Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Women in crisis need help from lawyers (Chicago, Illinois)

Great piece by reporter Phil Kadner on the very real dilemnas that mothers and children face in leaving abusive fathers especially--but not exclusively--in Cook County, Illinois. Based on the stories I've been hearing out of Cook County for years, the cases he cites are the rule, not the exception.


Women in crisis need help from lawyers

August 8, 2010


Sara's unem ployed boyfriend, the father of her two children, had been beating her for some time.

One day, Sara decided she had enough.

She was financially supporting the household, the apartment lease was in her name, and she worked up the nerve to go to a suburban courtroom and ask a judge for an emergency order of protection and an order removing the man from their home.

Sara got the order, and another court date was scheduled to make the order of protection permanent, but this time the judge had a change of mind. He not only removed the order of protection but told Sara's abusive boyfriend he could move back into the apartment.

Sara was obviously nervous and shocked to discover that the man who had been beating her was going to be living with her once more. She figured he was going to be more angry now than before and told the judge she feared for the safety of herself and the children.

The judge told her if she didn't feel safe living with the fellow, she should move out.

That's only one of several stories relayed to me by court advocates for the Crisis Center for South Suburbia. The shelter for women and their children is trying to launch a project to get free legal representation for those in abusive and often dangerous domestic relationships.

Mary Kay is a more typical example of the problems faced by Crisis Center clients. The south suburban mother of three children decided to leave her husband because of his violent and abusive behavior.

She was economically dependent on her husband, and he told her that if she ever filed for divorce or tried to leave him, he would seek custody of their three children. He was the breadwinner of the family, after all. He controlled all the money. She didn't have anything.

Mary Kay called various organizations that provide legal aid to low-income people but discovered they're overwhelmed by the numbers seeking help. That's a complaint repeated over and over again by Crisis Center advocates.

So Mary Kay must endure a daily dose of increasingly vulgar insults as her husband realizes she doesn't have the financial ability to file for divorce.

Like it or not, Mary Kay feels she is doomed to stay with her abuser. "Until death do us part" has taken an entirely new meaning in this marriage.

"If Mary Kay was able to obtain an attorney through our Pro Bono Project," a Crisis Center court advocate wrote, "she might be able to get the assistance she needs to make the decision of filing for a civil order of protection and/or filing for divorce."

The Crisis Center has seven court advocates working at the Cook County courthouses in Markham and Bridgeview, but they are not lawyers. They offer guidance and advice based on training but can't act as lawyers in a courtroom.

In these economic times, even law firms are having trouble making ends meet. So I'm not sure how many family court or divorce attorneys would be able to volunteer their time to represent women in trouble.

But when I told Evergreen Park attorney Burton Odelson about the Crisis Center's dilemma, he immediately volunteered his support.

"I will do everything I can, offering the services of my law firm and my influence with the Chicago Bar Association, to urge pro bono assistance for the Crisis Center," Odelson said.

He noted that he was on the Moraine Valley Community College Board when Crisis Center founder Dianne Masters first proposed locating a shelter for domestic violence victims on the college's property.

"I supported that then and feel a personal attachment to the center due to my connection to Dianne," Odelson said.

Masters was murdered while seeking a divorce from her husband. Prosecutors who convicted attorney Alan Masters on conspiracy charges claimed that custody of their only child was one of the motives for her slaying.

For many women, these are literally life-or-death situations.

The difficult economic times aggravate already abusive relationships. Husbands and boyfriends lose their jobs. They become frustrated and angry as their unemployment continues. They drink more. They abuse drugs. They pick on those closest to them because there's no one else around to strike out at.

Angela, I am told, appeared in court seeking an emergency order of protection. Her husband, who hasn't worked in five years, appeared in court with an attorney, although there's no explanation of how he could afford one.

Angela, a nurse working two jobs and 60 hours a week to pay the household bills, couldn't afford an attorney. The husband had his order of protection lifted.

Women stuck in abusive relationships need help. They often don't have the financial resources to hire an attorney.

Maybe Odelson's offer of assistance will be the first of many.