Legal aid lawyers discuss the challenges to meeting clients’ needs for domestic violence-related legal services as cases rise on LSC’s “Talk Justice.” October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. LSC recently released its annual publication “By the Numbers: The Data Underlying Legal Aid Programs,” which provides national and state-level trend data. The report shows a 9% increase in cases involving domestic violence between 2021 and 2022. This continues a concerning trend of increasing domestic violence cases over the past decade.
Susan Pearlstein: We can only represent a small minority of those going to family court. So we represent survivors in those cases in a holistic way and for all the many litigants that we cannot represent due to lack of resources, we try and give as much self-represented litigation assistance as we possibly can to those folks.
Intro: Equal access to justice is a core American value. In each episode of Talk Justice, an LSC Podcast, we will explore ways to expand access to justice and illustrate why it is important to the legal community, business, government, and the general public. Talk Justice is sponsored by The Leaders Council of the Legal Services Corporation.
Molly McDonough: Hello, I’m Molly McDonough and I’ve spent my career as a legal affairs journalist and communications professional. I have a special interest in exploring how our systems can more effectively meet the legal needs of underserved populations. And I especially enjoy speaking with leaders and innovators in this field.
Today, in recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I’m speaking with two guests who are working to provide legal services for individuals facing intimate partner violence.
Emily Riley is a Senior Supervisory Attorney with Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, where she has served as the Victim of Crime Act Coordinator across the organization’s five regional offices. And Susan Pearlstein is a senior attorney and violence prevention and policy strategist in the Family Law Unit of Philadelphia Legal Assistance.
Emily and Susan, welcome to Talk Justice.
Emily Riley: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.
Susan Pearlstein: Thank you.
Molly McDonough: Before we dive into our discussion today, I’m hoping you can talk a little bit about the work you do in Illinois and Pennsylvania. Susan, do you want to start us off?
Susan Pearlstein: Sure. So I’m at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, we are LSE funded organization for Philadelphia city and county which is a very large, very poor city. We have a really high population of folks living under the poverty level especially in deep poverty. So unfortunately, there are many, many litigants that are eligible for our services. We try and represent as many survivors of family violence that we can.
We can only represent a small minority of those going to family court and in my office, when I say family court, we are doing domestic relations work, not dependency work and so that is cases where it’s private parties, mom, dad, grandma, whoever else might be involved with the child for child custody cases, child support and spousal support, divorce and a lot of protection from abuse. Cases which are often also called restraining orders domestic violence cases.
So we represent survivors in those cases in the holistic way as best as we can and for all the many litigants that we cannot represent due to lack of resources in our organization and throughout the city, we try and give as much self-represented litigation assistance as we possibly can to those folks.
Molly McDonough: All right, thank you, Emily?
Emily Riley: Hi, I’m Emily Riley. I have been a practicing attorney at Land of Lincoln for over 7 years and the Victim of Crime Act Coordinator for about three. I have worked in three — so we have five offices across the central and southern region, excuse me, and we serve about 65 counties and a lot of them are rural populations. So it is a lot of traveling, but essentially what my role is I do a lot of what Susan does, right.
So I am an attorney that represents people and family and custody disputes as well as protective orders. So that could be orders of protection involving parties that are related in some sort of way and either in a domestic partnership, familial relationship, roommate, cohabitation arrangement. Additionally, I represent — we also help with stalking no contact orders which is restraining orders between kind of strangers, neighbors, etc.
And we also help with civil no contact orders, which are sexual assault cases, whether isn’t necessarily that domestic relationship. But we also help with some guardianships, as well as custody and divorce cases. And so that’s kind of what I’ve been doing now for a very long time.
So yeah, we serve 65 counties, my county specifically serves about 12, so it’s a lot of traveling. But yeah, it’s nice to help those that are underserved in rural communities, as well as some other bigger cities.
Molly McDonough: So basically what I’m hearing from both of you is there’s a lot of different ways that legal services comes into play with family situations.
And that brings me to my first question, which is when I was prepping for this, I found this University of Arizona study and they were kind of looking at specific areas in the state, and digging deeper into needs, doing needs assessments and safe housing, not surprisingly was number 1 and legal support as the greatest needs. And it just made me wonder if you could talk a little bit about the specific legal needs that come up, especially those that maybe others wouldn’t think of that come into play when there’s family violence in the picture.
Emily Riley: One of the bigger things is housing and a lot of times domestic violence are interrelated, right and a lot of times there’s some financial dependence issues where an abuser has made their victim financially dependent on them, right so they don’t have their name on the lease of the rental, not on the deed to the home.
Maybe they persuaded the victim in this instance to not work. So they don’t have their own financial source of income or take any income that they do earn into a joint account or sole account that they have control over. So housing is a big issue, financial interdependence is a big issue, getting people on public benefits as quickly as possible when you get into a case is certainly something that we have caseworkers to assist us on so getting people to apply to SNAP or TANF, things like that to help them get some source of income to help them become financially independent.
Additionally, which is interesting about Illinois is we have, what’s called the Illinois Safe Homes Act, which is a statute that basically tells private landlord, tenant or gives them that affirmative defense so to speak to private landlords that if someone comes to you indicating that they want to break their lease early because of domestic violence, they have to give you three days’ notice and then after that, they are no longer liable for any accumulated rent passed that three-day notice. So that also helps people get out of leases and not be financially burdened after trying to leave an abusive relationship.
But that’s certainly something that’s in the forefront of everybody’s mind is retaining their residents, maybe that’s where they have enough bedrooms for their kids, right? Their placement for their children is a main concern for them, and things like that. So that’s something that we certainly look at and we have to triage pretty early on.
Molly McDonough: I’m going to have a follow-up to that but Susan, go ahead.
Susan Pearlstein: Yeah. Well I was going to echo a lot of what Emily just said. Housing is often one of the biggest barriers to survivors leaving and leaving an abusive situation is often a really dangerous time, right? So the most dangerous time in a domestic violence relationship. One of the most dangerous times is when you’re leaving, another is when the survivor is pregnant or right after having a child.
So we’ve had many and when I said earlier, we try and provide holistic representation, we will do all of the family law stuff, child support, protection from abuse, divorce, custody, and then we work with a lot of our partners in the legal services community to make sure that all the other things are taken care of because the survivor is not going to be able to leave if she doesn’t have a place to live, if she doesn’t have an income, if she doesn’t have custody of her kids, if her immigration status can’t be dealt with and threats of deportation are often used against immigrants survivors of domestic violence. Like Emily said, a lot of survivors are not permitted to work or have to turn over their income or they’re not allowed to learn how to speak English. So things like that.
Philadelphia, actually, Pennsylvania does not have a similar protection for survivors in their leases, but Philadelphia has an ordinance that basically provides kind of the same protections for survivors. You can break a lease without penalty. You can’t be evicted for the police being called because of domestic violence, things like that.
But housing is really difficult. And a lot of times what happens is survivors will go and try and file for a protection from abuse petition and get a temporary order. The temporary order in Pennsylvania then you have 10 days before you get a hearing before a judge. The temporary order can provide for eviction of the abuser in certain circumstances.
And so you go to court, you file your petition you see a judge for a quick ex parte hearing and that judge that day can enter an order giving you custody of your kids, evicting the abuser from the home, ordering relinquishment of weapons, things like that.
If the order does grant eviction for the abuser, then great, the police or sheriffs can assist with effectuating that temporary order, making service, getting the abuser out of the home.
If it doesn’t, a lot of survivors are then completely afraid to even serve the petition. Because then if they don’t have their own place to go, what are they going to do? Go home and have this order served saying, “I have a protection from abuse order against you. It says, you can’t abuse me, but now we have to live together until next week when our hearing is” or, she doesn’t have any temporary order at all and she’s going to have to wait. And I’m saying she, of course, abuse happens across gender, across race, across socioeconomic. It can be two men; it can be two women. I just say she and he because it’s easier and that is the majority of cases. So that makes it really difficult for people when they don’t have housing and they can’t leave safely.
Emily Riley: Yeah, we have exclusive possession is an extremely helpful tool in protective orders that can be granted ex parte. And I also picked up on something else. You indicated that Philadelphia has it that you can’t evict someone based on calling the police. Is that correct, Susan?
Susan Pearlstein: Yeah, right. So the ordinance says that a landlord can’t evict tenants just because the police have been called because of domestic violence.
Emily Riley: And I wanted to echo that because we have, sometimes around our area because we’re close to St. Louis, Missouri, so sometimes in the St. Louis County as well. They have crime free ordinances. So that allows a private landlord to evict someone for calling the police and having the police just show up at their house and calling for help. And so that also is a detriment. Those crime fee ordinances, while I guess they can be seen as like, “Hey, we don’t want these unsavory people in our neighborhood.” But essentially, they’re working against domestic violence survivors and it’s a real problem. So I did want to point that out. Susan, I’m appreciative that you kind of brought that up.
Molly McDonough: Yeah, that seems to be kind of, I remember covering it at the ABA Journal, too. It’s a big issue. It seems like, oh, it’s a tough on crime. What it ends up being is tough on survivors and their families and prevents them from getting out of situations and finding good housing, too. It penalizes survivors when they try to find other housing. That was interesting to me. Emily, I didn’t know that Illinois had that you could get out of your lease provision and sounds like Philadelphia has that, too. That’s fantastic. That helps preserve their credit ratings, doesn’t ding them to go somewhere else.
Susan, I was going to ask I have two questions following up on some of the things you both said. One is we were talking about it just seems like this is almost an overwhelming process for someone with your approach to this holistic approach. And Emily, I understand this is similar to what you do, too, and others do. It seems like there are a lot of moving parts with partners, kind of how do you organize that and kind of toggle between direct service and DIY information on websites and tutorials. And then part two of that is kind of are you finding ways to streamline that process and make it easier or more manageable?
Susan Pearlstein: Yeah, it is a lot for a survivor especially. So I’m involved in a group called the Domestic Violence Law Enforcement Task Force, and it’s been going on for like, I don’t know, 15 years or so and we have all these community partners. When we first started, we tried to map out all the things that a survivor would have to do if there were just going through the family law cases. It’s so much. And you might have several appearances for a protection order, several appearances for custody, several appearances for support. Then on top of that, maybe you’re trying to get public benefits. So you have to go to the welfare office and do all of those things.
And if you’re undocumented or an immigrant, maybe you need to meet with an immigration attorney. And then if dependency is involved with child protective services is investigating, you might have to do things for them and then go to parenting classes or whatever. It can be really overwhelming. We’ve all had clients who basically touch every unit of our civil legal aid services between Philadelphia Legal Assistance and Community Legal Services that they might need help with utilities, all kinds of things.
So we do have a social worker, which has sort of been like life changing for us, but she’s only one person. So through one of our grants, through justice for families grant or no, a Victims of Crime Act grant, we were able to get a social worker a couple of years ago. And that really helps with trying to figure out what are all the things that this client needs, sending them or connecting them with all the different resources. Some of our grants, we specifically work with some immigration organizations in Philadelphia. So we will do the family law piece and they’ll do the immigration piece. And that’s really helpful as well to know that there’s some place, we can send them because once they are a victim of crime, they can do a U visa. Sometimes they can do a T visa or self-petition if they’re married to a U.S. citizen. So that’s really, really helpful.
Molly McDonough: The social worker is kind of like the equivalent of a court navigator, really helping you not just a victim advocate, but really somebody who can help you just navigate the process. It seems critical to me for here.
Susan Pearlstein: It really is. And especially then on top of that, when there’s criminal charges and our client is the victim witness in a criminal case, that can be really traumatic and difficult. And we try and connect the survivor with someone who can attend the criminal hearings with her, just keep track of what’s going on in those cases. It’s really overwhelming often.
Emily Riley: Yeah, I think just kind of going off what Susan said, honestly, sometimes it’s just letting them know what is available. People do not know even where to start looking for help. Sometimes they don’t even know that Land of Lincoln or legal aid just in general even exists. So it’s important to do — because there are gaps in services and it’s important to try to do outreach, community outreach. It’s important to have a good relationship with your judges and your courthouses so that they know to give people pamphlets, informational packets on us and what we do and who we are for sure.
In Illinois, we have a pretty robust Illinois Supreme Court state approved forms that you can access. But again, if you don’t know where to look, right? And they’re pretty good for pro se individuals. They explain kind of what the process is, what you need to do. They have different things for protective orders and things like that. And we also have Illinois Legal Aid online, which is extremely helpful and can connect you to legal services as well if you go through their website. But also, it’s just a lot of helpful information and it comes with sometimes pre forms, like an explanation of what your legal problem is and what you need to do. And then, hey, here’s some approved state forms that you can use.
So while there are gaps, certainly making those connections, just letting people know that there are services available to them, go to your IDHS office, right? And that’s where you can get benefits. Are you on SNAP just asking a couple of those questions? Even if you’re not going to represent someone for full representation and just give advice, just even giving that so that they have the tools that they can then be successful with helps tremendously, I think.
Molly McDonough: I had a question about trends for you, kind of what you’re seeing. I was going to ask you about national trends, but it strikes me that this is like all politics is local. This is a really local issue that has to be dealt with because as you mentioned, ordinances are very localized. It’s not like you can just go to a domestic violence resource center nationally and find out what to do, maybe some general information, but really the tactical things that you need to actually take care of are all seem very local. So I’m wondering if you’re seeing that as part of your organizational outreach, trying to get what you’re doing to get the word out and to make these connections with the populations.
Susan Pearlstein: Yeah. In 2015, PLA, along with some other community actors in the court, started a help center at Family Court, and it is specifically for custody, but we started it without any grant funds. It was all volunteer based. And we did it because we felt the court does have an intake unit that will see people and talk to people, but they sometimes don’t tell people the right thing to file. People are often confused. They don’t know what’s going on with their case. And it’s not like a clerk’s job to tell somebody, explain to them what to do.
So we started the Help Center back in 2015, and it’s really now like an established resource for the community. And when we were able to fund that through a different grant, we have a paralegal who’s there every day, and we have volunteer attorneys that go sometimes from our office, sometimes from the private bar. And we’re also able to place a paralegal in our domestic violence filing unit.
And although the court has a lot of rules about when that person can speak to people, we now have a person in the court who can see survivors that very same day that they’re filing, explain to them, “This is how service will go. This is what your order means. You do or do not have custody of your kids. You do or do not have eviction in your temporary order. What’s going to happen at your hearing? How do you gather your evidence? How do you get your police report?”
Will your police report be admitted into evidence if you don’t have the officer there? All of those things and it is so much information. So we are trying to get as much of that information on our website and on the court’s website and we just finished this big booklet about custody for domestic violence survivors. So that will be really helpful and we just try and get as much information out there, and the great thing about having the paralegal at the help center and in the domestic violence unit is they can do intakes for legal aid right there. So our paralegal can talk to somebody, see what’s going on. If it seems like it’s a high lethality situation or something really urgent, we can do an intake right then and there and try and connect the person to legal services more immediately.
Molly McDonough: That’s impressive. That surely saves a lot of steps and just helps get people engaged right away instead of, “Hey, do this tomorrow.” Let’s get you started on the process while there’s interest and motivation.
Susan Pearlstein: It’s been really helpful.
Emily Riley: Yeah, I agree. It’s really important not to wait or make people that are survivors wait to file because it may be that they are coming to court when the other side — when an adverse party or the abuser is at work, right? Is away on — I think a recent one was like golfing and so to get those times away where they’re not being tracked and not being monitored is super important. I do think there has been a trend. I don’t think domestic violence has spiked. I think it’s always been there. But I have seen specifically a trend in my counties about just it’s just increased litigation. People show up. People are arguing. Abusers are way more involved than they used to be even like 40 years ago. I think that some of that is a result of being interconnected through social media, right? Where you have like-minded individuals who are maybe fueling that fire.
But for sure, the self-help center is amazing. We have something similar in the counties that we have, domestic violence advocates that are there. We have a paralegal as well in one of our courthouses where there’s the most need to help people fill out intakes and explain that process, and law libraries in general. I think the courts have seen that this is an issue and they have devoted specific resources and time to make sure that people have the ability when they come to the courthouse to sit down in front of a computer and have a clerk assist them, “Hey, this is what you’re looking at? I can’t give you legal advice, but I can give you the forms that you’ll likely need to fill out.” So I think everybody’s recognized that this is a problem and we’re trying to, in the best way that we can right now, is try to address that for sure.
Susan Pearlstein: Yeah. Not everything is rosy and green. Like we still have a lot of problems in Philadelphia in particular but across the Commonwealth. One of the things that’s been going on is there’s so many people coming to file and the court doesn’t have the resources to handle all the cases that sometimes the filing unit will close like 10:00, 10:30, 11:00 in the morning and it’s supposed to be open until 4:00, right? So you can have a survivor who goes down to court to file and they’re told, “Sorry, we’re full for the day, it’s too late and it’s like 11:00.” And then they have maybe taken off of work, gotten childcare, like snuck out of the house to get down there and they’re out of luck and they can’t file and they would have to come back the next day. So we’re really trying to work with the court to work on those issues. And it really seems like it is a funding issue that the court really needs more judges, more staff.
We’re working towards trying to train the staff to be trauma informed and be a little more sympathetic to litigants who are coming in, who might be confused or because of the trauma that they’re suffering, people are more aware of being trauma informed and the impact of trauma. But a lot of times, survivors don’t present the way that someone thinks that they should be presenting, and so they’re sometimes just like blown off or not believed or told that they can’t file because there’s no physical abuse which isn’t true, things like that. So having the person in the court is really essential to kind of be the ears and eyes of what’s going on and sort of address these more systemic issues.
Molly McDonough: So when the courts are closing off the ability to file, is the paralegal still there then to help with intake? Presumably emergencies could still be dealt with?
Susan Pearlstein: Yeah, that’s the idea. But they’re not going to be able to file their petition at court that day. They would have to do it themselves and it’s a lot harder to file that kind of petition per se on your own than it is like a custody petition.
Molly McDonough: One of the things you talked about was security getting away, being able to even file or talk to somebody. And I understand in Philadelphia there’s a program that you have with medical-legal partnerships. Can you talk a little bit about how that works? That seems really interesting to me.
Susan Pearlstein: Yeah. So quite a few years ago, PLA started a medical legal community partnership where we place legal advocates inside health centers across the city. But the idea is a nurse or a doctor or any medical provider that’s speaking with someone when they find out that they’re a survivor of domestic violence or they don’t have health insurance or maybe they need food stamps, they can connect them to a legal services provider who can talk about their legal issues right then and there. And for domestic violence obviously, it’s really crucial and super helpful for survivors if they’re brought there with their abuser. It’s one place that they can be in a confidential setting and talk to someone. We’ve seen it happen time and time again where it might be the first person that a survivor is disclosing any kind of family abuse to is the doctor or the nurse practitioner or the person who’s taking their blood pressure at a health center which is really incredible and great for clients who don’t know where to go. And some survivors don’t even know what a protection order is or that’s even a thing that’s available to them.
Molly McDonough: Emily, are you seeing anything similar with opportunities outside of court, especially or offices for survivors to get direct service?
Emily Riley: Of course, so we have MLPs as well, medical-legal partnerships across our offices and that give us direct referrals for all kinds of things. But additionally, we have a really good connection with what we call our community partners, so that can be advocates, that can be people that advocates at the state’s attorney’s office, even state’s attorneys in general. So we do have a lot of different partnerships with our community organizations and we have referral forms that we give to each of these individuals and of these partners, and they can fill that out when they have their client sitting with them right in the office and fax it over or email it over to us.
But I did want to address one thing that Susan said earlier, it’s about education, just how survivors present sometimes. I think that’s sometimes a really big issue is educating people, right? The police, educating the judicial, the judiciary in general and sometimes the only way to do that is maybe in an expert witness. So I was recently a part of an expert witness training in Illinois, and Chicago and Springfield, where we worked with same nurses. We worked with domestic violence advocates to help them feel more comfortable about being potentially qualified as an expert witness in these orders of protection and family cases, to be honest, so that they can say, “Hey, not everybody presents the same way.” The flat affect sometimes when they’re telling you this horrific event is sometimes a brain’s way of coping, is their way of coping with what happened and dealing with the trauma. So I did want to kind of make a tangential skew with that, Susan, so I appreciate you bringing that up.
Molly McDonough: Something that’s come up repeatedly in this conversation is funding. I saw that the Department of Justice just did a big grant, 59 million, to support survivors of domestic and dating violence and sexual assault survivors. And it seems like it’s directed in some really interesting ways, a lot of navigation, a lot of education and information. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about where funding is going and where you think it’s needed and whether grants like this are a drop in the bucket or you feel like they’ll really help.
Emily Riley: A hundred percent, more money is not going to fix the issue of domestic violence and nobody is ever even saying that. But it does help to provide these programs, right? So I might be jumping ahead a little bit, but even technology with the courthouses, we have courthouses in some areas that don’t have enough court reporters or don’t have recording technology. So that makes an issue on appeal for orders of protection cases, for family cases, for whatever, right? And so just having those grants available, drug testing, right? What do you do if both parties are indigent and they can’t afford to pay for a five-panel hair follicle test, drug test, right? So it’s getting funding that can show, “Hey, this is an abusive person, this is why they shouldn’t be around the kids.”
They’ve got this, a positive indication for methamphetamines or whatever in their five-panel. Just having those things available is always helpful. So, in our office specifically, and I think Susan touched on that, she’s got a social worker at her office, but we were able to get an additional grant through the VOCA and with that grant, we were able to hire and have case workers in on our family cases as well, which was extremely helpful, again because they help people get that financial independence that they need. They help people find housing. They help people, like go to local churches or food pantries and get extra services. So, more money does certainly help, right? That’s not going to eliminate the problem but I think it goes through technology with the court through remote appearances, things like that, especially in our counties which are extremely rural, right?
So, for us, for me, I’d have to drive, you know — sometimes I think the farthest I’ve driven recently is two and a half hours to a courthouse, right? To have an in-person hearing and having that remote appearance would help me represent more people because I’m not spending five hours, you know, roundtrip for one order of protection. So, it’s super helpful, but those types of grants help. They really do.
Susan Pearlstein: Yeah. These grants, the LAV grants and the grants through the Office on Violence Against Women are critical. They’re crucial. We have gotten some of them over the years and they usually — they go in three-year cycles and when we don’t have them, we sometimes lose staff. We’re unable to replace those staff when the funding goes away. They often do have specific requirements or populations that they’re seeking to assist with and I do know that there’s a housing one, which is great, which is sorely needed throughout the country, and then the VOCA funding too. It wasn’t that long ago, it was pre-COVID, a huge amount of Victims of Crime Act money was released for legal aid and everyone around us got these VOCA grants, and that’s how we got the social worker.
We had several different VOCA grants and then the money shrunk again. And so, now we’re like scrambling to keep the same level of service. We definitely need more funds, not only for federal grants, but for state grants too. Like I said, the court needs better funding, we need more interpreters in the court, but having civil-legal aid lawyers with survivors is so critical. Like, there haven’t been that many studies about it, but the studies that have been done have shown that that is the most crucial thing in a survivor staying out of an abusive relationship, is like maintaining stability, obtaining and maintaining stability financially, getting custody of their children, and getting protection orders, and having a civil legal aid attorney for that is critical.
Emily Riley: And I do want to kind of piggyback off what you were saying, Susan. When we go through these influxes and kind of “defluxes” — yeah, we’re going to go with. In funding, it does, right? It means that sometimes we have to lay off staff and I couldn’t tell you the amount of people that — you know, I’ve helped or even given advice to and are like, “Thank you so much. I would have never known all of this information.” So, that funding is crucial.
It’s important to also point out that dealing with survivors of domestic violence can lead to burnout, right, and can lead to secondary trauma, and so it’s really difficult to retain staff as well when you have them constantly exposed to these really horrifying stories, right? And sometimes you just feel helpless to help this person, so definitely training on secondary trauma, helping people through that, is also extremely important as well.
Susan Pearlstein: Yeah, I’m really glad you mentioned that because the self-care for those of us working with survivors is really important as you said. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep paralegals. We get these wonderful young college grads and they’re super excited to do this work and they’re great at it and after a year or two of being on our hotline and hearing story after story, after story was like — seems like it’s never ending, and it’s not, it’s really hard to keep up and it’s hard not to get really discouraged and burnt out. So, we really try and provide as much emotional support as we can. We did just have someone come in and do like a self-care workshop for everyone, things like that.
Molly McDonough: We’re getting close to time for us today but I have a couple of questions. One is, you know, especially given the term-limited grant funding you rely on, are you seeing some tech advances that help you as, you know, a grant is coming to an end that maybe you can shift some resources to at least a tech-assisted solution?
Susan Pearlstein: We have not advanced with technology as much as I would like us to. Like, I’m waiting for someone to develop some kind of app that is going to like kind of connect DV survivors to like all the resources or something, and maybe that’s something we can think about in the future.
We’re in our court, just still trying to get electronic filing, which we don’t have, which is insane. And in Philly, Family Court is the only court that doesn’t have electronic filing. So, it’s wild and it’s crazy, and we keep hearing about it, but it’s not happened yet. Supposedly it’s in the works. I know other states have Civil Gideon commissions or, you know, access to justice statewide commissions that were set up by like the State Supreme Court, Pennsylvania hasn’t done that. We’d really love to see that as well and try and make better strides in guaranteeing representation for survivors.
Molly McDonough: Wow.
Emily Riley: Yeah. That is absolutely wild with the e-filing. I think Illinois did a Supreme Court rule like in 2018, everything had to be e-filed, and you can ask for like a special dispensation for like to not e-file but you have to fill out paperwork for it.
Susan Pearlstein: So, during COVID it was quite interesting.
Emily Riley: Yeah.
Susan Pearlstein: Yeah.
Emily Riley: I bet. I bet.
Susan Pearlstein: We were filing via email. We would send emails with attachments. It was crazy.
Emily Riley: That’s nuts. No, just to kind of go off of that, I think it kind of already touched on the technology a little bit, just remote appearances. You know, having the ability to just show up for a CMC, an initial case management conference where you’re just really saying hi and like, “This is where we’re at, this is where we’re going, let’s go to mediation, or whatever you know, in a family case.” I don’t need to drive two and a half hours for that, right? So, just being able to appear in court remotely in some of these more rural counties is just almost invaluable and helpful, for even private attorneys, right?
And additionally, the Illinois Supreme Court, Rule 45 specifically, indicates that you do have to allow remote appearances when asked across the board, and not necessarily for emergency orders of protective orders, restraining orders, but those would include those plenary orders of protection or restraining orders as well so you don’t necessarily — a survivor doesn’t have to be in the same room necessarily as their abuser and feel unsafe, you know, even in the public setting like that. So, that is nice that we have that, but again getting access to that technology can sometimes be tough. So, certainly there’s no detriment to having more technology available to communicate to you and have your client communicate with you and also with the court, no detriment.
Susan Pearlstein: Yeah. The other thing I’ll just say about technology is abusers are very technologically savvy, and we have seen an increase in cyber abuse, stalking, you know, even just the trackers.
Emily Riley: Yeah. Yup.
Susan Pearlstein: That, you know, putting a tracking device in the diaper bag after an exchange or something like that. All that kind of stuff has really increased over the past few years.
Emily Riley: Kid’s phone, right?
Molly McDonough: Wow. Well, I kind of want to dive into that but that’s almost a whole other conversation.
Emily Riley: That could be a whole other podcast.
Molly McDonough: Seriously. But I did want to ask if you, outside of e-filing, Susan, what’s on your wish list? What would you like to see happen that you think would really move the needle in this space, especially in Philadelphia?
Susan Pearlstein: Yeah. All the funding, funding for legal aid lawyers, funding for the court, all that stuff, but I really think like maybe a change in how survivors are viewed and, you know, start by believing, as something that advocates always say, start by believing — just start by believing someone who’s coming to you saying, “My child’s being sexually abused,” or, “I’m being abused.” The process that survivors have to go through both in the civil court and the criminal justice system is so incredibly difficult, and I would like to just see somehow that become a little bit more survivor-friendly and/or some way to reconfigure how we administer justice for survivors of domestic violence, because the way that the criminal justice system is doing it now is not helpful.
And, you know, the intersection between the civil and the criminal I think could be a lot more streamlined, or make it a little bit easier for survivors to do both.
Molly McDonough: Okay. Emily?
Emily Riley: We have a lot of laws and statutes in place that are supposed to, and in the intent is to help, make this process easier for survivors of domestic violence but implementing it is the issue. For instance, in Illinois, we have a criminal order of protection that a state’s attorneys can file, and you don’t have to get your survivor to testify again. Just the fact that there are criminal charges is enough to meet the preponderance of the evidence standard to file that criminal OP. It’s just not being done across the state, and it’s a lack of education. It’s coordination with the clerk’s office, with the sheriff’s department, with the state’s attorneys, with the criminal judges, right? I would like to see obviously more money for legal aid attorneys, right?
Molly McDonough: Of course.
Emily Riley: Create 12 more positions, right? Give me, you know, all that, right? But I would also — I think, even at a more basic level, just cross-education across all of the areas that affect these survivors’ lives, right? Police, state’s attorney, the court system, civil legal aid, the advocates, just make sure that everybody knows about the process, right? So we can streamline it. Judge education, right? These are things that I think are easy to do and maybe wouldn’t cost us much, but for some reason we’re having — we’re hitting a wall. So, that’s kind of what I would like to see, hopefully in the near future.
Molly McDonough: Well, thank you so much. I feel like I’ve learned a lot more, especially about, you know, how localized some of these issues can be and a lot of things on the wish list that I think a lot of people who are listening to this would agree with.
Thank you, Emily and Susan, and thank you, listeners. I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of Talk Justice. If you like what you’ve heard, please take a moment to rate us and subscribe on Spotify and Apple Podcasts or wherever podcasts can be found. Until next time.
Outro: Podcast guest speakers’ views, thoughts, and opinions are solely their own and do not necessarily represent the legal services corporation’s views, thoughts, or opinions. The information and guidance discussed in this podcast are provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. You should not make decisions based on this podcast content without seeking legal or other professional advice.