November 17, 2017 Dialogue

Grantee Spotlight | Our Commitment to Survivors: Partners Overcoming Domestic Violence

By Susan A. Fontaine

Introduction

The Partners Overcoming Domestic Violence (PODV) is an ongoing collaborative project providing direct representation by volunteer attorney/mentor/advocate teams who are committed to long-term legal solutions and safety nets that lead to stable lives for survivors of domestic violence. The PODV is administered through the Rhode Island Bar Association's Volunteer Lawyer Program and is funded by Rhode Island Legal Services, Inc. (RILS) and IOLTA funds administered by the Rhode Island Bar Foundation.

Building the Project from the Ground Up

Inspiration for the PODV began several years ago with a small group of attorneys dedicated to empowering survivors of domestic violence while advocating for their safety and well-being. Their plan was to reach out to those organizations that could best recruit the needed resources to provide a hands-on holistic approach to serve individuals in every community affected by the epidemic of domestic abuse.

Forging Valuable Partnerships

The plan to implement the PODV moved forward in the summer of 2015 at RILS. An Advisory Committee was formed by attorney and staff members from RILS, Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Roger Williams University School of Law, Rhode Island Family Court, and the Rhode Island Bar Association. The committee members immediately joined forces and determined each element of this comprehensive legal mentoring program designed to strengthen legal resources for survivors. The representative organizations also pledged their ongoing support of the project, which was a key factor in its success.

Outlining Project Objectives

Over the next several months, and prior to launching the PODV, the committee undertook defining the essential steps needed for a successful program. These steps included the preparation of documents setting forth the mission and objectives of the project and the comprehensive training schedule/curriculum for CLE credit. Committee members also determined training logistics, recruiting methods for volunteer attorneys/ mentors, case intake/administration and evaluation procedures, etc.

Recruiting Volunteer Attorneys

Attorney advisors decided the optimum number of teams for the pilot launch should not exceed ten groups. All interested attorney participants were required to complete an application and members of the committee volunteered to conduct brief phone interviews with the applicants. This process allowed the advisors to ascertain their level of interest, commitment, and willingness to learn in-depth about this critical issue and area of law.

Providing In-Depth Legal Training and Mentorship

In February 2016, the recruitment process was complete and the first phase of PODV was initiated. Nine teams, each comprised of two volunteer attorneys with an assigned mentor, were selected. Attendance at a three-part seminar series covering the reality of domestic violence, advocacy, criminal versus civil options, special considerations, divorce, custody, visitation, child support, third party intervention, etc., was required for volunteers. Seasoned family law mentor attorneys were invited to attend and meet their team. The third session of this in-depth training series included role play involving a judge, opposing counsel, and the attorney team and was held at the Rhode Island Family Court. Also, advocates from the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence were invited speakers and participants throughout the process.

Assigning Cases

Once the teams completed the comprehensive training, the staff of the Rhode Island Bar Association's Volunteer Lawyer Program assigned eligible clients with active restraining orders for assistance with their related family law issues. The VLP staff utilized the domestic violence screening tool in accordance with the objectives of the PODV to ensure eligibility and initially nine family law cases with varying degrees of complexity were placed. Today, three of these cases are still in process and the rest successfully closed.

The following comments are an example of the feedback we received from the volunteer attorneys at the completion of their cases:

My mentor (our mentor) was wonderful to work with and such a great resource! She answered any and all questions we had and provided support and guidance along the way. The PODV program is excellent. I learned a lot of practical information and skills that I use almost daily. I enjoyed working with my partner, we worked well together and our styles and skills meshed well together. We were able to produce a favorable outcome for our client.

The PODV: An All-Around Success

The positive impact of the PODV has been substantial for all involved. As a result of the project, the Volunteer Lawyer Program staff is using a more detailed and beneficial client interview model designed specifically for domestic violence survivors. Eighteen additional attorneys were recruited for the VLP and received the comprehensive training. The awareness of the private bar/ legal community of this crucial issue has been heightened by instituting this project and promoting its continuance. Community organizations, especially those serving survivors, that were involved in the crafting of the project now have a focused legal resource for their clients. Additionally, the Rhode Island Bar Association was the recipient of the LexisNexis Community & Educational Outreach Award at the August 2016 National Association of Bar Executives annual meeting for its collaboration with the partners and the ongoing growth potential of the PODV.

Presently, plans are already underway for the second recruitment and training of attorney teams to empower survivors of domestic violence by the partner organizations. Once again, new attorneys who pledge their support to the Rhode Island Bar Association's Volunteer Lawyer Program will do compelling pro bono work with the guidance and support of a mentor attorney. Most importantly, these attorneys will have the opportunity to be a part of the solution.

Susan A. Fontaine

Public Services Director, Rhode Island Bar Association

Susan A. Fontaine is the public services director of the Rhode Island Bar Association and manages its Volunteer Lawyer Program.