Domestic violence victims can seek advice from 'Virtual Legal Clinic'

Domestic violence victims can seek advice from 'Virtual Legal Clinic'

Victims in Vermilion County will soon be able to get free advice from Chicago lawyers

DANVILLE — A program to help domestic violence victims get limited legal advice is about to open in Vermilion County.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon helped introduce the program Friday at Crosspoint Human Services at the Y, a transitional services shelter in downtown Danville, where the "Virtual Legal Clinic" is being introduced.

Simon's office and the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence helped establish the program in December 2011. For now it serves 20 mostly rural counties but is being expanded to 40 counties, including Vermilion and Coles.

"If we had 100,000 electricians in Illinois and they all lived in Chicago or Springfield, you'd probably want to find a way to get those electricians to other counties in the state," said Chicago attorney Mark Nabong, one of six attorneys statewide who volunteers time to offer legal advice to victims of abuse, via Skype, a service for video calls over the Internet.

"What the VLC does is it takes attorneys ... and allows them to connect with people who need those services."

Simon, who before she was lieutenant governor was a domestic-battery prosecutor and started a domestic-violence clinic at the Southern Illinois University School of Law, said that "although we are doing much better as a state, we still have a long way to go" in helping victims of domestic abuse.

"And one of the missing connections is access to legal services. One of my staff members said, 'Why don't we hook people up by Skype?' Up in Chicago there are a lot more attorneys and there certainly are places in Illinois where there are very few attorneys, particularly few attorneys who have any kind of expertise in family law."

Susan Wilson, a legal advocate at Crosspoint Human Services, said "there is a great need" for family law attorneys in Vermilion County.

"Having this resource — because we get questions all the time, and we're not attorneys — oh yes, this is going to be used. Being able to set people up so they can speak to an attorney for one hour is invaluable," Wilson said.

The Virtual Legal Clinic attorneys won't provide advice on emergency issues such as orders of protection.

"What this is set up for," said Simon, "is when you've resolved the crisis and you've got the abuser out of the household and now you've got to figure out what's the difference between a divorce and a legal separation, what's the difference between joint custody and sole custody? This is a place where you can talk with someone who is enough removed from the situation who can say, 'Here are the things that are really important now. Here are the things that can wait awhile. Here are the things you might be able to do on your own. Here are the things that if you're able to get an attorney you ought to get an attorney for.'"

Nabong said that "by far the main concern for most of our clients is, 'What's going to happen to my kids? Who are my kids going to live with? What kind of visitation schedule will they have?'"

In order to meet with a Virtual Legal Clinic attorney, Wilson said, victims must call Crosspoint Human Services, set up an appointment with a legal advocate and come in to fill out forms. After that, Crosspoint will help set up a one-hour Skype appointment with one of the Virtual Legal Clinic attorneys. The online video session is done in a small, private room at Crosspoint.

"It's all done through the shelter and the advocacy organizations," Simon explained. "Part of that is because we want to make sure that people are in a safe place when they are doing this. We want to make sure the abuser is not watching over their shoulder."

The Virtual Legal Clinic is being expanded to more rural Illinois counties with the help of a $100,000 grant from Verizon, Simon said.

"Here's the sweet thing: It has no government dollars," Simon said. "I dedicated some staff resources to the organization of it, and now the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence is taking it over to make it a longer-term thing. All of this is free to clients with no government funding."

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