New initiative decreases legal roadblock
By Fort Leonard Wood SJAJune 7, 2019
Military family life can entail significant stress factors, including frequent moves, distance from close relatives, long work hours and sometimes financial struggles.Military families are also not immune from the societal problem of domestic abuse. The Fort Leonard Wood Legal Assistance Office recently embarked on a program to broaden its resources and commitment to assisting victims of domestic abuse.The new initiative is a referral and representation system meant to make the office a first resource for victims to help prevent and mitigate the complex issues in domestic violence cases, decrease the barriers to reporting and allow victims to take advantage of the things only a lawyer can do."We were seeing a number of clients seeking help with physical, emotional or financial abuse from a partner," said Chief of Legal Assistance Gary Chura, a Missouri attorney with 25 years of experience. "Many felt isolated and scared."Chura explained domestic abuse is not just physical harm, but can also take the form of emotional cruelty, exertion of excessive control by one partner over another, or even creating inappropriate financial dependency, all of which can break down families."As a result, we wanted to deepen our expertise, and then let everyone know that we, as attorneys and paralegals, are prepared to help in these situations," said Capt. Jonathan Mathis, Legal Assistance attorney and Special Victims' counsel.Under the initiative, attorneys can advise about Military Protective Orders and help analyze and assist in preparation of a petition for a child or adult order of protection -- a civil proceeding whereby a threatened victim can obtain an immediate court order directing the abuser to stay away.According to the legal assistance office, these orders can address many things. They may contain orders related to interim support, return of property, child custody and who has to pay bills. Talking with an attorney also means the attorney client privilege applies. Along with other programs, such as Family Advocacy, attorneys and paralegals bring these additional skills to the table.To enhance the collaborative approach attorneys met and coordinated with the installation's Family Advocacy Program connecting the Legal Assistance Office with the established network of non-legal resources in the area and established a referral system between the organizations.Legal Assistance attorneys and paralegals also met with the Pulaski County Prosecutor's office, as well as attorney advocates from a domestic violence shelter in the Rolla area in order to discuss local resources available to victims in detail. The group also discussed best practices about advising clients in advance of filing a petition, or appearing at a full order of protection hearing.A meeting also took place with Family Court Judge Michael Headrick, presiding judge over all Civil Order of Protection Hearings. Headrick provided an outline of the statutory criteria for issuance of protective orders, as well as the basis for sometimes overlooked relief victims can ask for.The focus was on what the team as a staff of attorneys need to know to help clients through the problems they may be experiencing -- not just basic safety, but how to address financial needs, a place to stay, child care and custody, and the specific types of evidence the court needs to see in order to make the proper ruling.Col. Christopher Burgess, Staff Judge Advocate, said eradicating domestic abuse and supporting its victims are priorities Army-wide."I am very proud of the (strides) our Judge Advocates and paralegals have made to better serve this group of clients," Burgess said. "Domestic abuse challenges society and the military Family at every level, and can severely impact our life, readiness and mission."