A $2.4 million state grant that funds legal services for domestic violence victims can mean the difference between life and death for some legal aid clients.
“One of the most effective things we can do to get victims away from their abuser is to get them a lawyer. We get them a TPO, get them out of the house and get them a new life,” said Vicky Kimbrell, the director of the Georgia Legal Services Program’s domestic violence project.
Georgia Legal Services received the lion’s share, $1.6 million, of the $2,425,000 that the state Legislature allocated this fiscal year. The Judicial Council of Georgia, which disburses the annual grant, allocated $700,974 to the Atlanta Legal Aid Society and the remaining $116,674 to five domestic violence shelters to pay private lawyers to represent their residents.
Linda Klein, now the president of the American Bar Association, spearheaded an effort to win the funding from the General Assembly when she became the State Bar of Georgia’s first woman president in 1998. It allocated an initial $2 million in the subsequent session.
Since then, the state grant has become an important part of the budgets for Georgia Legal Services and Atlanta Legal Aid—whose federal funding is now threatened by proposed Trump administration funding cuts to Legal Services Corp.
Kimbrell said victims usually are able to win an initial, temporary protective order from a judge without a lawyer. “Most judges will believe you that you’ve been beaten and give you that initial 30-day protection.”
But at the second hearing, for a 12-month TPO, she said, the abuser appears in court, often with a lawyer.” In the olden days, the victim would show up unrepresented. So there was a massive imbalance of power there,” she said.
Legal aid lawyers also help clients procure child support and state benefits, so they are financially able to leave their batterers.
Without some basic economic security, “victims often end up going back to their abusers,” Kimbrell said, adding that about three-fourths of the women the group represents have children. “We call it holistic services. It’s not just getting victims a TPO.”
That can include health insurance, Medicaid for their children, food stamps or a childcare stipend from the state.
“We’re poverty lawyers,” Kimbrell said. “Maybe they file for food stamps and they got denied—so we help with that. It could be a housing case where the abuser beats the door down and now she’s being evicted.”
Georgia Legal Services receives the bulk of the grant because its 80 lawyers cover the entire state—all 154 Georgia counties outside metro Atlanta. Last year the group’s lawyers represented 2,227 domestic violence victims, Kimbrell said.
Because there are few lawyers in rural Georgia, she said, the legal aid group can’t enlist the private bar to represent low-income victims pro bono in TPO hearings the way Atlanta Legal Aid does.
“Our cases are mostly done by our lawyers,” Kimbrell said, adding that each of them serve about five counties, so a lawyer might have to drive two hours to a courthouse for a TPO hearing.
Even with a TPO, women with children still must come in contact with their abuser because judges will grant the father visitation, Kimbrell said, “unless he’s seriously abused or killed one of his children.”
“He gets to see the kids every two weeks—so she’s got to drop them off with him,” she said.
In one case that just closed, Kimbrell said, a legal aid lawyer won a permanent protective order for a woman and her three children after one of them, a 14-year-old boy, told the judge that the father beat them routinely—and even bashed a kitten against the wall, killing it, to demonstrate what he’d do if they didn’t obey him.
On her exit evaluation form, the mother wrote that she’d tried everything to escape her ex-husband. “I was finally led to GLSP, which saved our lives. My children and I thank you.”