In 2016, the Rolling Meadows Help Desk was created when a group of lawyers at Allstate**, Discover**, DLA Piper*†, and Illinois Tool Works united to help a local nonprofit organization, Between Friends, assist domestic violence survivors at the Rolling Meadows Courthouse. The courthouse is located 25 miles outside Chicago in suburban Cook County, Illinois. With the expert training and support of LAF, lawyers from each of the partner organizations regularly staff four-hour shifts in the Between Friends office, helping victims fill out paperwork, explaining the court process, and ensuring that no survivor goes through the process of obtaining a protective order alone.
In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we spoke to Annie Geraghty Helms of DLA Piper about the program.
Why did the firm choose to focus on domestic violence?
AGH: Initally, we started exploring opportunities for lawyers who lived and worked in the suburbs to do pro bono work. What we heard in the community was that there was a real need in the courthouse to assist domestic violence survivors. When I presented the idea to the companies, they were enthusiastic right off the bat! They absolutely wanted to focus on domestic violence and to assist at the courthouse.
Why is this program meaningful?
AGH: When you volunteer at the Help Desk, it is hard not to be struck by how vast the problem of domestic violence is. It touches so many people, and it looks similar across different socioeconomic, race, and language dividers. Domestic violence exists everywhere. To be able to do something meaningful to help people pull themselves out of it is very gratifying. I think the help we can offer at the desk by volunteering for a few hours is tangible and real.
Since the program began, have there been any lessons learned?
AGH: Yes. When the help desk started, the job of the volunteer was to sit down with the domestic violence survivor, help her with the paperwork to get a protective order, and help get that paperwork filed with the clerk and sheriff. We were helping people for an hour or so and then sending them off to attend an emergency hearing on their motion for a protective order on their own, which felt very strange. It felt like we were cutting the assistance off in the middle.
Eventually, it was the judges in the domestic violence courthouse who suggested a change. They indicated that they could tell lawyers were involved in preparing the petitions because they were very well done. But they wondered why they had not seen any of the lawyers in the courtroom. We agreed that it would be helpful for the petitioners and lawyers alike if the volunteers accompanied survivors to court for their emergency motions. Although the volunteers are not able to stand up in court because that would mean filing an appearance and remaining with the case longer term, they do now sit down in the courtroom with the survivor and wait with them until their case is called. We then refer the survivor to Between Friends for further services so they are not left on their own after the hearing. This has made a difference on several fronts. It’s not only better for the survivor, who now has a steady presence there with her in court, but also for our volunteers, because they understand more about the court process and because they will know if the petition for an emergency protective order is granted.
The other way in which having a lawyer makes a difference is that, rather than having the survivor stand up in court and relate the details of her personal life, the judge generally just reads the narrative that our volunteers prepare with the petition. This narrative already includes details that the court needs in order to grant the petition, and it saves the survivor the pain of retelling her story.
Are there any special sensitives or trainings required for volunteers who are helping people who have experienced trauma?
AGH: We have a full training that is about three and half hours long. It goes through the nuts and bolts of domestic violence law. It also includes some information about the cycle of violence and some things that you might see that are a little bit unusual because of the abuse. For example, domestic violence survivors sometimes have become so habituated to a situation that they believe their relationship is normal. So, when asked about abuse, a client may not provide details about the abuse that might appear very significant to anyone else. Sometimes, this can make it seem that the survivor is scattered or not being forthcoming. Knowing that, to the survivors, these details are so normal they do not stand out helps us as volunteers to do a better job of listening without judgment and of drawing out the facts necessary in order to prepare a solid petition. This understanding of behaviors that may not feel logical is covered in the training, alongside the nuts and bolts of the law.
Thank you to Annie for sharing her time with us and for all the meaningful work she and her colleagues have done and continue to do at the Rolling Meadows Domestic Violence Help Desk.
- Amy Barasch, Her Justice
- That’s Not Love featuring Spencer Cantrell, Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse
If you are interested in learning more about the pro bono opportunities available and how to get involved, check out our recent webinar, Assisting Survivors of Domestic Violence.
* denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
** denotes a Corporate Pro Bono Challenge® signatory
† denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Project® member