Court advocate volunteers a step to hope

Published 4:34 pm Monday, April 18, 2011

It’s not a glamorous volunteer opportunity; much of your time is spent sitting, waiting often for hours, outside a courtroom holding someone’s hand.
For Jeannette and Ninalee (last names omitted for safety), however, nothing could be more satisfying than working as court advocates for Steps to HOPE.
“I find it very rewarding because we’re dealing first-hand with the recipients of our work. It’s very gratifying to work with these people. You can just see how much they appreciate what we do,” Jeannette said.
Steps to HOPE initiated its court advocates program in the 1990s.
Case manager Sherry Wright said the organization couldn’t do without them.
“When a person has been abused, they are frightened, they know nothing about the judicial process, they know nothing about how they can be protected,” Wright said. “For us, it’s critical these advocates are there for our clients; it’s absolutely critical so they will not fear going to court.”
Court advocates walk clients through the court system, assisting them with paperwork, meetings with judges and other proceedings. Jeannette said advocates are there to let clients know what will happen along the judicial process. They also often assist in seeking legal counsel, especially in situations of abuse, because the abuser might have control of finances within the relationship.
“Many of these clients are intimidated by the court, judges, abusers and the abuser’s family. We are there to help them see they don’t need to be afraid of the authority figure,” Jeannette said.
At all levels of the process there will be someone there with the client, Jeannette said. Sometimes the situation even calls for the advocate to wait outside the bathroom door to prevent an abuser’s friends or family members from harassing the victim.
“We hear some pretty horrific stories but that’s not the real focus,” Ninalee said.
Ninalee became a volunteer court advocate three years ago. She felt compelled to find volunteer work and immediately ran across a notice for a training session. She spent her career as a psychotherapist.
“I’m very comfortable with confrontation and have heard a lot of people’s pain and can handle that,” she said. “I wanted to do something that not everyone could do and to use my brain.”
The advocates attend special training sessions to become familiar with the court system and available resources in the community. This comes in handy, Ninalee said, for example when attorneys make backroom deals. She said she’s seen situations where the defendant agrees to terms but the victim remains sitting in a courtroom and is never told he or she can go home.
On average a person leaves his or her abuser more than once,
Ninalee said. But when the abused person has been kept at home, not allowed to learn how to take care of themselves, they leave with few resources.
The training helps advocates direct clients to services such as public transportation or safe housing for them and their children.
Wright was drawn to the organization as a volunteer initially as well.
“It’s an emotional pull for me to want to help women or men make better choices and to help the abuser find help through intervention,” Wright said. “I think we all allow ourselves to shut our eyes to some degree as to what goes on with domestic abuse, especially if it is not right in front of us.”
These advocates, however, keep their eyes wide open to ensure their clients have filed the appropriate documentation and understand court proceedings.
“They’re not alone – from the moment they walk in the door until they are as comfortable with their situations as they can be – there is help available,” Jeannette said.

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