One-stop shop for domestic violence victims

by DANIELLE MURPHY

Traumatic experiences, such as domestic violence, can leave people feeling alone, lost and confused. Victims live in fear while grasping for a lifeline. When they figure out where to turn, they are forced to recount the horrors of their situation over and over again.

Utah’s first, and only, Family Justice Center provides a haven for victims of domestic violence to gain shelter while meeting with representatives of various organizations that can help their plight. This minimizes time, travel and emotional heartache for the victim as he or she relays his or her story to the organizations that can provide an escape from the fears confronted on a daily basis.

Stewart Ralphs is the executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, one of the organizations represented at the FJC. “It is important to provide services so victims of domestic violence have someone who knows the processes, so they get the protection that the law affords them,” Ralphs said.

Ralphs describes most victims as coming in as “basket cases” because of the combination of harrowing abuse situations and unfamiliarity with what to do next. Most victims are referred to the FJC by other organizations, so victims arrive without much expectation. The average victim is a 23-year-old female with several children, Ralphs said.

The staff at the FJC is trained to be empathetic and culturally sensitive. When victims arrive, they are assisted with obtaining a protective order, filing for criminal charges, obtaining proper protection for children, getting shelter and finding a job. Initial services at the FJC take between four and five hours to complete.

One of the first actions a victim goes through upon arriving at the FJC is meeting with the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake. A Legal Aid Society paralegal checks for conflicts of interest before the victim summarizes his or her situation. This allows the LAS to provide the client with specific help that best serves his or her individual needs.

Once that process is complete, the victim will meet with an LAS paralegal to prepare the protective order. When the protective order is ready, it will be filed with the sheriff and subsequently served to the individual the complaint was filed against.

The protective order is effective from the time it is served through the court hearing, which is typically two weeks later. The order stays in place for the rest of the involved parties’ lives, unless the petitioner withdraws the order.

Aside from preparing protective orders, the Legal Aid Society helps the victim devise a plan to keep him or her safe. These plans typically include notifying neighbors of the situation, keeping weapons out of the house, maintaining a packed suitcase and getting locks for all doors and windows.

“We want to make people think of steps to take to protect themselves … what is the worst case scenario and how would you respond to it?” Ralphs said.

He said the Legal Aid Society’s Domestic Violence Victim Assistance Program helps almost 3,000 people in the Salt Lake valley per year. “Domestic violence never decreases. Either society addresses the problem professionally and corrects it or the problem escalates and becomes more and more serious over time,” he said.

The Legal Aid Society has been instrumental in addressing the problem of domestic violence. It is the oldest legal aid nonprofit organization in Utah. The more recent addition of the Family Justice Center in 2007 signaled another dimension to helping victims of these horrific experiences.

Marlene Gonzalez, the executive director of the Multi-Cultural Legal Center, another organization represented at the FJC, said the Family Justice Center allows for good collaboration and it is a great tool for serving the needs of the victim.

The Family Justice Center provides representatives from the Department of Workforce Services, Division of Child & Family Services, Salt Lake Police Department, YWCA, Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, Salt Lake City Prosecutors Office and Multi-Cultural Legal Center.

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence or abuse, you can call the YWCA at (801) 537-8600 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE (7233).

Victims of violence find refuge in county programs

by MADISON RICE

“I love being able to help people. I get to level the playing field,” said Stewart Ralphs, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake. Ralphs said his nonprofit agency is committed to ensuring the safety of victims of domestic violence in Salt Lake City by offering low-cost legal representation.

“It’s sometimes the first time that someone [has] stuck up for them and they get to have a fair deal. Someone to go to bat for them,” he said.

Founded in 1922, the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake is among 22 domestic violence coalitions across the state of Utah. The Legal Aid Society provides low-cost legal representation to low-income individuals in family law cases. It also works with the Multi-Cultural Legal Center, the Division of Child and Family Services, the Department of Workforce Services, the Salt Lake City Police Department and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). The Utah Domestic Violence Council provides resources, too.

Victims of domestic violence and abuse are encouraged by the Legal Aid Society to get immediate help at one of four locations, found on its Web site. But Ralphs admits the visit may take a while.

“It takes four to five hours to do that process if you are at the front of the line. You can’t go do this on a lunch hour,” Ralphs said.

However, the wait can be worth it. Persons seeking help are ensured a safe environment and are given the tools necessary to obtain a protective order or stalking injunction.

Protective orders are for people who are defined as cohabitants. “Cohabitants are currently or formerly married, related by blood, have a child together, or if they just live with someone else, like a roommate,” Ralphs said. “People who are not cohabitants can get a stalking injunction.”

Protective orders can last forever, while stalking injunctions last three years.

According to 50 responses received by the Legal Aid Society, 90 percent of protective orders are not violated.

“But we do know violations happen,” Ralphs said. “We tell all our clients: protective orders are very effective, but we will give them advice to keep them safe. Lock your doors at night, have an escape route in your house, have a suitcase packed and copies of important documents in case you have to flee on a moment’s notice.”

Women and children can find a safe haven at the YWCA in downtown Salt Lake City. It also provides safety plans for victims who arrive seeking help.

“We are a completely free, nonprofit agency,” said Lam Nguyen, director of Women’s Services and Diversity Services at the YWCA. “We provide crisis intervention and basic items and needs.”

The average length of stay at the YWCA’s Crisis Shelter is about 20 days, according to Nguyen. Groups for children are available while they are at the shelter. “We have an academic specialist that can do lessons with the kids. We have support groups to cope with what has happened and we have recreational programs,” Nguyen said.

The shelter is available to 75 women and children at one time and the program serves more than 500 women and children each year. The YWCA helps connect victims with the Legal Aid Society to file for a protective order. The YWCA will then check in with the victim weekly to see how she is doing and assess her goals.

The Legal Aid Society offers full legal representation throughout the process the victim is going through. “It is very important, we feel, to provide [for them] from start to finish so they are sure they are getting all the protections the law affords them,” Ralphs said. “There’s something really nice about doing whatever is necessary for someone. If it takes two months, great. If it takes five years, it doesn’t matter. I will do what’s necessary.”

For more domestic abuse help, call the Utah Domestic Violence Link Line at 1-800-897-LINK (5465) or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).