October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and a time to reflect on our battle to fight domestic violence with the most effective tool available: legal assistance.

Thanks to the Legal Aid Society, this essential service is available to low-income individuals free of charge. In 2011, the Legal Aid Society handled 1,830 cases of domestic violence, and helped 1,513 individuals seek and enforce their legal rights to gain independence from abusers. Through staff, pro bono attorneys and volunteers, we stood beside them in court, helped them identify their options and provided a means for them and their families to be safe. 

The devastation of domestic violence extends beyond individual victims and families, to wreaking havoc on community life and our region’s economic well being. A 2006 report submitted to the Tennessee General Assembly found that domestic violence is costing Tennessee approximately $174 million annually within the business community in lost wages, productivity, sick leave and absenteeism, medical community in present value of life costs, legal system and social service system.

The research showed that legal assistance is the only public service that reduces domestic abuse long term and is the most effective use of tax dollars in breaking the cycle of violence. The study also showed that important social services such as shelters, counseling, hot lines and emergency transport help secure a victim’s immediate safety, but access to legal assistance is the one service that enables a victim to permanently escape a violent home.

This study proves what our attorneys have long known: helping others helps everyone and access to legal services is necessary to reduce and prevent domestic violence. When we help the most vulnerable among us gain independence and get equal access to justice, we are not only helping that individual but also building a stronger community.

Studies show that the most effective way to end the cycle of abuse is to help victims become independent of their abusers. Low-income victims often remain in abusive marriages or relationships because they can’t afford the legal assistance needed to get a divorce and/or an order of protection. A victim who understands that she can get an order of protection, divorce, job training, affordable housing and child care will have the confidence and courage to leave an abuser and become a stable, independent member of the community.

We have helped many domestic violence victims gain their independence. I have experienced the power of legal assistance with clientslike Maria, an immigrant domestic violence victim who endured relentless mental, physical and financial abuse after she married and moved to America. (Maria’s name has been changed to protect her privacy)

Maria’s husband quickly ran through $20,000 of her savings within months of the marriage and became enraged when he learned she had nomore money. She was berated with vile names, accused of cheating, isolated from friends and family, and physically abused by her husband.

When Maria finally got the courage to escape, she contacted the police for help and was referred to the YWCA. They assisted her with housing and other services and referred her to the Legal Aid Society to help her get an Order of Protection and divorce. Maria said of her Legal Aid Society attorney, “You are an angel sent to help me in my life and I’m so grateful for you.” 

Throughout October, we will remember those who fought in this battle and continue to lead the fight for these victims. But we can’t do it alone. You can help. Learn the warning signs, reach out to your friends and neighbors, and contribute time and money to organizations that help survivors.

Help bring awareness to this issue by wearing a purpleribbon throughout October and telling people why you are wearing it. You can also join with Purple Lights Night™ and place a purple light in a front window at home to show “Domestic Violence has NO place in our Community.”

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