GPSolo Magazine - September 2006
Do Something About Domestic Violence
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It’s a time for each of us to consider what we, as lawyers, can do to contribute to efforts to stop this epidemic in our communities. Domestic violence knows no economic, social, religious, ethnic, racial, gender, or age boundaries. Affecting the rich, the educated, and the religious as well as the poor, uneducated, and disenfranchised, it’s not just a women’s issue. It impacts all members of the community —from the elderly and infirm who are abused by caretakers to children who are exposed to violence in their homes. Studies show that one in every four women will be a victim of violence at the hands of an intimate partner in her lifetime.
Your secretary, your child’s best friend, your estate planning client, your sister, the city clerk, the old lady who lives up the street, and the mechanic at the garage may all be victims of domestic violence, and you may never have had a clue. Domestic violence is an insidious, ubiquitous plague upon all avenues in American society.
Domestic violence “law” is a misnomer. It’s not an area of law but a category of clients. And it’s not limited to family and criminal law. Its victims seek safety in every type of legal assistance imaginable—employment, tax, housing, bankruptcy, immigration, consumer, tort, real estate, and estate planning law. Domestic violence permeates practically every aspect of the landscape of a lawyer’s work. The Main Street lawyers of America—the general practice, solo, and small firm practitioners—are in the prime position to serve and assist these individuals.
Unfortunately, when many victims of domestic violence seek representation, they rarely disclose readily to their lawyers that they’re suffering and surviving violence in their very own homes. Domestic violence is a humiliating experience, shaming victims who must deal daily with intimate relationships with the perpetrators. Enormous trust issues pervade their relationships with others. These victims may not understand the remedies available to them; even if they do, they are often reticent to seek redress and protection. It remains socially unacceptable to self-identify as a victim. It’s far easier for a victim to explain away bruises as sheer klutziness than to place blame upon someone in a close, dependent relationship. Some victims even feel that they deserved the abuse and that their abusers are fragile and needier than they themselves are. How can a lawyer discover critical information needed to ethically and responsibly represent victims of domestic violence?
The ABA Commission on Domestic Violence ( www.abanet.org/domviol/home.html) has created the “Tool for Attorneys to Screen for Domestic Violence,” a resource to help all lawyers determine if their client is a domestic violence victim by providing suggested questions that can be integrated into client interviews. The General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division, in partnership with the ABA Commission on Domestic Violence, has modified the tool slightly for your use as a general practitioner, solo, or small firm lawyer. The Commission and Division will be working together throughout the year to educate Division members on how to use this tool and why it is so important that we do so. This useful and effective new resource will help lawyers incorporate appropriate techniques, safety planning, and referrals into everyday practice to ensure that victims of domestic violence receive the support and information they need to become safe.
This tool includes sample questions, examples of steps to take to ensure the safety of attorneys and clients during representation, and resources for clients who are victims of domestic violence. It is available for free download at www.abanet.org/domviol/screening%20tool%20final%20version%20sept.%202005.pdf. A sample has been inserted into this issue for your use. Hard copies may be ordered for the cost of shipping and handling by calling the ABA Service Center at 800/285-2221.
Division members Pamila Brown and Laura Farber worked with Margaret B. Drew, Chair of the ABA Commission on Domestic Violence, and Robin Runge, the Commission’s Staff Director, to adapt this tool to the needs of general practice, solo, and small firm lawyers, and I have endorsed this as the Division’s 2006-2007 public service project. While I personally never have witnessed or experienced domestic violence in my own life, I am certainly aware of its existence. Many of us are likewise protected by our own ignorance, blithely assuming that if our clients don’t specifically mention domestic violence, then surely it doesn’t exist in their lives. It is my hope that if this screening tool saves or helps only one client, the project will be worthwhile.
I ask you to Do Something. As concerned lawyers, leaders in your community and the organized bar, and even as one lawyer doing something, share this tool with others. Use the tool in your practice and in your daily life, and encourage others to do the same. By doing so, you will help alleviate the suffering of countless victims of domestic violence. Please start today by reading the tool, visiting the ABA Commission on Domestic Violence’s website, and helping solve the problem.