Domestic Violence: One of Oregon’s Biggest Issues
Domestic violence is recognized as a major criminal and civil justice and public health issue as well as a violation of human rights. In both prevalence and severity, it is one of the most serious problems facing the communities served by Legal Aid Services of Oregon (LASO), a grantee of the Oregon Law Foundation, which administers the state’s IOLTA program. The 2004 Oregon Women’s Health and Safety Survey noted that “[t]he magnitude of this problem far exceeds many other threats to the health and quality of life of Oregon women.”[i]
LASO is a civil legal aid organization that provides a broad range of services to low-income clients throughout Oregon. As is true of many other civil legal aid organizations, LASO’s resources are inadequate to meet the great need for our services. To make the best use of resources, each LASO office periodically conducts a priority-setting process that includes surveying low-income people, community service providers, lawyers, judges, and others about the highest priority needs in the communities served. The priority-setting process consistently shows that family law cases involving domestic violence are among the highest priorities in the communities served. (Other priority case types include housing, consumer, income maintenance, employment, and health.) In recent years, 35-40% of LASO’s cases have been family law cases, most involving domestic violence.
While economic stress and hardship may increase the risk of domestic violence, domestic violence may also cause financial problems for domestic violence survivors and entrap them in poverty and an abusive relationship. Women in abusive relationships report instances in which battering had obstructed their ability to find work, maintain employment, and use their wages to establish greater economic independence and safety. One study in Oregon found that 50% of homeless individuals identify domestic violence as the cause of their homelessness.[ii]
The harms from domestic violence aren’t limited to the adults who experience it. Children exposed to domestic violence often develop interpersonal skill deficits, psychological and emotional problems, and behavior problems.
Addressing the Problem Holistically: The Legal Aid Services of Oregon
LASO has responded with a wide array of services designed not only to help individual domestic violence victims, but also to reduce domestic violence in communities. LASO represents victims in seeking judicial restraining orders that require abusers to stay away from victims. With a restraining order, victims are usually able to maintain their physical safety and the safety of their children. Once physical safety is established, some victims are better able to continue their schooling or to find or maintain employment, which can lead them and their children out of poverty.
Although many restraining order cases are handled by staff attorneys, LASO has also created a very successful pro bono program for private attorneys to help domestic violence victims in contested restraining order cases. Most of the volunteers are not family law practitioners so LASO staff attorneys provide regularly-scheduled training programs for new volunteers and on-going mentoring as needed. The cases involve a discrete area of the law and require only a limited time commitment, but provide the opportunity for attorneys to handle contested court hearings. For these reasons, this project is a popular volunteer opportunity for new lawyers, lawyers seeking litigation experience, and attorneys who cannot commit to taking long-term cases. These volunteers currently help about 350 clients per year.
Representation in Related Legal Matters
In addition to restraining orders, LASO also represents victims in related family law issues like dissolutions and child custody disputes. Issues of custody and parenting time can be especially critical when the abuser has engaged in violence in front of or directed at the children. LASO also assists victims with the multitude of other legal issues that can arise from domestic violence, such as the need to break a lease to escape the abuser, the need for protection from discrimination in the workplace related to the victimization, or the need to access public benefits programs for temporary support after leaving the abuser.
Two examples illustrate these related legal issues. “Angela” and her children lived in fear as they watched their husband and father spiral into mental illness. He refused treatment, became erratic, and verbally, physically, and sexually abusive until Angela said, “Enough.” She obtained a restraining order, but—as sometimes happens—her husband violated it. Angela then filled out the proper paperwork to move from her apartment with the kids to find a safe place. Her husband contested the restraining order and her landlord attempted to evict her for terminating the lease early. Angela was worried about her safety and the impact an eviction would have on her ability to find housing in the future. A LASO attorney assisted her with the restraining order hearing and also had the eviction dismissed. LASO helped her renew the restraining order a year later and her husband eventually filed for divorce. Today, Angela has full custody of the children and their father, who is getting help for his mental illness, is redeveloping relationships with them through regular, supervised parenting time.
“Tara's” abusive husband continually violated the restraining order she had obtained. Tara felt the situation was dangerous, so she left a secure job and moved with her young son to another city. When the state denied her claim for temporary unemployment benefits on the grounds that she had not established good cause for leaving her job, she was cut off from the only means of support available during her search for a new job. LASO helped her challenge the decision and won her case in the Oregon Court of Appeals. Tara later testified before the state legislature, helping to refine a law that allows others in her situation to receive their unemployment benefits so that they won’t be required to choose between employment or their own safety or that of their children.
Family Justice Centers
As well as representing clients in individual cases, LASO is also a leader in the coordinated community response to domestic violence. LASO is a key partner in two new family justice centers where social service providers co-locate so that victims can access a full range of services, from legal assistance to counseling to financial support, in a single location.
Before the advent of family justice centers, victims were forced to go from one agency to another, children in tow, in search of all of the resources necessary to escape the violent situation and stabilize their lives. Each visit to a different agency required the re-telling of an often traumatic story. A study in one Oregon county showed that a DV victim needed to make an average of 15 phone calls, 12 stops at various agencies in a 40 mile radius, and more than four full day visits to the courthouse to obtain an order of protection, find safe shelter, and secure an advocate to help develop a safety plan.[iii] Victims risked loss of employment for absences during this time and children missed school. Victims who were unable to navigate this system and access support were more likely to return to their abusers.
To address those barriers, LASO and multiple other community partners worked together to create family justice centers in two of Oregon’s most populous counties. The justice centers are staffed by representatives of legal aid, domestic violence shelters, the sheriff’s office, county health and human services agencies, counseling services, and culturally-specific service providers for Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and others. A victim can speak to a community-based advocate, file a police report, receive on-going counseling, or talk to the prosecuting attorney’s office all in one location. Each center also has a video-conferencing system with the local court so that victims can establish protection orders on site.
Collaboration with the Courts and Other Community Partners
LASO works closely with the courts to educate judges and court personnel about domestic violence issues. For example, a LASO attorney helped to write a “bench book” for judges to guide them in handling Family Abuse Prevention Act cases. One rural LASO office arranged for special grant funding to bring a nationally-recognized speaker to town to educate local judges, attorneys, and other community partners about domestic violence, secondary trauma, and trauma-informed care.
LASO attorneys also participate in multidisciplinary domestic violence fatality review teams to assist local organizations and agencies in identifying and reviewing domestic violence fatalities. LASO attorneys work with judges, district attorneys, public defenders, county officials, domestic violence social service providers, and other statutorily prescribed agencies to review domestic violence fatalities in their communities and make recommendations to prevent domestic violence fatalities in the future.
All of these efforts provide critical help to victims who have experienced domestic violence and also help to reduce the overall incidence of domestic violence. One study has shown that having a legal aid office in a community is the single largest factor in reducing domestic violence.[iv] LASO is proud to be part of these efforts.