When Raio Krishnayya was working as an Illinois prosecutor handling domestic violence and sexual assault cases, his work focused on physical violence inflicted on victims. But he soon realized there was more to his clients’ stories — immigration issues, a need for protective orders, child custody battles, among others.
“When you’re prosecuting those cases, you start to think, ‘OK, if I’m hearing this consistent story over and over, who deals with that? Who’s handling that? Who’s on the other side of me, on the civil side, to address some of those issues?’” Krishnayya said. “And (if) you ask the question long enough, you start to realize that there’s civil legal aid organizations, but they may handle one aspect of it. … They don’t handle all of it.”
Krishnayya eventually made his way to Indianapolis and learned through his experiences here and through his involvement in the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section Victims Committee that there were few civil legal aid services targeted toward domestic and sexual violence victims in the Midwest. So, drawing on his knowledge from his prosecuting days, he opened the Center for Victim and Human Rights on March 24, 2008, as an effort to fill that gap. Now, with CVHR’s 10-year anniversary just days away, Krishnayya and his staff are celebrating the organization’s growth into an eight-person operation serving nearly 800 people in the Indianapolis area annually, with their sights set on continued expansion.
“What we’re finding out is really access to legal services — that gap is widening for everybody,” Krishnayya said. “… So what does that mean, to access legal assistance, and how does that affect safety and empowerment, which is really what we’re looking to do.”
From then to now
When CVHR opened 10 years ago, Krishnayya said the organization’s work focused largely on helping clients with their immigration issues, including T-visas for human trafficking victims and U-visas for victims of violence. The center’s work also conferred indirect benefits on their clients’ families — particularly their children.
Over the years, CVHR began partnering with other community organizations to expand its services, and today the organization provides pro bono legal representation through two primary programs: the Crime Victim Rights Program and the Human Rights Program. The Crime Victim Rights Program harkens back to CVHR’s roots by providing humanitarian immigration services while also offering legal counsel to parties seeking protective orders — one of the center’s biggest projects — and paternity actions. And through the Human Rights Program, the organization represents violence victims seeking asylum and special immigrant juveniles.
In the early days of CVHR’s work, Jessica Topor, the senior staff attorney, recalls the office consisting of only herself and Krishnayya, who would work in concentrated silence as they tried to meet the varied needs of their clients. But now, the organization has grown into an eight-person operation, with five attorneys, two law clerks and one outreach coordinator.
The expansion of CVHR’s services has also allowed it to increase the number of clients it serves, Raio said. While he estimates the center represents 300 to 400 primary clients each year, CVHR’s total reach in 2016 — including primary clients and their children – was 582 people. That number increased to 730 during Fiscal Year 2017, according to the organization’s annual report.
Krishnayya credits much of CVHR’s widening impact to its partnership with other Indianapolis-area nonprofits. One such partner is the Domestic Violence Network, which aims to end domestic violence through education, advocacy and collaboration with other community resources such as CVHR.
The partnership between Krishnayya’s organization and the Domestic Violence Network began to flourish when Kelly McBride became DVN’s executive director in 2013. Together, the organizations pull from each other’s knowledge to provide comprehensive services to domestic violence victims, McBride said.
For example, the two groups worked together to develop a report on Indiana’s protective order process, which they submitted to a blue ribbon commission. The report pulled from CVHR’s legal knowledge and DVN’s experience with domestic violence victims to put forth a series of recommendations based on national best practices, which the commission is now working to implement.
The partnership with DVN is just one of the ways CVHR has expanded its community reach over the last 10 years, said Emily Djabi, community outreach coordinator. The organization is represented in groups such as the Coalition for our Immigrant Neighbors and the Indiana Protection for Abused and Trafficked Humans Task Force, which touch other facets of CVHR’s service offerings, Djabi said.
CVHR’s partnerships benefit the clients and the service providers who work for victim advocacy groups like hers by drawing on each organizations’ expertise, McBride said.
Grooming the next generation
Another factor contributing to the center’s growth over its first decade has been its commitment to training law clerks to become victim rights advocates after passing the bar, Krishnayya said. He specifically partners with the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law — where Krishnayya earned his master of laws degree — by hiring students such as Topor.
As a law student, Topor knew she wanted to do advocacy work, but wasn’t sure what path her career would take. One day Topor bumped into Krishnayya, who urged her to apply for a clerkship in February 2012. She’s been with CVHR ever since.
Topor is the first to admit that her early days with the organization presented a steep learning curve as she learned about victim advocacy work, but she credits her success to Krishnayya’s patience and intensive training. Now, Topor has become a trainer in her role as CVHR senior staff attorney, a job that allows her to invest in the next generation of human rights attorneys in the same way Krishnayya invested in her.
That investment means allowing law clerks to get their hands dirty right away, Krishnayya said. CVHR’s law clerks aren’t given menial tasks to pass the time, he said, but instead are allowed to work with clients from the very beginning. Hopefully, that experience will provide the clerks with the skills they need to build a career in victim advocacy work, he said — and hopefully will inspire them to stay with CVHR.
“Pretty much my entire staff started out as law clerks here,” Krishnayya said.
The CVHR staff will pause to celebrate the organization’s 10-year anniversary at a fundraiser in April, but then will return to their work and continue preparing for the next 10 years, which includes plans for continued expansion of services. One of Krishnayya’s main goals for the future is to expand into rural areas and other portions of the state where access to justice is severely limited.
Krishnayya pointed specifically to Hamilton County, where the monetary disparity between attorney fees and low-income residents can keep those residents from finding the legal services they need. He also plans to ramp up CVHR’s educational programming to ensure victims from all communities and economic backgrounds know where to turn when they find themselves in dangerous situations.
“We’re talking about safety, we’re talking about empowerment,” Krishnayya said. “It’s really critical to be able to get that message out and understanding how the law affects these issues.”•