get stuck in the bureaucratic and legal morass that engulfs them when they decide to leave. They may find themselves homeless or in a shelter; they may have little or no money; their access to their children may be absent or in jeopardy; and they often find their abusers escalate both real and threatened violence. And while they may understand the courts can offer solutions, without an attorney they fear the overwhelming, incomprehensible legal road ahead.
Faced with these difficult realities, the cost/benefit of breaking free versus going back isn’t a comparison of meaningful pros and cons, but instead a victim’s calculation of what will bring them the least misery. It’s a bitter choice, and many — especially those with children — will choose to take occasional beatings in order to be with their children, have a roof over their head and food on the table.
We can and must do better for individuals and children who have been hurt by family violence. This is where Legal Aid of West Virginia plays a unique and pivotal role: Our staff attorneys and volunteer lawyers offer choices to victims — meaningful legal solutions that keep them safe, secure their access to housing and resources, and ensure their children are out of harm’s way. In fact, a recent study, “Supporting Survivors,” by New York University School of Law concludes that the most effective intervention for reducing domestic violence over the long-term is access to civil legal aid.
So, if we know legal aid is powerfully and uniquely effective at reducing domestic violence, why aren’t all victims getting lawyers? Unfortunately, Legal Aid of West Virginia, the state’s primary provider of free legal services for domestic violence victims, is spread thin and often under-resourced. Moreover, LAWV is also the state’s primary provider of legal aid, not just for domestic violence victims, but for all low-income and vulnerable people facing noncriminal legal problems.
There are ways to help, however. The American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Celebration Week (Oct. 21-27) occurs during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and it’s a wonderful reminder that if you are a licensed attorney, with training and support from Legal Aid your specialized skills could make huge differences in the lives of survivors and their families. All you need to do is reach out to your local legal aid office or visit Legal Aid of West Virginia’s website and select the tab called “Get Involved.”
Nonattorneys can also help survivors find long-term safety and stability. Visit Legal Aid of West Virginia’s website, subscribe to our e-newsletter, contribute and share the word with friends. Caring about justice and fairness isn’t a trait unique to lawyers; it’s shared by everyone living in a free society. We encourage you to follow us on social media, introduce yourself to the staff at your local Legal Aid office (we have 12 across the state), inquire about non-legal volunteer opportunities, and share the news about our free resources and workshops for the public. The more West Virginians engaged in supporting the work of LAWV, the closer we’ll be to making home a safe place for all families.