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Attorneys coping with more domestic violence cases

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In mid-2012, the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic devoted its family law attorney to handling only domestic violence cases. This was done as part of a partnership the legal clinic formed with the Julian Center in Indianapolis to help address a growing trend of abuse.

Domestic violence has been increasing in recent years along with what family law attorneys are observing as more anger and more meanness. The economy is a well-documented driver of the violent trend that shows as finances get tight in a household, the instance of abusive behavior rises. Although conventional wisdom holds that as the economy recovers and more people return to steady work, the abuse will decline, attorneys are not sure the trend will reverse itself.

abel Abel

“It concerns me,” said Indianapolis attorney Denise Hayden. “I don’t see it getting better because I don’t see that we’re doing anything to resolve the conflicts.”

Little research has been done to confirm or give a detailed overview to what attorneys say they are seeing. Yet, the rising violence is impacting how these lawyers practice. Sometimes the changes are subtle, but the increase translates into more time spent with a client, more patience and more vigilance.

The new partnership between the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic and the Julian Center is just one reflection of more domestic violence victims needing help. Women, men and children can all be victims of abuse. The two organizations joined together, said Josh Abel, executive director of the clinic, in order to provide better service to people trying to flee their abusers.

In addition, the clinic is getting ready to launch a new program for domestic violence victims. The Victims Justice Program will offer legal services beyond family law, expanding into such areas as immigration law.

The need is there because of the recession, Abel said.

“My hope is that it will get better,” he continued, “but I anticipate we will be operating the program for a long time. I’m hopeful things will improve, but still there will always be a need.”

From July 2011 to June 2012, a total of 64 deaths in Indiana were caused by domestic abuse, according to the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The number of abuse victims needing emergency shelter rose to 10,926 while another 21,794 were served through non-residential programs. This compares to the stats compiled from July 2010 to June 2011 when the state recorded 62 domestic violence deaths. Victims needing emergency shelter reached 10,742 and those treated in non-residential services totaled 20,044.

Judy Hester, founding partner of Brazill Hester P.C. in Indianapolis, has seen this increase in domestic violence in her own practice. She has encountered more instances of physical as well as emotional abuse with both men and women being the abuser. Families are hitting each other not only with their fists but also with what they say and, she pointed out, contrary to the popular nursery rhyme about sticks and stones, “words do hurt.”

Households have been thrown into disarray by the economic recession. Jobs have been lost, homes are in foreclosure, and families are under a tremendous stress. Indeed, many divorce cases have couples dividing debts rather than assets. Hester noted, the world is going through difficult times and as couples and families work through their problems, “more meanness, more venom” is coming into the home.

Being an attorney often in the middle of domestic turmoil, Hester stressed the importance of keeping in the right state of mind.

“I try my hardest to keep myself balanced and grounded so it doesn’t affect me because I won’t be as effective an advocate for my clients,” she said.

Hayden has been an attorney for 25 years. In the past, she could have a couple of domestic violence cases cross her desk in a year, but for the last four or five years, she has been getting such cases weekly. Along with the domestic violence, she has encountered more families struggling with drug and alcohol addictions. She recalled one client who was beat by her husband after she threw his prescription pills down the toilet.

Usually when a victim decides to seek legal help, something has happened that pushes him or her over the edge and to the decision to leave the relationship, Hayden said. Typically, these individuals figure because they have no money, their home is in foreclosure or underwater, they have nothing left to lose. Or, they have noticed their children mimicking the violent behavior and they do not want their children witnessing the abuse any longer.

However, getting away from an abusive marriage is difficult. Attorneys may have to set multiple appointments because victims often have trouble getting to places at set times. Also, these clients require a lot more handholding as they work through the divorce process and possibly file for protective orders.

Domestic violence victims do require more attention. A classic domestic violence case is very high maintenance, said Kerry Hyatt Blomquist, staff attorney at the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence. These clients take more time and can create a special burden for the system, in part because the frequent use of mediation in divorces will not work in these cases.

“It’s not an issue handled well with a blunt force object and sometimes the system is a blunt force object,” Blomquist said. “One size does not fit all.”

dcomesticThe result, she said, are cases slipping through the cracks and people not being held directly accountable. In turn, when the system does not work, that can have a chilling effect with victims choosing not to access the legal system. 

Hayden counsels her abused clients on the seemingly minute details of their lives, for example, instructing them to lock the car doors after they drop off their children to spend time with the ex-spouse. Sometimes clients will want to rush the proceedings under the impression that the courts are stacked against them and their ex-spouse will get everything anyway.  

Other times, a client will ask that Hayden get a protective order dropped. Hayden will first instruct that client to put that request in writing; then Hayden will tell the client she intends to write a letter back refusing to do so.

On top of all this, Hayden is more attentive and even hyper vigilant. In the courtroom, she is aware who is in the room, who is in the hallway, and who is exiting so as to keep the parties away from each other.

Both Hayden and Blomquist questioned if the rise in violence is not also a reflection that people do not know what a healthy relationship can be.

Working at the ICADV, Blomquist has always encountered the meanness other lawyers have been noticing in recent years, but she attributes the violence to the economy as well as to the culture. She teaches a domestic violence class at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law and as part of the course, she shows the students a popular music video to “Love The Way You Lie” which depicts rapper Eminem and singer Rihanna in a violent and sexual relationship.

“I don’t know if we know how to behave anymore,” Blomquist said. “Sometimes I wonder if there is enough preaching from the powers that be on what exactly civil and uncivil behavior is.”•

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