Legal advocacy makes a difference for survivors of domestic violence

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By: Susanna Norwood, Legal Services Director

The impacts of domestic violence can be felt in many ways—physically, mentally, emotionally, and even legally. As survivors work to build a life that is safe and sustainable, legal advocacy emerges as a vital support system. But what exactly is legal advocacy, and why is it important to a victim-survivor's journey?

Here in Maine, when victim-survivors contact one of the state’s regional Domestic Violence Resource Centers, they are treated with respect and patience and are empowered to make their own decisions.

The role of legal advocates is to offer practical information about court processes, help survivors explore possible outcomes and weigh the pros and cons of different actions based on their own unique situation. Advocates provide clients with credible, publicly available information to dispel any misconceptions that survivors might have been given. The goal in all advocacy is safety, whatever that may look like for each client and their families.

Legal advocacy can be an important first step in developing a safety plan, which is a key aspect of a victim-survivor’s journey. Legal remedies, such as filing protection from abuse orders or reporting domestic violence crimes to law enforcement, can play a huge role in survivor safety, but it is always an individual decision. For some, a PFA can be a welcome tool that helps keep survivors and their children safe. But for others, it could make their situation worse. An individualized safety plan is ever-evolving so it’s important that survivors know what their options are and have the time and space to decide what they’d like to do.

Legal advocates assist with obtaining PFA orders through the civil court process and can also offer support if survivors choose to seek solutions through the criminal justice system. This includes accompanying them to police interviews, meetings with Victim Witness Advocates, and trials where survivors are asked to read victim impact statements. Depending on the severity of the situation, legal advocates may also convene a High-Risk Response which is an advanced safety planning meeting with law enforcement, victim advocates and survivors. Beyond immediate safety needs, legal advocates can share information, resources and referrals on family matters such as divorce and parental rights or housing issues such as evictions.

These services are available to anyone who needs them including people whose first language is something other than English. New Hope Midcoast uses a multi-language translation service for their 24-hour helpline, as well as the Maine Relay Service which connects voice telephone users with individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing or have a speech disability. Advocates have corresponded with clients via email using Google Translate and have utilized court-provided in-person or video conference interpreters. For legal services, the organization partners with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project on cases that involve immigration or citizenship matters as well as Pine Tree Legal and private attorneys.

While a few small studies have looked at the benefits of advocacy, the sensitive nature of this work makes it very difficult to measure outcomes. However, one of Maine’s guiding documents is the state Homicide Review Panel biennial report, which has consistently highlighted and recommended the model of a coordinated community response for the best outcome for survivors. These multi-disciplinary teams usually consist of representatives from the justice system, victim advocates, medical and behavioral healthcare organizations, the faith community, child welfare organizations, schools, violence intervention program coordinators, and others. "CCR teams and response protocols establish a coherent process, helping to ensure that victims receive consistent, comprehensive services and referrals, and offenders are held accountable across all parts of their community involved.” (

Guidance and support of survivors throughout the legal process is key to a successful outcome and it is most often provided by a combination of lawyers and legal advocates. Attorneys ensure that survivor’s rights are recognized and can advise clients on the best step forward in their legal journey. Advocates are effective communicators, experts in safety planning and have a unique understanding of the emotional and social impact of domestic violence. Together, they can support victim-survivors as they navigate these challenging processes.

If you or someone you know needs support, call New Hope Midcoast’s 24/7 Helpline at 1-800-522-3304.