Students in UB School of Law’s Family Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic will step up their efforts to provide legal help for women in perilous home situations, with the support of a major new grant.
The $25,000 grant, from the Buffalo-based Garman Family Foundation, will further develop the partnership between the clinic and the Family Justice Center of Erie County, which provides comprehensive services to clients, mostly women, experiencing intimate partner violence.
In the Domestic Violence High Risk Collaboration, says Clinic director Judith Olin ’85, students will work directly with Family Justice Center clients who are identified as being at the highest risk for serious, even lethal, violence. “We will address legal issues that may be stopping them from leaving the situation,” says Olin, including issues involving housing, employment, child support, divorce and child custody. Under her supervision, clinic students will represent clients in court on some issues and refer them to other legal services providers on others.
This new effort will enable students to serve clients in immediate danger, Olin says, and teach them how to ensure the client’s safety. Studies have shown that victims of family violence are at highest risk when they decide to leave their home situation. Advocates work with them on a safety plan, for example counseling them to find protective shelter before filing a legal case. “We need to be very careful in terms of respecting the client’s safety and making sure that our representation doesn’t expose the client to any more risk,” Olin says.
Students will meet with clients in the Family Justice Center’s Main Street facility and satellite offices, focusing on those who cannot afford a private attorney but earn too much to qualify for other free legal services. The grant money will also fund a student summer fellowship to carry on the work between academic years.
“The relationship we have with the clinic is critical to what we do,” says Tiffany Pavone ’02, director of operations at the Family Justice Center. “The students will fill an important gap in representing domestic violence victims who are at the highest risk of danger and find it hard to leave because of legal issues.”
Referring clients to the Family Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic, Pavone says, is much more cost-effective than providing legal services directly. In addition, she says, “this gives students valuable experience in regards to the dynamics of domestic violence.”
That includes frightening details of the danger some clients are in. Using a standard screening instrument, Family Justice Center advocates ask clients such questions as “Does he own a gun?” and “Is he drunk every day or almost every day?” A particularly telling question – “Does he ever try to choke you?” – points to one of the greatest risks intimate partners face, that of strangulation. Some clients, Pavone says, acknowledge that they’ve been choked into unconsciousness, sometimes often. “You know that individual has been minutes, if not seconds, away from the end of their life,” she says.