Shelter from the storm for Victims of Violence

Uncommon Fulton legal program aids vulnerable victims of violence

Four prints hang on the wall and overlook Liz Whipple’s desk. From far away they look decorative. But come closer and a visitor sees a pointy-toothed dog, a belt, and two handguns — all pictures of weapons. The prints were made by a former colleague, Whipple says, in tribute to the survivors of domestic violence who land in her office. On Whipple’s desk sits a state report that says domestic violence killed 116 people in Georgia last year. Of those, 19 were in Fulton County.

Whipple leads the Safe Families Office, a walk-in legal aid service for domestic violence victims offered out of a onetime courtroom in Downtown’s Fulton County Justice Center.

The furniture has seen better days, and the wood paneling is dated. But the door is propped open, and everyone inside is friendly. One corner is set aside for toys; clients often come in with children.

“The most dangerous time in someone’s relationship with an abusive partner is when they leave,” says Whipple. It takes courage and careful planning to find a new home, figure out how to stay safe at work, get money, take care of kids, and dozens of other things. For some, a temporary protection order — known colloquially as a restraining order — is a step they consider.

To obtain that order requires navigating the two forcibly linked towers that make up the enormous judicial complex, finding the eighth-floor Fulton Superior Court Domestic Violence Family Division, and speaking to a judge there. For people who aren’t used to it, Whipple says, “the courthouse is a scary place.”

The court screens people seeking restraining orders and sends domestic violence victims to Whipple’s office. A lawyer is always on hand before the petitioners see a judge for a protective order. For the roughly 1,400 people who walked in last year, the SFO staff helped make safety plans and, when appropriate, aided in the acquisition of temporary restraining orders.

That number is “just the tip of the iceberg,” Whipple says. The latest National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, published in 2011, says more than one in three women and more than one in four men have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime. According to the Georgia Commission on Family Violence, annual domestic violence fatalities in Georgia have floated between 106 and 132 since 2005, with no apparent trend.

Because restraining orders are a part of civil law, not criminal law, there is no guaranteed right to an attorney for anyone. And domestic violence victims, who are usually women, must explain their case to a judge personally if they don’t bring their own advocate. If a judge grants temporary orders, alleged abusers are then notified and have the right to come argue their side.

After that hearing is scheduled, the accuser appears with a volunteer attorney, if Whipple has anything to do with it.

“We want them to have an attorney,” Whipple says. “Someone who knows the law, who can present a persuasive and clear argument ... and someone who can shield them, give them the confidence to come back to court” and confront an abuser in a very public arena. Survivors have often been humiliated by their abusers, Whipple says.

“They’re going to have to retell the worst things that have ever happened to them to an audience,” she says.

Indeed, many clients never follow up after their first visit, betting instead on some reconciliation or pulled by a home that might seem a better choice for children, or simply bullied back to the house by an abuser. The leap into an uncertain new life, especially with children, is daunting.

Many victims want to believe in redeeming their abuser because they did or do love them, Whipple says.

Whipple’s Rolodex is stuffed with volunteer attorneys, and recruitment is not a problem, she says. Many an office-bound lawyer who normally practices real estate or tax law relishes a crusading trip to the courthouse.

Domestic violence victims in every Georgia county can receive advice to navigate the legal system and understand the process. (The number is the statewide 24-hour domestic violence hotline, which connects callers with the closest resources. Call 1-800-334-2836 and ask for an advocate.)

But Fulton’s model of “one-stop shopping” inside the courthouse for both legal and other aid is rare, says Debbie Segal, of counsel at Kilpatrick Townsend in Atlanta and past chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic Violence. “The court made this a priority,” she says.

The SFO is a service of the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, a legal aid nonprofit, and shares the courtroom space with the nonprofit Partnership Against Domestic Violence. The almost 40-year-old nonprofit helps domestic violence survivors regain safety, control, and self-sufficiency in their lives.

The SFO staffers tap an inner circle of regular attorneys and other lawyers around the city, Segal says. It also helps train young lawyers. The interns who help staff the SFO are the future army of pro bono attorneys, she says, and will be comfortable with domestic violence cases. And for the tax attorney who might be nervous arguing a domestic violence case even after SFO training, Whipple comes to the courtroom as a coach.

As with most issues, additional funding could help. SFO and other services are often contingent on grants or private donations. Georgia’s statewide budget includes about $2 million for grants to providers of civil legal services to victims of family violence over the year that ends next June.

According to the GCFV, which in 2014 published an in-depth analysis of 93 deaths related to domestic violence over the previous decade, 15 percent of victims had a restraining order in place when they were killed. In at least one case, the victim had requested a protective order, but the judge denied it.

“Sometimes victims were not connected with a legal advocate to provide guidance on TPO temporary protection order procedures, conduct a risk assessment and provide safety planning. Lack of advocacy ... is a critical gap in the protections available to victims,” says the GCFV’s report.

“Rich, poor, religious, ethnicity, fill in the blank. Domestic violence affects everybody,” Segal says. “It is a societal problem, it is a legal problem, it is a life and death issue. It is critical that the law steps in and says, ‘This is not acceptable in our society.’”