Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Providing Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence with Client Centered Legal Assistance

Wemi Peters, Staff Attorney

The Washington Post and CNN, among other media outlets, recently reported some disturbing new federal statistics on sexual violence. According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one in five women suffer severe physical violence at the hands of their partner, and intimate partner violence affects more than twelve million people in the United States yearly. Equally troubling is how young these women are at the time that they experience this violence. Seventy percent experience intimate partner violence by the age of twenty-five.

This survey captures a reality that is faced by many of our own Washington D.C. residents.  Between January and November of this year alone, there were over four thousand requests for Civil Protective Orders (CPO) filed in D.C. Superior Court.

Legal Aid provides vital legal assistance to survivors of domestic violence who are going through the CPO process. Four days a week, Legal Aid attorneys staff the Domestic Violence Intake Center based in Southeast, Washington, D.C., providing immediate legal counsel and advice to survivors seeking protection from their abusers.  Legal Aid attorneys meet with survivors, provide safety planning and social services referrals, collect relevant evidence for trial, and represent the survivor in Court for their CPO hearing. We work with domestic violence survivors with two goals in mind: holding abusers accountable and ensuring that the legal process helps stem continued victimization.

Sometimes, however, much of what Legal Aid attorneys do in serving survivors extends well beyond court-representation. It is not uncommon for many survivors to feel reluctant about reporting abuse or pursuing legal avenues to protect themselves from abuse out of fear of retaliation, embarrassment, and conflicted emotions about the offending partner. Moreover, all of the survivors who receive assistance from Legal Aid face the added barrier of poverty. The nature of the legal process can also be a source of anxiety for survivors. Here in D.C., for instance, the CPO process requires survivors to publicly confront their batterer despite the deeply personal nature of the abuse. Additionally, at a time when survivors are likely experiencing an emotional crisis and may be homeless, the legal system expects survivors to perform as any other litigant in Court: appear in Court on time, wait patiently for extended periods often in the proximity of the abuser, maintain complete emotional composure, and understand that the system may eventually not grant them the remedy that they are seeking.  These expectations, coupled with the public nature of the proceedings, can result in an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Legal Aid attorneys help survivors of domestic violence navigate the system and empower them to confront these significant challenges if and when they are ready.

For courts and lawyers, there is a relatively simple and straightforward definition of a legal victory.  For survivors of domestic violence, however, the definition can be more complicated. Although obtaining a CPO is largely empowering to a survivor, even if a survivor does not ultimately prevail in court, Legal Aid strives to help the survivor understand that the lack of a CPO does not minimize their suffering or translate to a failure for the survivor. Legal Aid attorneys work to empower domestic violence survivors by assisting them as they make decisions that suit their individual lives.  By helping them regain greater control over their lives, we hope survivors achieve justice and victory as they define it.

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