Ever since the Violence Policy Center, a research organization based in Washington, D.C., released the first of its annual studies of male-on-female lethal violence in the United States in 1998, South Carolina has each year had one of the ten highest rates of murders committed against women by men, including four years in which it had the highest rate in the country.
Many of the women who are killed each year by intimate partners had previously been the victims of domestic violence inflicted by those same men. But Patricia Ravenhorst, general counsel at the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault said that less than 10 percent of domestic violence survivors who petition the courts for an order of protection have legal representation.
The SCCADVASA is trying to change that with its pro bono program, for which it is currently recruiting attorneys to volunteer. It got funding from the South Carolina Bar Foundation two years ago to develop a contract attorney program by recruiting attorneys for a statewide network to assist domestic violence victims. The attorneys work with and receive training from SCCADVASA and 22 agencies statewide that assist survivors of domestic violence.
Ravenhorst said having consultation to develop a legal safety plan can be life-changing for domestic violence victims, whose legal needs are broad and varying. Beyond assistance with criminal cases, they may need legal help with immigration, employment, divorce, child custody, trusts, taxes, foreclosure, cybersecurity, bankruptcy, housing, or human trafficking.
In response, Ravenhorst has developed what she called a “four bucket” strategy for helping domestic violence victims. She said every survivor that she works with is trying to achieve safety, privacy, offender accountability, and a life of long-term stability.
“When you are trying to come out of a dangerous and isolating situation like that, where your whole world has been upturned, every dollar counts,” Ravenhorst said. “And so the availability of free or low-cost legal services for the survivor of domestic violence who’s trying to transition away from an abusive relationship is critical.”
Many legislatures across the country have been trying to push aside the access-to-justice hurdles that domestic violence victims often confront. In 2018 Congress passed the POWER (Pro bono Work to Empower and Represent) Act, requiring the chief judge for each federal judicial district to conduct public events promoting pro bono legal services for survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.
South Carolina strengthened its domestic violence laws in 2015 with the passage of the Domestic Violence Act, which also created the South Carolina Domestic Violence Committee. Its 2019 report recommended, among other things, providing technical assistance to domestic violence victims during the process of pursuing an order of protection.
Since then, South Carolina Legal Services has developed a Self Help Order of Protection form that victims can file. Andrea Loney, executive director of SCLS, said that almost all of the judges who participated in a survey of family court judges it conducted a few years ago said they thought a survivor was better off with an attorney even at the order of protection hearing.
“We are able to help a lot of domestic violence victims, but the need is always so much greater than our resources. There’s definitely a need for private attorneys to step up and take some of these cases, pro bono if they can,” said Melinda Taylor, family law unit head and staff attorney for SCLS.
Although SCLS has staff attorneys to help domestic violence victims, the assistance of private attorneys could ease the case load. It also contracts with private attorneys through its private attorney involvement program to assist in those services.
“Unfortunately, the demand is a lot greater than what we as a law firm are able to meet on our own,” said Tamika Cannon, a lead attorney with SCLS.
The services provided by private attorneys often don’t require a serious time commitment, and can be as simple as helping with an order of protection, preparing a victim for a criminal case or hearing, or even just filling out a form.
“It’s a great way for attorneys to make a difference in a meaningful way,” Cannon said. “It’s very rewarding work to help domestic violence victims and to see an impact on their families, deal with a custody case, or help someone move into a situation where they’re safe … I think we need more opportunities as attorneys for that type of work.”
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