Domestic violence survivors in the Helena area will soon have more access to legal help, thanks to a federal grant.
The Friendship Center and the Montana Legal Services Association received a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. It will provide about $115,000 a year for three years, to pay for a full-time attorney who will provide free service to victims of domestic and sexual violence.
The new attorney will focus specifically on civil law – areas like orders of protection, divorce and child custody.
Friendship Center executive director Jenny Eck said her organization has been able to provide their clients some assistance, like filling out legal forms or going to court with them. However, she said this will be the first time they have a dedicated attorney they can call on.
“It’s a big leap to go from just having help with paperwork and emotional support to having an attorney by your side,” she said.
Advocates say access to civil legal assistance is a major factor in whether victims of abuse can get out of their situations.
“One of the biggest barriers to someone leaving a domestic violence situation, for example, is if they’re afraid they’re going to lose their kids,” Eck said. “The abuser can say, ‘You can’t afford an attorney; if you leave me you’re going to lose the kids.’ Knowing that she has access to an attorney can make all the difference, because then it’s like, ‘Okay, I’ve got somebody by my side who’s going to fight to make sure that I can hang onto my kids too.’”
MLSA leaders said, in 2018, they helped 1,148 survivors and their families across Montana. They said having an attorney focusing on these cases will help them reach even more victims and provide them more comprehensive legal services.
Eck said they have already posted the attorney position, and they plan to start interviewing candidates in the next few weeks. She said, if they are able to make a hire soon, the new attorney could start by the end of the year.