Enhancing Legal Advocacy:
Bea Dresser ’22
The Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence & Faculty Advisor: Professor Benjamin Carbonetti
Domestic and sexual violence is arguable one of the most pervasive issues that women face today. One in four women and one in ten men experience sexual violence, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime. In Connecticut, one third of all criminal cases in the state are domestic violence cases. To aid survivors and work to end domestic violence, the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence (CCADV) and their 18 member-agencies work to support survivors directly.
One of the CCADV’s efforts to support domestic violence victims and survivors is the Legal Advocacy Enhancement Project. The goal of the project is to better understand the FVVA’s (Family Violence Victim Advocate) role in providing survivors with comprehensive legal advocacy. To work towards this goal, I was tasked with a specific objective: analyze survivor’s opinions of the court advocacy services the FVVA provided during the court proceedings, drawing on pre-existing survey data. From the survey, there were approximately 130 responses. I analyzed the three open-ended questions that specifically asked survivors to share their good and bad experiences in court and explain how the FVVA was a part of these successes or failures. I used inductive coding to identify trends in the responses. Through this process I found three common categories—court advocacy, non-legal services, and social support—that emphasize the importance of building a comprehensive definition of advocacy for domestic violence victims. From these three broader categories, there were specific and impactful critiques and praise for the FVVAs that can give the CCADV insight into how they might better train advocates to fulfill CCADV’s mission of providing comprehensive advocacy.
The CCADV is the umbrella coalition for all of the domestic violence agencies in the state. A vital component of the CCADV’s responsibility is providing court advocates to serve victims in every domestic violence agency. In Connecticut, an advocate that works in the criminal or family court is referred to as a FVVA (Family Violence Victim Advocate).
FVVAs often work with survivors in the court and in the community. Here is the landscape of various stakeholders that participate in the court system, which emphasizes the need for the FVVA to help navigate the system for the survivor.
The CCADV is conducting an assessment on the role of the FVVA called the Legal Advocacy Enhancement Project. At the beginning of the year 2020, the CCADV had administered surveys that got feedback from survivors on their experience with their assigned FVVA. Within this survey, I specifically analyzed the responses from three open-ended questions in the survey that allowed survivors to critique and discuss their FVVA. The three questions were:
- How did the advocate help?
- Did something happen in court or during the legal process that you did not want to have happen, if yes what occurred?
- What could the advocate have done that would have helped you more?
Using the survey responses from survivors across the state, I identified trends and interpreted common themes for the purpose of highlighting survivor’s opinions on the FVVA’s performance. My research question asks: What are survivors’ perceptions of the FVVA role and what do they identify as important in receiving comprehensive legal advocacy?
There were 130 responses to each of the three open-ended survey questions that required qualitative analysis. I used an inductive coding method that allowed me to categorization all the thematic points in the survivors’ responses.
To start the process, I read through every response to a question and pulled out exact words and phrases that captured the survivor’s response. After procuring a long list of words and phrases that answered the survey question, I then began to categorize and combined them.
At this point, I had several small themes that were specifically taken from the survivors’ words. I then had to introduce my own reflections and analytical skills, along with the help of my community partner, we created broader categories from these smaller themes.
This process allowed me to create an original codebook for each open-ended question that could help me sort all of the responses that expressed similar sentiments within similar topics.
Above is a portion of my codebook for the first open-ended question. Here, you will see the broader category in bold “Legal Advocacy” and then the smaller, more specific themes that were extracted from survivor’s responses along with a definition of what the code meant and how it should be applied.
After creating a codebook for each survey question, I coded every response. The process of making each codebook and then applying the codes to the survey data was iterative and flexible. For example, one response for open-ended Question 1 could be assigned codes 1A.1 and 1A.5 This means that this particular (fictitious) survivor stated that the advocate successfully helped them file for a Protective Order and explained the court process and their legal options in an effective way.
Once every response for each question was assigned the appropriate codes, I then used a Sum equation on Excel spreadsheets to add up the frequency for each code. This allowed me to see how many times a sentiment or phrase was expressed by a survivor. As I explain below in the LIMITATIONS TO METHODOLOGY section, I do not assume that high frequency equates to importance, but this measure was helpful in highlighting survivors’ voices and the commonality of their experiences.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
Based on the survey responses, I categorized the survivors’ answers to three broad sentiments that express needs for legal advocacy, social support, and non-legal advocacy from the FVVA. From each category, there is an array of specific services that each individual survivor wanted or received within their experience in the courtroom. The following graphics illustrate the various needs of survivors and the specific acts of advocacy that are important to this sample of survivors.
The FVVA’s most obvious goal is guiding the victim through the court process. The advocate must be ready to serve and protect the survivor’s needs while navigating their case. Within the responses of the three survey questions, several survivor’s highlighted 6 elements of legal advocacy that were crucial in their experiences.
Across the three open-ended questions, survivors mentioned social support with the highest frequency. The chart below describes the five variants of social support that survivor’s identified.
Non-legal services encompass the need for support and guidance beyond the courtroom. For an example, one survivor’s statement expressed the importance of housing and transportation, combined with comprehensive social support; “[The FVVA] set up a place I could go to be safe. They even came and pick me up to take me there.”
In the survey, the survivors were asked “Did something happen in court or during the legal process that you did not want to have happen, if yes, what occurred?”
An overwhelming amount of responses pointed to various errors and mishaps made by other stakeholders during the entire process. Even with helpful support and advocacy from the FVVA, survivors felt that other stakeholders minimized survivors’ input and ultimately made them feel silenced during the court process.
Survivors said that their safety was often jeopardized as a result of these (un)intentional errors.
Any further hardships and trauma that survivors experienced in the court process stemmed from the mistakes and/or perceived targeted attacks from other stakeholders. Such incidents mainly resulted in the survivor being forced to face their abuser in court or being physically or verbally threatened by the police, judges, or the defendant’s legal representation. Based on the survey responses, a total of fifteen survivors identified a varying combination of four stakeholders (the judge, their own lawyer/legal representatives, the defendant’s lawyer, and the police) as responsible for jeopardizing their safety and/or their legal case.
“I was called in front of the judge and asked to state my name and address…Being asked to provide my address in court makes me feel uncomfortable and unsafe.”
Stemming from the issue of the obstacles various stakeholders posed, four survivors surmised that their advocate should have warned them about the possibility of increased hostility and violence when in court.
“[the judge] said to my ex ‘well we wouldn’t want you to get played’ … My ex keeps bringing me back to court for [REDACTED]. I’ve been in there over 24 times for his complaints. Last year I missed 7 days of work for them. I haven’t done anything, it’s his way of keeping tabs on me.”
One survivor suggested that the FVVA should
“Offer a workshop on family court scorched earth tactics that would be used against a DV victim so I could have been prepared.”
This idea points to a solution to combat the realities of escalated violence towards survivors in court proceedings. There may be an opportunity to develop training around specific safety planning and preparation for escalated abuse in court by other stakeholders. Based on the survey, the highest frequency of complaints came from anecdotal evidence on the misconduct of lawyers, judges, and sometimes advocates like the FVVA or the Family Relations Counselor.
Interestingly, 35 survivors reported that their needs were met and that their advocate could not have done better with the resources available. The FVVAs, as a general group, showed that their greatest strengths were explaining the legal process to survivors and lending social support.
“[The advocate] has been one of my greatest support systems throughout this process.”
It is clear that survivors expressed a wide variety of needs in the following three categories: legal advocacy, non-legal services, and social support. Survivors, from this sample, see advocacy as a holistic approach to their needs. This sample values social support and needs their FVVA to be non-judgmental and empathetic to their situation. Oftentimes, survivors lose support in their own personal social circles; thus, the FVVA is crucial in stepping into that role. However, beyond the control of the FVVA is the actions of other stakeholders. Traumatic encounter within court amongst the abuser, attorneys, judges, police officers point to a desperate need for a further protective mechanism for the survivor. A few survivors specifically suggest workshops and general insight into this darker, abusive side of the court process in order to be mentally prepared for escalated abuse.
LIMITATIONS TO THE METHODOLOGY
The pool of respondents was not proportional to the total population of survivors in Connecticut. The findings of this project cannot characterize the wants and needs of a “typical” domestic violence victim in the state, or even a specific district. Instead, this study and its findings take a typological approach; the findings are general classifications from real survivors and their concerns and are not a monolith for the general population of “domestic violence survivors”. To illustrate this point, out of all the responses, only one survivor commented about the issue of language barriers and the lack of effective translators. Since the frequency was 1 code, it may appear to be insignificant. However, in this project, it is recorded and highlighted as important because of the nature of the comment that correlates with the faults of the survey pool. The survey was in English and if a survivor could not read or write in English they would not have been able to respond to the survey at all. Therefore, I made a code for this one response and included it in the final results. Despite this limitation, these findings are still significant in recording the views and opinions of survivors, through a process (surveying) where there is historically low participation rates.