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Joe Surkiewicz: Family advocacy center does more with less

For a snapshot of the state of legal services in the Great Recession, look southward to the peninsula between the Potomac and the Chesapeake, where the Southern Maryland Center for Family Advocacy does more with less for vulnerable low-income clients.

Demand is up significantly, reported Laura Joyce, the center’s executive director. Funding, needless to say, is down as the economy takes its toll on domestic violence victims — overwhelmingly women and their children — who turn to the center for help getting protective orders.

“Requests for services are up 44 percent over 2010,” Joyce said. “A lot of it is because of the economy. Families are stressed by job losses and foreclosures, by financial uncertainty. People often are not equipped to handle multiple stresses.

“It’s a process,” she explained. “Verbal abuse may be happening, then it escalates when stress increases. “When other contributing factors are in place — growing up in a violent home, losing a job or the family home, or experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, for instance — it creates the perfect storm.”

These factors don’t excuse the abuse, she emphasized.

“Domestic violence is about power and control, and an abuser will always find a reason for it, whether it’s job loss or a burnt pot roast. But when you lose your job and house or can’t pay the bills, it’s a major loss of power and control that can lead to domestic violence.”

Meanwhile, funding for the center — founded in 1978 by volunteers and now professionally staffed with a $500,000 annual budget — is on the decline. “It’s a challenge,” Joyce said. “We’ve received $20,000 to $60,000 a year since 2010 in stimulus money, but that’s temporary.”

And the Maryland Legal Services Corp. announced it is cutting grants — money from civil court filing fee surcharges and IOLTA — by 5 percent for the coming fiscal year, starting in July.

“What’s worrying isn’t so much the one cut — it’s death by a thousand cuts,” Joyce said. “You can absorb a $3,000 loss, but not 10 grants cutting 5 percent each.”

Doing more with less

Even with the funding reductions, the center has been able to help more poor clients.

“We’ve increased services because of the stimulus funds and by eliminating positions that don’t provide direct services to clients,” Joyce said. “That’s allowed us to deliver more services.”

The center, essentially a nonprofit law firm, helps domestic violence victims in two ways. First, full-time court advocates (who are not attorneys) work in courthouses in Calvert and St. Mary’s counties (with a third office on the way in Charles).

“Someone comes in for a protective order and our advocates help them with the petition, assist with safety planning, and help connect them with housing, counseling, DSS assistance, and other supportive services,” Joyce explained.

But just helping with a protective order isn’t enough.

“The protective order has to be part of a larger picture,” Joyce said. “By working with other providers, advocates increase the effectiveness of the protective order, since the victim is more likely to return to her abuser if she doesn’t have housing or financial support.”

The second way the center serves clients is with three full-time attorneys who represent victims in final protective order hearings. Having a lawyer at this stage is critical.

“Individuals with attorney representation are more likely to secure the full protections available under the law, the first being that the abuser must stay away or face arrest for violating the order,” Joyce said.

In addition, attorneys help ensure other court-ordered protections.

“I borrow a term from meteorology, ‘shelter in place,’” Joyce said. “If there’s no place to go when a storm approaches, you ‘shelter in place.’ When someone goes for a protective order, the attorney can often help her get ‘use and occupancy’ of the family home.”

Otherwise, Joyce explained, she has few options: a shelter, which is a very limited option in Southern Maryland; staying with a relative or friend, which can create transportation and other problems, especially for children in school; or staying with the abuser.

Getting the home

The center’s attorneys routinely request that the victims get use and occupancy of the home, something the victim may not realize is an option.

“It makes sense and is morally correct,” Joyce pointed out. “Why should the crime victim and her children have to leave? Having a ‘stay away’ order is the primary goal. But getting the home is also essential.”

The attorneys can also help victims get family maintenance during the protective order period. “It’s basically short-term child support,” Joyce said. “Having a lawyer argue for this makes a huge difference. It protects the full range of rights, something victims often don’t know how to do.”

Another example of the center’s work is its participation in a case review team in St Mary’s. The major providers of domestic violence services — the sheriff’s office, state police, DSS, state’s attorney’s office, Patuxent River Naval Air Station, shelter and counseling programs — meet every two weeks to discuss cases and make sure there’s an uninterrupted continuum of services.

“In criminal cases where the victim is a witness against the abuser, for instance, she’s often intimidated,” Joyce said. “With the help of the team, however, the victim is supported and therefore more likely to participate.

“We’re on the phone with each other almost daily, especially with the first responders — the sheriff’s office, state police and state’s attorney’s office,” she continued. “We share information and, especially in the first critical couple of weeks, the team provides support to the victim, which helps contribute to a positive outcome in the criminal case. It has worked out really well.”

Yet, with a solid system in place to help the growing number of domestic violence victims, the center’s funding continues to drop — which doesn’t make sense on several levels, Joyce said.

A proxy for power

“Research shows that having an attorney means the abuser is less likely to violate the protective order,” she said. “It shows the abuser that the victim means business. It puts the abuser on alert that things have changed. Even if the victim doesn’t seem powerful yet, the abuser sees a proxy for that power — her attorney. The result is fewer violations, and less violent future assaults when they do occur.”

The services also make economic sense. About $6.2 billion is spent annually in the U.S. on direct costs related to domestic violence, Joyce said.

“When victims aren’t represented, the costs are even higher,” she added. “There’s police and prosecutors’ time, costs to incarcerate abusers, and support to victims post-violence. Plus, there’s a ripple effect. Children often act out or do poorly in school, and they are far more likely to become future victims or abusers. It costs society more money.

“The long-term costs go up when services are not provided at the front end,” Joyce concluded. “Having legal help reduces the costs and severity of domestic violence. Cutting those services may be penny-wise, but it’s absolutely pound-foolish.”

Joe Surkiewicz is the director of communications at Maryland Legal Aid. His e-mail is [email protected]