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When a woman came to the Family Court Legal Program in New York because her husband had been threatening her in front of her infant son, Acting Westchester, N.Y., Family Court Judge Janet DiFiore designed a unique remedy. She had to, because no shelters were available, and the woman had no friends and family to turn to. The judge granted a temporary order of protection directing the woman’s husband to stay away from the room in the apartment that she and her son were living in. Surprisingly, the remedy, even though it kept both husband and wife under the same roof, worked. “We’ve been able to carve out more creative responses to situations of domestic violence because we have a lot more information than we used to since the Pace Women’s Justice Center opened,” said DiFiore. It is almost a year since the Family Court Legal Program (FCLP), a partnership between the Pace Women’s Justice Center and Westchester/Putnam Legal Services, was launched. And lawyers and judges have nothing but rave reviews. What makes the program unique is that law students are authorized by the Westchester County Family Court to represent abused women. Court observers said training law students has paid off in a big way: over the past year, the program has helped nearly 400 women secure temporary orders of protection against their batterers. Westchester County Family Court Supervising Judge Joan Cooney credited the students as an instrumental part in raising the quality of the petitions. Over the year, Cooney said the petitions have become more detailed, with a greater awareness of risk factors. This has helped her, as well as other Westchester judges, devise orders better suited to fit the specific needs of the individual petitioners. “There are so many subtleties to domestic violence. A woman telling you her husband yelled at her last night takes on a totally different meaning if her husband has severely beaten her a year earlier. Because the students can take the time to hear the women’s stories and craft very detailed and informative petitions, we have a better sense of what’s really going on,” explained Cooney. ONE-STOP SHOPPING What also makes the program valuable, said observers, is that women seeking orders of protection can also get support and custody orders in Family Court on the same day. Before the program, a women seeking child support would need to make an appointment at the Child Support office and wait for a court date. The process could take up to two months before an enforceable order was issued. Now, women who walk in the door of FCLP can meet with a child support representative, open a case, file a petition, and see a hearing examiner all in the same day. “The result of this system,” declared Cooney, “is that many more women follow through with their court appearances and are more likely to leave an abusive situation because they received legal support early on.” In addition, attorneys are now taking the issue of domestic violence more seriously, asserted Ellen Blumstein, program coordinator for the Mental Health Association of Westchester County. Other courts like the New Rochelle and Yonkers Family Courts are looking closely at the program as a model. 123,182 ORDERS ISSUED According to the New York State Domestic Violence Registry, there were 123,182 orders of protection issued in the state last year for battered women. An order of protection can compel the abuser to leave the home, have no contact with the victim, or require the batterer to pay restitution for damages. The Family Court Legal Program, which operates under the jurisdiction of the Westchester County Family Court in White Plains, N.Y., represents only women seeking orders of protection against husbands, ex-husbands, or men they have a child with — a statutory requirement in state family courts. FCLP does not cover battered men or individuals in same-sex relationships. In addition, women abused by a live-in boyfriend must seek an order in Criminal Court. Amy Barasch, the Center’s director, said she has seen a change in the women who use the program services. “When the women first come in, you can see they’re demoralized. After (a woman) gets help, she’ll dress better, she’ll smile more. After being here a year, we’ve realized that coming to the program is probably the first time that a woman meets people who show her that the man is not the ultimate arbitrator of truth,” she asserted. REWARDS FOR STUDENTS Law students involved in the program called their experience an interesting and rewarding challenge. Students interview clients and draft petitions — all under the supervision of an attorney — and also represent petitioners in court on the initial ex parte hearing and also on the second court date. Some students, on their own volition, have gone further and served subpoenas in a case, as well as driven clients to the hospital or the police station. “What makes this work so rewarding is that you hear the judge reading what you wrote and that your client walks out of with an order of protection,” said Lauren Finnegan, a second-year Pace student. Although obtaining orders of protection is a prinicpal goal of the program, students are trained to understand that success is also getting the women to talk to them, explained Victoria L. Lutz, executive director of the Pace Women’s Justice Center and a Pace adjunct professor. Students are required to complete a course in domestic violence advocacy offered by the Center while participating in the program. “The win-loss mentality that many attorneys develop can be very detrimental to effect(ing) positive change for the victim of domestic violence,” said Lutz. “We try to teach the students that it’s not a failure if the woman doesn’t want the order, if she comes back to court and withdraws the order. All of this is a process in a person’s life and when they are ready to seek an order, they’ll do it. Our role is to be there for them.” DIVERSITY IN CLIENTS Students are often surprised to see how domestic violence transcends socio-economic levels; clients have ranged from a financial adviser to a psychotherapist to a K-Mart employee. Also surprising, said Finnegan, was how open and forthcoming clients were during the initial interview, with an ability to remember domestic violence incidents in detail. “I thought I was going to have to pull information from them, and that wasn’t the case at all,” recounted the 23-year old student. “A lot of them were my age, and maybe that’s the reason why we connected. When I first started, I would get really attached and be more of a friend. But as time has gone on, I’ve learned to keep my distance,” she said. On the other hand, Linda Lin, who is entering her third year at Pace, acknowledges that part of her job is counseling, especially when the litigant is embroiled in a situation that involves myriad complicated, personal issues. Currently, Lin is working to help a woman change her name so her abuser will not be able to locate her and her child. The woman, Lin recalled, has changed locations at least three times to elude the ex-boyfriend who attacked her. Statistics show that a woman is 14 times more likely to be seriously physically injured or killed after she leaves her abuser, said Lutz. “At the same time that we’re working on changing her name, we’re also trying to find out whether paternity was ever declared so we can change the child’s name. Then, we’re drafting a will to make sure the father never obtains custody.” PERSUASION EMPLOYED Although Lutz does not believe the students are therapists — she prefers to characterize them as “competent, carrying counselors who do not sit back dispassionately” — students do admit they will try to persuade certain women to go for an order of protection. “A lot of women are caught up in a relationship, and they’ll make excuses for the abuser’s behavior. You have to make them see that what has happened is very, very wrong,” Finnegan said. “Trying to help them look at the situation from an outsider’s point of view is sometimes helpful. The other point I try to make is that the next time could be fatal.”

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