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Oct 12, 2021| Featured , News

Pro bono services can be a lifeline for domestic violence survivors, especially during the pandemic.

Published by Practicing Law 10/4/21

Pro bono services can be a lifeline for domestic violence survivors, especially during the pandemic, says Hon. Judy Harris Kluger. Since her retirement from the New York State bench, Judge Kluger has served as Executive Director for Sanctuary for Families. We spoke with her about the organization, the challenges survivors have faced during the pandemic, and the importance of understanding trauma when assisting these clients.

Who does Sanctuary for Families serve? How have these clients been affected by the pandemic?

Sanctuary is one of New York’s leading service providers and advocates for survivors of domestic violence, human trafficking, and related forms of gender-based violence including forced marriage and female genital mutilation. Every year, our free shelter, clinical, legal and economic empowerment services help thousands of adults and children across New York City move from fear and abuse to safety and stability. As I’m sure you can imagine, these services truly became a lifeline when New York went into lockdown.

For survivors still in contact with their abusers, safety was a paramount concern. Many clients were forced to quarantine with abusive partners, court closures prevented survivors from getting orders of protection, others risked their family’s health and safety as they attempted to abide by shared custody agreements, and some began reporting cyber sexual abuse as abusers sought out new ways to threaten and exert control.

These safety concerns were compounded by countless other dynamics. Around 70% of our clients are immigrants, 90% identify as people of color, and the vast majority of clients receiving long-term services report a household income of $20,000 or less. Many of our clients and families struggled to access food, PPE, COVID testing, adequate technology for their children’s remote schooling, and childcare if parents had to continue in-person work

As we look toward the future, we are anticipating intensified demands for legal services, housing, and financial assistance, among other needs. The majority of survivors we serve come from marginalized communities, many of which have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s devastation. Unfortunately, we know these communities will also be the last to recover.

What is trauma-informed lawyering and how does it relate to the representation of domestic violence survivors? 

The importance of understanding the ways trauma impacts people and their health and behavior cannot be understated and really, it’s the only way to effectively represent a survivor of abuse. Trauma-informed lawyering means centering the client’s trauma and adjusting approaches to lawyering in an effort to reduce the possibility of re-traumatization, build trust, and better understand the client’s experience.

Traumatic memories are stored in the limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for non-verbal emotion or instinctual reactions. This means survivors may struggle to organize their memories in a linear timeline; experience memory loss and dissociation; and have physical reactions like sweating, headaches, or anxiety attacks. Building trust with survivors may also take longer or require a more concerted effort to create safe and comfortable spaces for conversation.

Learning how trauma manifests in interpersonal relations and how to build trust, communicate, create comfortable environments, and support someone who has been triggered by traumatic memories will vastly improve the client-attorney relationship and will help lawyers build better cases.

What recommendations do you have for pro bono attorneys who work with domestic violence survivors?

Seek out training material and CLEs on trauma-informed lawyering. When you approach this work in a trauma-informed way, you’ll be better able to establish a highly effective, trusting attorney-client relationship that will help your substantive work on the case.

Adjust how you typically measure success in a legal case. It is not just about winning or losing a case when working with a domestic violence survivor. It’s also about supporting your client and standing by them through what may be one of the most difficult and challenging periods in their life. Never underestimate the effect that you can have on a domestic violence survivor just by believing them and fighting for them – even if the case doesn’t always come out the way you had hoped.

Keep doing the work! There are so many survivors out there in need of compassionate and skilled legal representation.

You’ve served as Co-Chair for Practising Law Institute’s annual Domestic Violence program. Why do you speak for PLI?

I learn so much at every PLI event I attend. Working in direct services, it’s easy to get siloed, focusing on the issues of the city or region we work in or specific areas of practice. I am always grateful for the opportunities PLI offers to hear from experts from around the country, and to share the perspectives and knowledge I’ve developed from my time as a New York State judge and executive director of Sanctuary for Families. It is also always a pleasure to meet fellow advocates, and reconnect with old friends and colleagues like Charlotte Watson who will be co-chairing PLI’s annual program on domestic violence with me again in 2022. It’s a wonderful community and I’m honored to co-chair this program.

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