March 1, 2012

Externships link Arkansas law students, women

What a wonderful program!  Kudos for those doing this, it is very much needed!

They’re right, women are many times more then overwhelmed when attempting to navigate the court system.  So often they are not mentally capable of doing so, their mind being in such fragments from the abuse, the change, it’s as if their system goes into shock.  So often this stops women from going to court against their abuser, not to mention the fear factor involved and at times the financial issues.  Women really need someone to fully guide them through, to support them through the process.  People that understand that it isn’t going to be easy on them, and that more time may be involved to help a victim through the process then it would someone whose world hasn’t been torn apart.  Include self esteem issues, many women come out of abusive situations with the mind set that they can’t do anything correct and couldn’t possibly go against their abuser in court.

I’ve heard other programs such as this, and it’s great to see yet another program starting up to help women through the court process.  I hope to see more of them in the future!

Externships link Arkansas law students, women

Feb 26, 2012 3:00am

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Victims of domestic violence are often overwhelmed navigating the court system while tending to all the details as they try to rebuild their lives, say those working on their behalf.

Hiring an attorney is also a financial hurdle for a woman escaping abuse, so a new program between the University of Arkansas and the Donald W. Reynolds Peace at Home Family Shelter provides legal assistance to domestic violence victims.

Samantha Leflar, a licensed attorney overseeing the program, hopes it will allow her to assist more victims from Peace at Home, which serves only women.

Leflar also hopes UA law students, known as fellows under the program, will find solutions that will help her clients and all victims of domestic violence, she said.

"They're really motivated and excited," Leflar said of the students. "Putting that human face on it gives you a reason to get up in the morning. You're actually providing a tangible benefit to somebody's life who needs your help."

Leflar, a 2010 UA law graduate, said the program is the brainchild of Susan Schell, director of career services at the law school.

Schell volunteers at Peace at Home, and she saw the "externship" program as a way to connect to law school students interested in public service and providing free legal services for women at the shelter.

The pieces for the externship program came together after Leflar secured a two-year Skadden Fellowship that focused on domestic violence.

That means Leflar could be the licensed attorney needed to supervise the students, Schell said. Then the UA Women's Giving Circle awarded the program a $10,000 grant that allows law students to earn $1,000 to $3,000 while assisting Peace at Home clients.

One law student is selected as a fellow each semester.

"Everything came together at the right time," Schell said.

Domestic violence victims can represent themselves in pursuing an order of protection, but they are at a disadvantage if the abuser has an attorney, said Jayne Ann Kita, executive director of the Arkansas Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Hiring an attorney is a financial burden for a woman in that situation, she said. Women receive assistance from attorneys who sometimes offer free services, she said.

There are also free legal aid organizations, such as Legal Aid of Arkansas, but those firms often struggle with funding, Kita said.

"The shelters are struggling with basic needs," Kita said. "They would love to be able to pay for attorneys."

Leflar's fellowship allows her to provide direct legal representation to victims of domestic violence. Also a staff attorney for Legal Aid of Arkansas, she said she is interested in helping victims combat financial dependence that can lead them back to living with their abusers.

Common legal issues for domestic violence victims involve orders of protection, child custody and divorce, Leflar said. She's also given legal advice on their rights and protections in the law and counseled clients on credit and housing issues.

"There's a lot of room for helping with interviewing victims and seeing what they need and backing that up with legal research," Leflar said.

Legal concerns go beyond what the law provides, Leflar said.

Victims weigh whether protection orders will make their situation more volatile, or the legal impact on their children and whether they need to hide to prevent further harm, she said.

The externship program has given her the ability to take on a few more individual cases, Leflar said. With the assistance of the fellows, Leflar can consider how laws could be changed to improve the protection of domestic violence victims, she said.

Once the fellows are trained, Leflar anticipates being able to interview up to 15 clients a day, up from the five she can handle alone, she said.

The externship program gave current fellow Whitney Wayne, a second-year law student from Blanco, Texas, an opportunity to explore her interest in women's issues, she said. So far, she has gone to the shelter to interview clients with Leflar a couple of times.

"It was kind of sobering," Wayne said. "It's surreal until you meet real people in the community. They come in and talk about their issues with us."

Wayne has drafted protection orders and other documents to send to the court, she said. She's enjoyed interacting with clients and getting to know them.

Molly Magee, the first fellow who started in December, is a second-year law student from Conway with an interest in legal research and writing, she said. Her fellowship is overlapping with Wayne's.

She has studied the Arkansas Domestic Abuse Act, similar laws in other states and how courts have interpreted those laws. The experience has given Magee an interest in learning about other groups who need further protections, she said.

"It's something that somebody has to do," Magee said. "It's something I feel like I can contribute. The clients (Leflar) has now and clients in the future in similar situations will be affected by the work that I've done."

Family law cases make up about 60 percent of the volume of cases for the Legal Aid of Arkansas regional office in Fayetteville, said Marshall Prettyman, director of litigation.

"Almost all the family law we do is domestic violence related," Prettyman said.

It's a rare week that the office does not have two or three cases related to domestic violence, Prettyman said. Despite cuts in funding from the state and federal government, Legal Aid of Arkansas has avoided reducing services for domestic violence victims, he said.

"Domestic violence has always been one of our high priorities as far as cases to handle," Prettyman said.

Working with victims of domestic violence, though, requires more than assistance with legal procedures and court filings, Prettyman said.

Legal Aid of Arkansas's Fayetteville office follows a holistic approach in assisting victims of domestic violence, so the victims are able to be on their own and safe and less likely to return to an abuser.

"That always eventually saves lives," he said.

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