Navigators: Volunteers Guide Abuse Victims Through Confusion, Intimidation of Court
By Michael D. Abernethy, Times News | Published: Tuesday, May 27, 2014 at 4:26 PM.
Until a few years ago, Anna had almost no experience with the court system. It wasn’t until a family member’s less-than-amicable divorce that she realized how intimidating the courtroom and the legal system could be.
Now she’s in the courtroom almost every week, guiding others through domestic civil and criminal court as a volunteer with Alamance County Family Abuse Services’ Court Navigator Program. The program trains and pairs volunteers with men and women seeking protective orders against abusive spouses, family members and exes.
“No one deserves to have someone else putting them down, abusing them physically, mentally, emotionally or in any way,” Anna said. “But when you’re already put down, then you have to walk into that court system, it’s very intimidating. So, that’s what we do. We help them navigate the system. … We just let them understand they have choices and give them moral support.”
ANNA — WHO agreed to speak on a condition that we not use her last name, to protect her from possible retaliation by her clients’ abusers — was one of the program’s first volunteers, in the fall of 2012. She’d recently retired from a career in the ministry and was looking for an opportunity to help people.
Since then, she’s worked with nearly 30 clients and had her eyes opened to the pervasiveness of domestic abuse.
“It’s so much worse than I ever thought it was. It crosses all the lines: age, sex, socioeconomic status. I’ve had clients from every walk of life — male and female, the young and the not-so-young,” Anna said. “I feel like I’m probably doing more to connect the church and the world than I’ve ever done in the church. … I think it’s one of the most worthwhile things I’ve ever been a part of.”
The program and its training are unique to Alamance County, though some other court districts have similar volunteers, said Lynn Rousseau, Family Abuse Services director. Rousseau and Family Justice Center Executive Director Cindy Brady developed the program in 2011 to support clients who came to their agencies for help but feared the court process.
Rousseau and Brady watched domestic court actions and felt too many cases were being dismissed because abuse victims were afraid to come to court alone. Without hearing their complaints and testimony, judges were forced to dismiss the cases — leaving them without legal recourse and protection.
“Defendants were coming in with witnesses and numerous people to support them. Victims were by themselves most of the time,” Rousseau said. “We routinely saw victims dismissing their cases or leaving at lunch and not coming back,” causing their cases to be dismissed.
NOW, EVERYONE who applies for a 50B domestic order at the Family Justice Center is given the phone number of a volunteer and the option of having someone to walk through the court process with.
What the program and its volunteers don’t do is provide legal advice or tell clients what they should do, program director Bethany Sanford says.
During several days of training this spring, Sanford worked with a group of new volunteers, teaching them about different types of abuse and the tenet that clients must make their own decisions about their cases. Sometimes that will mean watching a client dismiss a case to return to an abusive relationship, Sanford told them.
“That’s their choice to make. And you don’t know, they might leave later. At least they started, and they know there is help available to them when they are ready to leave,” Sanford told them.
There are more than 20 active volunteers in the program. All of them have gone through about 12 hours of training, which includes learning how the court system works and observing a day of domestic violence court.
Volunteers aren’t asked to provide transportation, housing or financial support to victims.
“Their only responsibilities are to make contact with clients, meet with them on court dates, and provide emotional support,” Sanford said.
The program is entering its third year, and Family Abuse Services was recently approved for a grant to fund the program for two more years.
For more information about the program, contact Sanford at 336-229-2283 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.