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VOL. 121 | NO. 196 | Thursday, October 5, 2006

Abused Women's Program Helps Clients Operate in Legal Maze

By Zachary Zoeller

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"Most people have no idea what the (court) process is. Without our advocacy program, the clients would be all over the building without knowing whom to speak to."
- Laura James
Program director of the YWCA's Abused Women's Services Court Advocacy Program

In November 2005, a Memphis woman was finally fed up with the constant abuse from her husband, who had violently attacked her repeatedly for three years.

"I decided I had enough, told him to leave," she said. "But I was scared of what to do."

The husband, whose rage was fueled by drugs and alcohol, briefly went to jail, and upon his release, the woman sought an order of protection from the Memphis Police Department to keep him away.

Confused by the maze of courts and legal proceedings, the woman, who requested to remain anonymous, was referred to the YWCA's Abused Women's Services Court Advocacy Program.

"Until I ran across them, I was too scared to get the help that I needed to not give in to him and let him come back," she said. "They let me know I didn't have to live that kind of life, that there was help for women in the position I was in."

Laura James, program director, helped the woman understand the legal documents, attended court proceedings with her and so far has counseled her for more than 10 months, the woman said.

"My life has changed tremendously because of the program," she said. "They have been there for me."

Safety first

The anonymous woman's case is all too common for James, who in a six-month period sees about 150 clients as a court advocate for domestic violence victims.

In a tiny office deep within the Criminal Justice Complex at 201 Poplar Ave., James meets with domestic abuse victims who are referred to her from various law enforcement and court personnel.

"Most people have no idea what the (court) process is," she said. "Without our advocacy program, the clients would be all over the building without knowing whom to speak to."

When a client comes into her office, the first thing James does is to find out exactly what the situation is and with what issues the client is dealing. Then James takes care of the client's immediate needs, such as shelter, food and safety, if necessary.

The YWCA has a shelter for abused women, and Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA) provides transitional housing for recovering women, James said. The program also provides free telephones that only can access 9-1-1, courtesy of Verizon Wireless.

"We lay it all out for them and let them make the decisions," she said.

One of James' greatest challenges is finding divorce attorneys who will work for a reduced rate or for free because the process can be so lengthy, she said.

James works with each client to develop a safety plan, or how to prepare in advance for the possibility of further violence.

A detailed list of scenarios provides clients with ideas of how to avoid contact with an abuser and handle a threatening situation.

For example, strategy H in the plan's section, "Safety during a violent incident," states, "Try to avoid arguments in the bathroom, garage and kitchen, near weapons or in rooms without access to an outside door."

Close to home

Domestic violence "can be physical, sexual or psychological with the primary purpose to control or dominate or hurt another within (a) relationship," according to the Knoxville Bar Association.

In March 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that one in three United States families has experienced domestic violence.

Tennessee is no exception.

In 2005, Tennessee moved from seventh to fifth in the number of women who are murdered each year, and the known domestic violence-related cases in the state cost $33 million in health care a year, according to the Tennessee Economic Council on Women.

Of all homicides in Shelby County in 2005, 15.8 percent were domestically related, and 11.4 percent involved intimate partners, according to the 2005 annual report by the Shelby County District Attorney General's Office.

In January 2005, the district attorney's office eliminated the Division 11 General Sessions Domestic Violence Court - the only local court designated exclusively to handle domestic violence cases - complicating things for the court advocacy program, James said. The court was closed from lack of funding.

However, Tennessee is making strides to combat domestic violence.

In June 2005, Governor Phil Bredesen signed a bill that made it a crime, rather than contempt of court, to violate an order of protection. From August to December 2005, the average monthly number of protection order violations dropped almost 20 percent statewide.

Seven prosecutors were named to the Domestic Violence Prosecution Unit in 2005, making it the largest special unit in the district attorney's office, according to the district attorney's annual report.

In July 2006, the maximum penalty under state law for domestic violence was increased from a 10-day jail sentence and $50 fine to an 11.5-month jail sentence and $2,500 fine.

"It puts more teeth in the order of protection now," James said. "(Violators) are looking at jail time and a substantial fine."

Uphill battle

October marks the 19th annual national Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but the Memphis YWCA has been fighting domestic violence since 1976, said Elizabeth Shelley, director of community education.

"Women started talking about 'wife abuse,'" Shelley said.

The shelter opened in 1982, and the first full-time court advocate was hired in 1997. The program grew steadily until three years ago, when funding dropped off, Shelley said.

She attributed the diminished funding from grants and private donations to the lessening popularity of domestic violence compared to recent social issues, such as Hurricane Katrina relief and school drug and violence.

In 2001, the program hired four full-time court advocates and now only one, James, remains, she said.

"It's harder because the number of victims has stayed the same," she said. "We just have to work really hard."

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