Iowa City Press-Citizen - Domestic Violence Lawyers Needed
By Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a time to shine a light on the dark scourge of abuse that affects one out of four Americans each year. In Iowa alone in 2006, there were 77,256 calls to the state's domestic violence and sexual assault hotline and more than 23,000 victims of abuse helped by shelters and other service providers. Since 1995, 167 Iowans have been killed in domestic violence situations.
Once a domestic violence victim steps out from the shadow of an abusive relationship, what does she need? Lawyers. Domestic violence victims are in dire need for legal help for everything from obtaining protection orders to arranging child custody to instigating divorce proceedings.
A national survey by the National Network to End Domestic Violence found that in just one 24-hour cycle, more than 5,000 pleas for services, be it emergency shelter, transitional housing or legal aid, were unmet because of a lack of resources. This shortage means that thousands of victims of domestic violence go without legal representation in this country every day. And in fact, reports indicate that fewer than 1 out of every 5 low-income domestic violence victims ever sees a lawyer.
It is vital that a victim have an advocate helping her when she steps out of the abuse for the first time. The very second a battered woman calls the Hotline, reaches out to the police or walks into a courtroom, we need to connect this courageous person with legal assistance. Victims walk out on a limb when they seek help, often risking their personal safety. These first calls for help are critical moments when a victim must feel supported; if she doesn't, she may retreat back into the abuse.
The single, most important legislative accomplishment in my 32-year-old career in the Senate is passing the Violence Against Women Act. After years of work, countless hours of hearings, pages of expert testimony and Senate floor debate, my Act passed in 1994. The law was renewed in 2000 and most recently expanded in 2005 when I worked to include new measures to treat children who witness violence, to increase housing opportunities and to create dedicated resources for rape crisis centers.
Recognizing that campus gates don't keep out abuse, stalking and sexual assault, the Violence Against Women Act also created a special $15 million program for colleges and universities to create campus-wide victim services and security programs. The Act has transformed the way police, prosecutors, judges and advocates tackle domestic violence in their communities, and infused more than $4 billion dollars to state systems to fight violence against women. In 2007 alone, Iowa received $1.3 million for domestic violence programs with police, prosecutors, judges and advocates. But we are not done.
In May, I introduced the National Domestic Violence Volunteer Attorney Network Act, legislation that, for the first time, creates a streamlined national system to recruit and train volunteer lawyers and match them with domestic violence victims. Using the power of the Internet, this nationwide network of attorneys will be coordinated by American Bar Association; statewide legal coordinators would manage legal services in their individual states, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline and Internet-based services would provide legal referrals to victims. The historic partnership forged in my bill will mean that enthusiastic potential advocates quickly and seamlessly will get linked to training and new clients. And at the same time, desperate victims will be referred to a statewide coordinator and quickly connected to a lawyer. I want to end the frustrating, and often fruitless, task of calling different agencies, offices, or groups, either to volunteer or find a lawyer.
I believe there is a wealth of untapped resources in this country -- lawyers who want to volunteer. My National Domestic Violence Volunteer Act would harness the skills, enthusiasm and dedication of these lawyers and infuse 100,000 new volunteer lawyers into the justice system to represent domestic violence victims. I believe this initiative builds on the best of American ideals -- volunteerism, technology know-how, collaboration between the private and public sectors and our unwavering commitment to justice and service.
Joe Biden Jr. is the senior Democratic U.S. senator from Delaware and author of the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, which was signed into law in 1994, renewed in 2000 and expanded in 2005. He is a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.