Nov. 7, 2012 – Recently, a tragic event in Brookfield highlighted the importance of recognizing and protecting victims of domestic abuse, and the crucial role that lawyers play in helping victims take steps to protect themselves.
Last month, gunman Radcliffe Haughton walked into a Brookfield spa and opened fire, killing his wife Zina Haughton and two other victims before taking his own life. Haughton had been served with a domestic abuse injunction a week before the shooting occurred.
“This was an incredibly tragic and visible example of domestic violence in Wisconsin,” said attorney Tony Gibart, policy coordinator at the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which represents more than 60 shelters and service providers statewide. “Beyond this incident, there are thousands of domestic abuse cases we don’t see or hear about.”
What is Domestic Abuse?
Wis. Stat. section 968.075 defines domestic abuse as intentional infliction of physical pain, physical injury or illness, intentional impairment of physical condition, or sexual assault against a spouse, former spouse, or between persons who live or lived together or have children together. The definition also includes physical acts that may cause the other person to reasonably fear imminent engagement in this type of conduct.
Courts use both criminal and civil law to deter domestic abuse. Under the criminal code, domestic abuse is punishable under various provisions, including battery and disorderly conduct. Individuals can file civil restraining orders and injunctions for domestic abuse, harassment, child abuse, or on behalf of at-risk persons such as disabled or elderly individuals.
While civil legal measures cannot deter extreme acts of violence in all circumstances, injunctions do mitigate domestic violence in 80 percent of cases, according to one study.
It’s an important step in stopping a cycle of abuse, according to Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Mary Triggiano, who has presided over domestic violence cases for the last three years.
“National research tells us that injunctions are one tool in a set of different things victims can do to keep safe,” she said. “Importantly, injunctions can help victims be more legitimate in the eyes of those who are supposed to protect them.”
The domestic violence court in Milwaukee works with local agencies to help victims and refers defendants for treatment to address the root causes of domestic abuse when possible.
And as courts explore assessment tools to better predict offender risk, Judge Triggiano says lawyers who don't provide legal assistance directly can help educate communities on domestic abuse resources and be vigilant about what's happening within their own communities.
“It’s important to make sure that communities understand domestic violence is not a private matter. It’s a criminal offense that merits a strong and swift response,” she said. “Lawyers can educate themselves about what domestic violence is and how they can help.”
Legal Tools and the Need for Lawyers
Victims may file for temporary restraining orders (TRO) before obtaining injunctions, which can last up to four years. They don’t need an attorney to file these documents, but it often helps. Court commissioners determine whether to grant TROs and injunctions, which are appealable.
“It’s an awful thing to take that step without knowing you have someone at your back,” said attorney Patricia Risser, who coordinates Legal Action of Wisconsin’s Volunteer Lawyers Project, including the Domestic Violence Injunction Project.
Legal Action is a nonprofit law firm serving residents in 39 southern Wisconsin counties. Wisconsin Judicare, also a nonprofit law firm, serves 33 northern Wisconsin counties and 11 federally recognized Indian tribes. Both firms use staff lawyers and volunteer lawyers from the private bar to serve low-income individuals. Both help victims of domestic violence.
Yet as funding for civil legal needs decreases, many domestic abuse victims aren’t getting the legal assistance to secure TROs or injunctions. In addition, many victims are not getting legal assistance with other related cases stemming from or complicated by domestic violence.
“The injunction assistance is very important, but the crying need is to help people with more extensive fall-out cases, such as divorce, custody and placement cases,” said Risser. “The stakes are high in terms of personal safety, economic security, and maintaining family. It's an area that requires lawyers to be sensitive to the nonlegal issues involved in every client's situation.”
Legal Action’s Milwaukee office employs just four staff lawyers to serve both Milwaukee and Waukesha counties, meaning many potential victims are turned away.
“We know that if we had more capacity, we would have more cases. We get more requests than we can even respond to, much less provide representation and assistance. Unfortunately, organizations like ours are limited by our funding sources,” said Risser, who notes that Legal Action’s funding has dropped by 30 percent in the last 20 months.
Finding legal assistance for low-income victims is an ongoing challenge for the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says Gibart.
“Access to lawyer assistance is one of the largest and most difficult demands we hear about,” he said. “It’s incredibly common for victims of domestic violence to go into court pro se without much idea of how to take advantage of the legal protections available to keep them safe.
“In family law cases, especially when children are involved, the law can be so complex that survivors of domestic abuse can get lost and buried within the system,” Gibert said. “This is something that can deter victims from coming forward to try and leave an abusive situation.”
However, given the dynamics involved in cases that stem from domestic violence, Risser says that volunteer lawyers must be passionate about the service.
“You have to have the heart for it,” she said. “For the lawyers that want to do pro bono work, they would be best served by working with an organization like ours to help support them.”
Risser says volunteer lawyers and larger law firms have partnered with Legal Action and the Sojourner Family Peace Center to provide pro bono assistance, but more lawyers are needed.
Legal Action provides training for lawyers interested in providing pro bono services. The State Bar’s Pro Bono Directory helps attorneys locate opportunities within the state. Local bars, such as the Dane County Bar Association, also coordinate pro bono opportunities.
Gibert also encourages lawyers, especially attorneys working in family law or other related fields, to be mindful of domestic abuse when talking to clients.
“We encourage attorneys to inform themselves on domestic abuse issues and how to screen for it,” Gibart said. “It’s really about asking proactive questions in a sensitive way.”
Joe Forward is the legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin.
Resources to Inform Victims
Resources for Pro Bono Lawyers