Advocates for the targets of domestic violence are worried. They’re seeing a spike in the number of such cases, attributed to the tensions of families forced into close quarters by coronavirus quarantines or dealing with the stresses of unemployment.
As the United States marks National Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October, UB School of Law’s Family Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic is stepping up to fill some of that need, and working as well to prevent violence in the home. In close collaboration with organizations serving domestic violence victims, student attorneys draft emergency petitions for orders of protection and appear remotely before Family Court judges.
Associate Clinical Professor Judith Olin, in her fifth year as clinic director, says her students – nine this semester, including two men – are working with community partners to represent individuals in court who are seeking emergency orders of protection. She says they’re also beginning to bring divorce actions in state Supreme Court for women in domestic violence situations. “There’s definitely an unmet need for representation, especially for low-income people,” Olin says. “Often the wife has far fewer financial resources, so she needs assistance in getting child support and spousal support."
That kind of work – training student attorneys while providing real-world help to clients in need – has been the clinic’s mission for nearly 30 years. But more recently, students have also been pursuing projects intended to keep such violence from occurring at all.
Judith Olin was a guest on the UB Gender Institute’s podcast series “Gender Matters.” Olin discusses ways to support survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence, the effects of COVID-19 on instances of domestic violence, and the work left to do.
One example is a project by third-year student Abbi Fuhrken to create a video resource for UB students who need to obtain an order of protection against another student. Fuhrken worked with Joshua Sticht, assistant chief of the UB Police, and Olin to outline, script and present the video, which was then recorded via Zoom and posted on the University’s Student Life website. [Watch the video online]
“The idea was to create a presentation that has links and other information in it for students to really understand how to get an order of protection and what the different types of orders of protection are,” Fuhrken says. She explains that the options include a campus-based order that protects students from other students, but is limited to University-related locations, as well as civil and criminal orders of protection. The campus-based order, she says, “can result in different types of sanctions, and sometimes those orders can be more effective because they have serious repercussions academically.”
A separate effort, still in its initial stages, is under way to create a court watch program aimed at monitoring how courts at all levels – including Western New York’s many town and village courts – handle cases involving domestic violence.
Olin says the project is a matter of ensuring procedural justice, “so that victims, no matter what court they’re in, are treated with dignity and respect, there are security measures, they feel safe, and someone is explaining to them what’s going on.”
“The idea would be that you would have volunteers in the community focusing on courts where there have been identified issues, where survivors have felt it’s not a hospitable or friendly environment for them,” she says. “There are still a lot of survivors who are not believed and who are not being treated in the way the laws provide for. We’re trying to create a more uniform approach where victims feel secure and know what to expect.
Fuhrken worked on the project over the summer under the sponsorship of a clinic grant. The goal, she says, is “making the court process as easy and pain-free as possible. Victims who are going through this have already been through something horrible, and the court system shouldn’t add to that.” She says the hope is to test the program in selected town and village courts, then expand it to Erie County Family Court as well, supplementing the efforts of paid advocates working with the Family Justice Center and other organizations.
Third-year student Aldiama Anthony is in her second semester with the Family Violence and Women’s Rights Clinic. She says she decided to continue on with the clinic this fall because she had become personally invested in some of the cases she worked on. “Most people who return do it because they’ve become passionate about the work they’ve done,” Anthony says. “I knew I would be assigned to my prior clients, and I really wanted to see their case go through to completion. When you start building these bonds with clients, it’s really hard to give that up.”
Working with her partner, second-year student Hannah Labedz, Anthony is advocating for a client who, she says, is in a much better place now than she was at first. The UB School of Law team will be present in Integrated Domestic Violence Court, an arm of state Supreme Court, when their client’s perpetrator is sentenced.
Anthony says working in the clinic has transformed her professional persona. “I was really shy – scared about court appearances, even about submitting papers on behalf of clients,” she says. “I wanted to get out of my shell and break that fear. That’s what the clinic did for me. Ultimately, it’s a great opportunity to get hands-on experience.”