Almost eighteen years ago, on April 1, 1986, through a grant from the Illinois Attorney General, Illinois Violent Crime Victims Assistance Program, the Chicago Legal Clinic implemented its Domestic Violence Program (“Program”). At that time, the Clinic had only one office, the Clinic’s current main office and administration headquarters, located at 2938 E. 91st Street, in South Chicago. Since its inception, the only requirement for the Program’s direct service has been for the victim to attend the initial interview with an attorney at the office, for a thorough assessment of the victim’s case. Although the Program has never had any geographical limitation in its direct service to clients, the same was somewhat curtailed by the ability of the victim to attend that all important initial interview. As the years went by, the Clinic expanded to a total of five (5) offices: South Chicago, Pilsen (1988), Austin (1996), Down Town (1999) and Uptown (2003) with its concomitant expansion of the Program. The neighborhood locations make it a lot easier for the service population to access the Program and so the Program’s geographic service area has, de facto, quintupled in its eighteen years of existence. Currently, the Program itself has a staff of seven (7) members: five (5) attorneys and two (2) support staff. However, due to the high percentage of family law issues that the Clinic handles, all of the Clinic’s staff attorneys – 15 attorneys - are trained to identify and preliminarily address domestic violence issues.
The goals of the Domestic Violence Program are as follows:
1. To provide legal representation and counseling to victims of domestic violence and significant others while pursuing all available remedies afforded them under the Illinois Domestic Violence Act.
2. To increase awareness of legal avenues available to victims of domestic violence. This will be accomplished through educational seminars conducted at churches, community agencies and other locations where victims of domestic violence are found.
3. To attempt to decrease the incidence of unreported acts of domestic violence by informing victims of the civil remedies available under the Illinois Domestic Violence Act which obviate the necessity of involving the police.
4. To assure that victims of domestic violence are informed of the progress on their cases and play an active role in the processes which form the resolution of their cases.
5. To network with other disciplines, medical, sociological, financial, and others who can help to provide a "holistic" approach to assisting victims of domestic violence.
6. To provide legal education and representation to undocumented victims who are abused by spouses who are either United States citizens or legal permanent residents, thus enabling them to access the benefits afforded by the Federal Violence Against Women Act.
PHILOSOPHY ON APPROACH
The Program provides a variety of services which can be divided into two main categories: 1. Those aimed at preventing domestic violence; and 2. Those which are responsive to domestic violence, after the fact.
1. Prevention: The Program has a very strong educational component. It seeks to not only educate the victims on a one to one basis when they resort to the Program for legal counseling, but in a more comprehensive way it also strives to increase the public's awareness of the legal avenues available to victims of domestic violence through seminars describing the legal rights and remedies of victims of domestic violence. For example, the awareness of the negative legal consequences that certain actions, such as seeking child support from the aggressor, or seeking an order of protection in civil court, can potentially have on the victim. Often an order of protection can unwittingly open the door to unwanted counterclaims by the aggressor. The Program has a strong belief that there is a need to provide victims of domestic violence, as well as those who seek to serve them, with a basic understanding of both the positive and negative consequences of the legal choices they may make.
2. Response: One of the goals of the Program is to provide direct legal services and legal counseling to victims of domestic violence. These services are provided not only to victims who come directly to the Program for assistance but also to referrals from a vast array of social and medical service providers, battered women's shelters, the court system and many other community organizations.
The legal services include consultations, both telephonic and personal; legal counseling for victims of domestic violence concerning their rights under the Illinois Domestic Violence Act and legal representation to obtain orders of protection, if they do not already have an order of protection as a result of criminal proceedings. But even if the victims of domestic violence already have an order of protection – obtained in either criminal or civil court - when they contact the Clinic, the Program will represent them in other related legal proceedings, i.e. divorce, paternity, custody, guardianship, etc., thus providing the victims with a comprehensive legal representation that goes well beyond the immediate protection and relief.
The Program has established an innovative policy in order to help domestic violence victims. When a victim of domestic violence calls the Program for the first time, the call will be referred to an attorney as soon as possible - at most an attorney will respond within 48 hours. The attorney will make a legal assessment of the victim's situation and determine if indeed obtaining the order of protection is the best approach to take under the circumstances. Many times, incorporating the civil legal system in a potentially life threatening situation might trigger a fatal result. The attorney explains to the victims that if, for example, the aggressor has threatened to kill the victim and the victim knows and/or feels that such action is a clear possibility, then obtaining a legal order may not be the best practical solution to avoid the imminent danger. Under those circumstances, getting out of the house and hiding from the aggressor may be the best approach. After a practical and tangible protection from the danger is obtained, then the attorney will explore the legal avenues available and if appropriate, an order of protection will be pursued. In the meantime, all victims are referred to counseling to help them cope with their situation.
The Program has a clear understanding about its limitation; there is very little it can do to truly help victims of domestic violence, all by itself. The Program is aware that domestic violence cannot be addressed by the legal system alone: other disciplines are needed in order to be effective in its treatment. That is why the Program resorts to other disciplines that can help the victim cut all ties from the aggressor. Domestic violence has always been perceived as a sociological tragedy so the Program has always been working in conjunction with social workers, therapists and counselors. In the 90's, domestic violence was recognized as a public health issue as well. It was then that the Program started to establish strong ties with hospitals and physicians, believing that such holistic approach serves the victims of domestic violence more efficiently than through the legal system alone.
Ostensibly, the Program’s ultimate goal is to make the victim of domestic violence (more than 90% female) become completely independent from the abuser. One of the most enslaving dependencies that a victim has with her aggressor is the financial one; it is paralyzing for a victim of domestic violence to make the decision to leave her abuser when she depends on him for survival. At the beginning of the 21st century and in an effort to address this problem in some meaningful way, the Program embarked into the challenging task to connect victims with banks and other financial institutions in order to establish a referral program. The idea is for the victim to have access, if needed, to free financial advisors who can educate her on some fiscal basics: how to open a bank account and/or a savings account, how to use a checking account, how to make certain investments, however modest they might be, etc.
In summary, with its over 17 years of experience, the Program has acknowledged that it is more effective to first educate and empower the victim through the help and cooperation of other disciplines, before resorting to the legal system. Hopefully, this holistic approach enables the victim to make decisions about her life and her children’s lives independently, without the fear of being second guessed, criticized or punished for doing so. The Program believes that such an approach not only helps the family but that it will ultimately inure to the benefit of society as a whole.