Q&A: Helping Victims Make the LEAP to Independence

In this interview, we are focusing Unsheltered Voices on URI’s Legal Education Advocacy Program (LEAP) and highlighting the critical role legal support plays in helping survivors achieve and maintain their independence. Jae Young Kim is our Supervising Attorney who leads LEAP and it is her work around legal aid that has helped our clients get educated about their legal rights and get immediate access to resources. Read on for a Q&A with Jae Young to learn more about our LEAP program.

What motivated URI to start the LEAP program?

LEAP was founded over a decade ago to address the unmet legal needs of the residents in our domestic violence shelters. Many residents come to our facilities and need assistance navigating legal systems. Each survivor has a unique situation which is why It is vital for them to meet with an attorney to determine a plan of action that makes sense for them. We acknowledge that need by providing comprehensive legal services to residents who may have otherwise may be too isolated or afraid to reach out for legal assistance.

What are some of the issues you deal with on a regular basis?

I deal with immigration issues as many of our residents were not born in the United States. Survivors often come to me asking about family law issues, orders of protection, custody, visitation and child support. Divorce law, police interaction, criminal appearances, public benefits and consumer debt are also common issues.

How well does the legal system work for victims of domestic abuse?

The law provides options, but they don’t work for everyone. There are a lot of assumptions made about how victims will respond to domestic violence. For example, many victims will not call the police as they do not feel comfortable speaking with law enforcement and dealing with the judicial system. Immigrant victims often fear deportation or being arrested themselves. The law also assumes that orders of protection act as a deterrent to abusers because they fear arrest or jail, and that is not always the case.

What are particular challenges undocumented victims of abuse face?

Undocumented survivors face many challenges. They are afraid that any contact with the legal system will mean either their child will be taken from them or they will be deported. This fear can also extend to the possible deportation of undocumented children as well. Families can have members with different immigration statuses. Sometimes only the parent entering shelter is undocumented. Sometimes the entire family is undocumented. Sometimes some of the children are US citizens, and some are undocumented. It can be a complicated and terrifying situation to navigate, especially without knowledge of the law.

Based on your experience, what would you say are the top three things that need to happen to reduce domestic violence and make it easier for victims to leave?

We need to increase affordable housing options. We need to raise the minimum wage and push for a living wage. And we need affordable and high-quality health care. Having a place to live with enough money to pay for food and living costs and having good health care is essential. Often, survivors stay in abusive relationships because of financial reasons, particularly in a city like New York, where the cost of living is so high. If survivors do not have to worry about their basic needs, they can then make choices about relationships without worrying about having a roof over their heads or enough food to eat.