According to speakers at an Oct. 29 public hearing, victims of domestic violence are among those hurt most by funding cuts to legal aid programs for low-income individuals and families. The local hearing, held by the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee, was the third and final hearing examining the civil justice gap.
Among the speakers was Shirl Regan, president and CEO of the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, who says victims of domestic violence are having a harder time obtaining “protection from abuse” orders because of cuts to resources like Neighborhood Legal Services, a Pittsburgh nonprofit law firm that provides civil legal services to “poor and vulnerable residents.”
“It’s been ongoing cuts over the years,” Regan says. “It used to be that Neighborhood Legal Services could work with every woman. Over the years the cuts have been so that they don’t have the attorneys to do that.”
Even when a victim is able to receive help obtaining a PFA order, attorneys are often not available to assist them long-term. As a result, they have difficulty handling the legal challenges that arise later in the form of a custody battle, if there are children involved, or if the order is violated.
“There are always violations of these orders,” Regan says. “We as a society are expecting these women, who have been traumatized, to stand up by themselves when the opposing party challenges them and these are people who are terrified by the opposing party. So many women are afraid to go forward because they know what can happen to them.”
The local Neighborhood Legal Services is funded through the federal Legal Services Corporation, which was founded by the U.S. Congress to ensure all Americans have equal access to justice. Funding for LSC was drastically cut in 1995 from $400 million to $278 million, and has never quite recovered. As of 2013, LSC’s budget is estimated at $350 million.
“We need to be saying no more cuts,” Regan says. “We are putting not only the immediate victims of domestic violence in jeopardy; we are putting the children of victims in jeopardy. What we know about stopping the violence is it takes others and the justice system to stand up and say no you cannot do this.”