Grace: More domestic violence victims than lawyers to help them - Omaha.com
Published Monday, October 14, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 1:45 pm
Grace: More domestic violence victims than lawyers to help them

Martha Lemar is a breaker of chains, an untangler of knots, an opener of locks.

Martha Lemar is a lawyer for victims of domestic violence.

She provides a key line of defense against an abuser who has so entrapped the victim physically or psychologically that she — and it is typically a she — feels stuck.

So Lemar, and the relatively few others like her who take on domestic violence cases, tries to unstick the victim.

She can help secure a one-year restraining order. She can help dissolve a marriage. She can seek favorable terms for child custody and assist with housing, taxes and the myriad other issues that bind victims to their abusers.

There are limits to Lemar's powers. She can't do much about the forces of poverty that drive clients to her door at Creighton University's legal clinic for low-income residents of Douglas County.

She cannot force a client to leave an abuser, and she is helpless against those who return. And many do return.

She cannot guarantee that an abuser will abide by a restraining order. Nor can she help victims who, in these complicated cases, might run afoul of the law, because she doesn't handle criminal defense.

But Lemar can help victims in tangible, practical ways, which makes attorneys like her an important tool in the seemingly uphill battle against domestic violence.

Her role may be instructive as key agencies in domestic violence begin an internal review process that aims to look for gaps in services.

Because one of the biggest gaps, according to advocates, victims and attorneys, is finding enough legal help.

***

Two main agencies serve victims of domestic violence.

One is the WCA, formerly YWCA, which long has provided a hotline, counseling, advocacy and other support, including a busy lawyer and a part-time paralegal.

The WCA, which stands for Women's Center for Advancement, last year took 3,218 hotline calls, helped 553 people obtain protection orders, spent 567 hours visiting victims in the hospital and otherwise served some 20,000 clients.

If you think of the WCA as the hands of the domestic violence support system, then think of the Domestic Violence Council as the head.

The Domestic Violence Council's job is to count victims and services and track how well the city is serving people experiencing abuse. The council also hosts monthly meetings to track cases and better coordinate services among public and private groups.

Amy Richardson at the WCA and Tara Muir at the Domestic Violence Council said they are working together. Both groups will participate in an internal review that the Domestic Violence Council hopes will show where the gaps in services are.

Attorney Muir said this internal review will take 12 to 18 months and will guide how the city responds to domestic violence complaints.

“Domestic violence is an extremely complex issue,” she said, “with complex causes and very complex solutions.”

***

One solution is the law.

Someone who is physically abused can call police. Many law enforcement agencies, including Omaha police, have a mandatory arrest policy if they have probable cause to believe that abuse has happened.

Victims can seek a restraining order through the court system to keep an abuser away from them, which if violated, becomes a crime. Victims can, through civil courts, try to break free through divorce and child custody changes.

All this sounds very neat and logical. But police calls can devolve into he-said-she-said tangles. Abusers can contest temporary protection orders before they become permanent restraining orders, which remain in place for one year.

And abusers can use the court system as a method of control. They can threaten child custody. They can make victims believe there are no remedies.

Then there's the cost and confusion about the process. Lawyers for civil courts charge fees, and low-cost ones can be hard to find.

Consider Kim. The 24-year-old unemployed mother sought a temporary protection order in May against an ex-boyfriend who she said had once threatened to kill her.

He hired a lawyer and contested the temporary protection order, which prompted a court hearing and the need for Kim to find a lawyer.

She called Legal Aid, which turned her down because it had represented her ex-boyfriend in a prior case and thus had a conflict of interest. She called Lemar's clinic at Creighton, which said it couldn't immediately help.

She called the WCA and was told she could discuss her case with the part-time paralegal and then the agency's attorney would get back to her in writing. Kim felt she didn't have enough time.

She tried the Nebraska State Bar Association's volunteer lawyer project but didn't connect with anyone. The project says it returns all calls but doesn't leave messages, as a safety precaution for victims.

Kim lucked out when she found, through a friend of a friend, a lawyer who agreed to take the case at a reduced rate.

Attorney Regina Makaitis met Kim three days before the hearing. After a hotly contested hearing that lasted 90 minutes, a judge approved the permanent restraining order, which is good for one year.

“If she did not have an attorney,” Makaitis told me, “she probably would not have a protection order. I was very happy to help her out.”

Since then, Kim's ex-boyfriend has been charged twice with violating that protection order. One charge was dismissed; the other is scheduled for trial in November.

His lawyer, David Riley, pointed out that people accused of abuse don't always have attorneys, either. And in civil matters where the penalty could mean a change in child custody, everyone deserves to have a lawyer at the table.

“It's a morass,” he said of the legal system. “And there are no simple answers. I do think people should be better represented.”

Domestic violence cases are such hot potatoes that the state bar association relied on a federal grant to offer $50 an hour to the volunteers willing to take on the cases. That grant has since dried up. It's hard to find volunteer lawyers willing to do the cases.

“They're difficult,” said Marsha Fangmeyer, past president of the bar association. “There's a lot of heartache.”

***

With the equivalent of four full-time attorneys, Creighton's Milton R. Abrahams Legal Clinic is a fraction of the size of Legal Aid, which has 38 attorneys statewide, including 15 in Omaha.

Lemar's position, which focuses exclusively on domestic violence clients, is relatively new. She can keep the clients for two years, which helps, given the array of long-term, interconnected issues.

I met up with Lemar at the Douglas County Courthouse, where she wanted to review new criminal abuse charges leveled against a client, although she doesn't handle criminal cases.

“This woman came to me for a divorce,” she explains. “It looked like it would be a relatively simple divorce. I talked to her. I asked, 'Do you feel safe?' ”

At the time, the Omaha woman did. She was employed, and her husband had moved out.

But a few weeks ago, the client told Lemar that her husband came back to the house, called her over to the car, grabbed her through the window and started to drive away. She said she fell to the pavement.

“She called me the next morning (and said), 'I need a protection order,' ” Lemar said.

They filled out the forms. After the husband was served with the order, he told police that his wife had been the aggressor, using a stun gun and pepper spray on him. He said he was just trying to get away.

Now Lemar's client, who says she's the victim, has been charged in the same incident.

Back at Creighton, Lemar pulls out a client list and runs through the issues with each one.

“This one, divorce and custody,” she said. “Divorce and custody. Custody. Custody. Divorce and custody. Protection order ...”

Here's a case where the victim says her husband is severely mentally ill but claims that he's the more qualified parent. She objects, but to prove that she is more qualified, she needs something called “a parental fitness evaluation,” which runs about $2,000.
“Imagine trying to come up with THAT,” Lemar said, adding that her client works an $8-an-hour full-time job that would never begin to cover actual legal expenses. “She has no means. Without us.”

***

Almost everyone I spoke to about this issue told me the problem was a lack of money. A lack of lawyers.

Martha Lemar's boss, Kate Mahern, said they are wrong.

“It's not that there aren't enough attorneys,” said Mahern. “It's that we have so many victims of domestic violence.”

Mahern, an attorney and law professor, explained: “By the time they need a lawyer, where are all the other interventions?”

Like neighbors, family members, co-workers and others speaking up when they see or hear abuse. Like getting victims immediate services, ranging from counseling to one of the most important — financial help.

Mahern acknowledged that it is hard to help victims who don't take action.

She described a former client who four times asked Mahern to help her with a divorce, and four times backed out. She had another client whose abuser beat her up so badly “her face looked like a Picasso painting.” The client stayed with the abuser.

“In some ways, it's like quitting smoking or quitting drinking,” Mahern said. “Sometimes people are not successful the first time because change is hard.

“A lot of people don't understand victims of domestic violence are having to make some pretty serious changes in their lives.”

Scott Hahn, the sole attorney at the WCA, said his caseload “fills up so quickly.”

Hahn said he sometimes tells his part-time paralegal to quit taking new cases because he doesn't have time. The WCA is seeing a rise in immigration-related domestic violence cases and has hired another part-time staffer to help.

Dave Pantos, who runs Legal Aid of Nebraska, said domestic violence cases are so intense — with high-drama, complicated issues, personal threats against the attorneys — that attorneys face burnout.

***

Attorneys are quick to say that their work doesn't address systemic violence. That their advocacy may break only one link in one chain at one time for one person.

But those broken links are important.

Consider the client who came to Lemar a year ago, after a suicide attempt. Lemar helped her get a protection order and a divorce, which is nearly finalized. The abusive husband has moved out.

The client had this startling revelation: She told Lamar she never realized “what it would be like to take a private shower.”

During her marriage, her husband had always followed her into the bathroom and groped her or just watched.

In the year that has passed, the client is still coming to grips with the abuse. But she's happier.

“Her life had changed,” Lemar said, “for the better.”

A lawyer helped do that.

Contact the writer: Erin Grace

erin.grace@owh.com    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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