Already successful in White Plains, expanded program gives more victims the help they need

Having proven itself in White Plains’ family courts, Westchester County’s Domestic Violence Legal Program has expanded to Yonkers – offering comprehensive legal services to even more women who need to protect themselves and break away from abusive home situations. County Executive Andy Spano, who initiated the program two years ago in White Plains, has continually pushed for its expansion to other courts so every battered woman in the county will have access to free and comprehensive on-the-spot services.

The new center, run by the Women’s Justice Center at Pace Law School, provides free legal and support services to domestic violence victims who seek help from Family Court. The women are provided with a legal extern and a lawyer to represent them in court so they can get the temporary orders of protection they need, as well as help with financial support, custody and safety planning issues. If a woman needs further legal assistance, a referral is made to Westchester/Putnam Legal Services, another partner in the project.

Spano officially inaugurated the new site today in a ceremony attended by dozens of judges and legal and social service professionals. The ceremony was followed by a reception and tour of the center, located in the Yonkers Family Court on South Broadway in Yonkers.

“The fact that we’re gathered here today is proof that this program is working,” Spano said. “Women who have been abused need a safe place to go – where they know their interests will be given priority – and that’s exactly what this program provides. We’ve seen it work in White Plains and now we’re reaching out into other communities.”

Another new service is a Hispanic Outreach/Advocacy Program in both courts. A staff person offers Spanish-speaking battered women help with information and referral services, education, counseling and safety planning.

The keynote speaker, The Honorable Juanita Bing Newton, spoke about using creativity in the courts. Recognized for being the first African-American woman to serve as an administrative judge of the State  Supreme Court, Newton is developing and coordinating a statewide plan to expand legal representation to all citizens by eliminating any real and perceived barriers to equal access. She currently serves as the deputy chief administrative judge for justice initiatives.

Besides Spano and Newton, speakers included the Honorable Joan O. Cooney, supervising judge of the family courts, Ninth Judicial District; David Cohen, dean of Pace University Law School; and the Honorable Francis Nicolai, administrative judge of the Ninth Judicial District.

Through the program, Pace Law School students and a Pace lawyer help victims of domestic violence apply for temporary orders of protection through the Family Court system. The students get professional training by interviewing the women and helping prepare the petitions. They also assist the women in presenting the petition to the family court judge.

Attorneys from Westchester/Putnam Legal Services are also available to represent the women at follow-up court hearings, and the county’s Probation and Social Services staff help women apply for child support and custody right on site. If needed, Family Abuse Services of the Mental Health Association also provides referrals for shelters and counseling.

“The women are able to get immediate safety planning assistance, financial assistance and legal services, as well as a sense of relief that their children will not be taken from them,” said Camille Murphy, director of the Westchester County Office for Women, which administers the program.

The White Plains center was the first in the nation to offer such comprehensive, on-the-spot legal and support services to women seeking orders of protection from family courts when it opened in October 1999. Previously many women didn’t know how to get help and so often had to appear in court without a lawyer. As a result, judges were not always made aware of the danger they were in and some orders of protection were denied or offered incomplete protection.

Over the past two years, more than 1,000 women from around the county have been assisted through the White Plains program and all clients who have been represented by students as part of this program have obtained temporary orders of protection. The Child Support Enforcement Unit – which begins seeking child support on the womens behalf when they apply for orders of protection – has opened 350 domestic violence cases, collecting more than $713,944 from delinquent fathers.

The Yonkers program, which began operating in September, is the latest example of County Executive Spano’s “zero tolerance” and comprehensive approach to domestic violence. For example, police departments now use special Polaroid cameras to document evidence of domestic violence.

Founded in 1976, Pace Law School is located in White Plains, N.Y., 20 miles north of New York City. The School offers the J.D. program for full-time, and part-time day, and evening students. Its post-graduate program includes the LL.M. and S.J.D. degrees in Environmental Law and the LL.M. in Comparative Legal Studies. Pace has one of the nation’s top-rated environmental law programs and its Clinical Education Program also is nationally ranked, offering clinics in domestic violence prosecution, securities arbitration, criminal justice, and disability rights.

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