Domestic Violence Awareness Month underscores need for legal aid

How the state is bolstering civil legal aid programs for domestic violence survivors

October is a time to raise awareness about the epidemic of domestic violence, which makes up 50 percent of all reported crimes committed against people in Washington.

Every day, domestic violence — as well as the often-intertwined crimes of sexual assault, child abuse and human trafficking — causes tremendous harm to thousands of Washingtonians.

Gov. Jay Inslee and legislators have been working on strategies to protect domestic violence and sexual assault survivors by addressing the underlying causes of these crimes and holding perpetrators accountable. Local tragedies, including the 2003 death of Crystal Judson Brame at the hands of her estranged husband, Tacoma Police Chief David Brame, have raised awareness about domestic violence and led to further action, including the creation of the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center.

The Inslee administration recently narrowed the gap in services available to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking and other crimes by investing a significant portion of federal Victim of Crime Act money in civil legal programs. Legal aid services help people who cannot afford an attorney navigate the justice system. In cases of relationship and sexual violence, that often means help with securing a protection order against the perpetrator.

In Washington, the Department of Commerce’s Office of Crime Victims Advocacy administers VOCA funds, which have supported a range of services to address crime victims’ immediate health, safety and economic problems that arise from the crime. Historically, however, few of these funds provided access to civil legal aid.

This changed when Commerce adopted its VOCA 2015–19 State Plan.

In that plan, the department for the first time expressly included civil legal aid as a priority service for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes. Inslee’s policy staff, informed in large part by findings that had just been published in the 2015 Civil Legal Needs Study, encouraged Commerce to prioritize civil legal aid.

The Civil Legal Needs Study demonstrated that domestic violence victims experience twice the number of civil legal problems as the public as a whole, and that these problems affect every aspect of their lives, from their physical safety to housing, health care, family relationships and employment.

“The extensive outreach to communities that informed our 2015–19 VOCA Plan confirmed that crime victims have a significant unmet need for civil legal aid,” said Rick Torrance, director of the department’s Office of Crime Victims Advocacy. “Our office envisions a future where all people impacted by crime have access to the support and services they need. Funding for civil legal aid is a key element of achieving that vision.”

Project Safety

In 2016, Commerce developed a new, statewide comprehensive civil legal aid program for crime victims known as the Legal Aid to Crime Victims Plan. It allows people who work with crime victims, such as police, prosecuting attorneys and shelter providers, to spot legal problems and quickly connect crime victims with legal aid providers.

One such program is a King County-based collaborative called Project Safety.

Elizabeth Flavin, a Project Safety attorney with the Northwest Justice Project, provides legal aid to a client at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent. (Office of Civil Legal Aid photo)

A joint effort of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and five civil legal aid providers, Project Safety uses courthouse-based advocates to identify survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence and then connects them with the legal help they need. The program, in its first year, is the first of its kind to offer seamless, victim-centered connectivity between the criminal and civil-justice systems.

Project Safety is already making a positive difference, one victim at a time.

In one case, a disabled woman petitioned for a domestic violence protection order against her husband, who was physically and emotionally abusive. Her husband got a lawyer and fought back, terminating the protection order, kicking the woman out of their home and leaving her without the aid of her service dog.

Through King County’s Protection Order Advocacy Program, her case was quickly referred to a Project Safety attorney. After several hearings, the woman prevailed and secured a new five-year protection order, ensuring her safety and permanently getting her home and her dog back.

“Prosecutors work every day to protect victims of abuse and violence, but we know that prosecution alone is often not enough to help victims recover and be safer,” said King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg. “For many vulnerable people, real help is found in the civil legal system, where they can address a myriad of legal issues related to their abuse, including housing, family law and employment security. Project Safety provides counsel that makes an enormous difference in their life.”

In another recent case, Sexual Violence Legal Services at the YWCA of King and Snohomish Counties helped a man with serious cognitive disabilities. The man had been sexually assaulted for years by another man, who had convinced him that the abuse was a normal part of friendship. Advocates helped the man secure a protection order against the perpetrator.

The man developed anxiety because of the ordeal, making it hard for him to focus at work. On one occasion at home, he called police several times, aggravating his landlord. Advocates intervened and worked with his employer and landlord to make sure he did not lose his job or housing. They also created a safety response network for the man that included his parents, case manager and trusted coworkers.

“This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we need not only bear witness and recommit ourselves to addressing and ending the epidemic,” said Jim Bamberger, director of the Office of Civil Legal Aid. “We also should take a moment to appreciate and thank the professionals — including the 35 VOCA-funded civil legal aid attorneys — who work hard to address the full range of needs of the many thousands in our state who are victims of domestic violence and other criminal activity.”