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Keeping Close Counsel

A Chatham County dispute has battered-women's advocates worried about a legal backlash.

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The first week of June was especially exhausting for Kit Gruelle. In her job at Family Violence and Rape Crisis Services of Chatham County, she spent days trying to help a Pittsboro woman who'd filed criminal charges against a former lover. Despite her long experience in the emotional minefield of domestic violence work, Gruelle found the circumstances of this case particularly tangled and difficult. Even so, she didn't expect the incidents of that week to stay with her long after the case of Griffin vs. Russo had been removed from the court docket.

Although the case was unusual in that both the plaintiff and the accused batterer were women, many of the other messy details were all too familiar. Like the majority of women who contact the family violence center for help, Lyana Griffin did not have an attorney representing her. In her application for a protective order, Griffin said she decided to file charges after her ex-partner, Maria Russo, broke into her apartment, threatened her and slammed her into a door. She was still renting an apartment from Russo--an arrangement that put the two women in dangerous proximity to each other.

"All of the components in this case were kind of raw," Gruelle recalls. "It was like working with a set of nuclear-charged Ping-Pong balls."

On Wednesday of that week, Gruelle went with Griffin to the courthouse in Pittsboro for a hearing on her case. The atmosphere was tense. Both parties were accompanied by small groups of supporters. And disapproving remarks about gay relationships made by some court officials didn't help matters. "They found the whole thing amusing because it was lesbians," recalls Russo. After the hearing, at which Russo was convicted of breaking and entering, Gruelle and Russo's attorney, Sherri Million, negotiated the terms of a civil protective order aimed at preventing any further contact between the two women. (Charges against Russo, which did not include assault, were dismissed on appeal. Griffin has left the area and did not respond to attempts to reach her through friends and her former employer.)

But Griffin's domestic troubles weren't over. Under the terms of the protective order, she was barred from her apartment until after Russo left on vacation the following week. As the weekend approached, Griffin grew frantic about how she could retrieve her remaining personal belongings and her dogs. Gruelle found herself tearing around trying to find a temporary home for the animals while searching for a way to allow Griffin safe access to her apartment.

Russo's attorney, Sherri Million, resisted making any changes in the protective order. Finally, she and Gruelle reached a verbal agreement that Griffin could stop by the apartment on Friday afternoon to pick up her belongings. But later that day, Griffin called the family violence center in tears after being turned away by a sheriff's deputy. After failing to reach Million at her office, Gruelle and her supervisor, Jo Sanders, decided to appeal to the judge who had signed the protective order. They left a message on Million's answering machine explaining what they planned to do. After a brief phone conversation with the judge, Gruelle drove to his home with a blank protective order in her bag.

Orange-Chatham District Court Judge Alonzo Coleman filled out an amended order granting Griffin immediate access to her property and her pets. "It seemed to be a legitimate emergency request," he says. "The person Kit was advocating on behalf of was afraid the animals would suffer if something wasn't done. So I changed the order." The revised court paper was delivered to the sheriff's department so that a deputy could be dispatched to accompany Griffin to her apartment. By 11 p.m., Griffin had reclaimed her dogs and Gruelle and Sanders had gone home, satisfied that a crisis had been avoided.

Their relief was short-lived. On Monday morning, when Million retrieved her messages, she was outraged to discover that a court order involving a client had been changed without her consent. That afternoon, she fired off a formal complaint to the N.C. State Bar that argued Gruelle's actions amounted to practicing law without a license--a misdemeanor offense punishable with fines and jail time.

"While I realize it is politically incorrect to criticize the domestic violence workers who, in fact, do help many people via their advocacy, I feel it is personally irresponsible for me not to bring this to your attention," Million wrote. "As I told you this morning, there is an ongoing problem in Chatham County with the individuals at Chatham County Family Violence and Rape Crisis moving beyond advocacy to legal representation of individuals."

While formal complaints such as Million's are rare, Chatham County isn't the only place where attorneys have spoken out about perceived overreaching by battered-women's advocates. In Lee County, after a candidate for district attorney raised the issue of what he called "overzealous" prosecution of local domestic violence cases two years ago, attorney George Whitaker was inspired to write to The Sanford Herald, criticizing what he termed the "full steam ahead, damn the torpedoes approach" of staff members from Haven, a local domestic violence agency.

"Oftentimes, you have judges who knuckle under to the presence of Haven staff members sitting in the front row" of the courtroom, says Whitaker, who frequently represents accused batterers. "They find people guilty when they should not." Too many cases are being prosecuted at the urging of domestic violence advocates instead of being evaluated on their merits, he says. "People are not asking enough questions, including the staff members of Haven. If the magistrates and the DA would do a better job of that, a lot of these cases wouldn't be taking up court time."

Such opinions have convinced many battered women's groups that the Chatham County dispute is part of a backlash against the legal gains made by domestic violence victims. Since the passage of North Carolina's first family violence law in 1979, more victims--the majority of them women--have taken their abusers to court, and the range of their legal options has expanded. Abuse victims can now file for protective orders without an attorney present, and the types of relationships covered by those orders have been broadened from current and former spouses to include dating relationships and household members. Some counties, such as Durham and Wake, now have separate courts for domestic cases to make the process less intimidating. And last year, state lawmakers passed the Safe Families Act, which made it easier to enforce arrests if an abuser violates a protective order.

Even some current and former judges see complaints from attorneys as a reaction to those gains. Walter Bennett, a district judge for Mecklenburg County from 1978 to 1984, remembers that for much of his time on the bench, abuse victims often had no advocates in court. "What I see happening is that in any setting where women have not had a voice before, there's been a reaction to it," says Bennett, who has also taught at the law school at UNC-Chapel Hill. "In the criminal defense section, where lawyers are so keen on fighting for every scrap for their clients and see themselves as defending the underdog, any additional force on the other side just sends them into orbit."

Million's complaint brought into the open tensions that both lawyers and advocates say have been simmering for some time. "There's always been ill will between advocates and members of the defense bar," says Kerri Sernel, a former staff member of Haven in Sanford. "It's just been unspoken."

Many battered women's supporters are worried that Million's complaint will encourage other lawyers to try to limit the role of advocates in the courtroom. "Chatham County is kind of a test case," says Amy Holloway, executive director of Raleigh-based Interact, an agency that helps victims of family violence and sexual assault. "All it takes in a small community is one or two people who don't like you to make your life miserable. What this case hopefully will do is raise the discussion to the statewide level."

Million's complaint could have had serious legal consequences. The state Bar could have recommended a civil injunction against Gruelle, which would have curtailed her courtroom work on pain of contempt charges. Or, members could have asked a district attorney to charge her with a misdemeanor. Instead, a 23-member committee recommended in October that Gruelle be sent a letter of caution--a letter she had not received as of February 28--warning that her conduct had crossed the line.

While the Bar's decision removed the immediate possibility of a court case against the Pittsboro family violence center, it didn't dispel the threat. Advocates haven't cut back on any of their services to women. But Sanders says she and Gruelle now find themselves second-guessing their actions for fear of alienating attorneys. "We feel we could potentially be under attack at any time," she says. "It's become much harder to help our clients because it's made us fearful of our position and our credibility."

Even in areas where attorneys haven't raised formal objections, the Chatham County case is having ripple effects. "I'm a lot more hesitant now," says Jenny Moore, a victim's advocate for Families First in Whiteville, about 140 miles south of the Triangle in Columbus County. "It really has made me nervous."

Moore is one of several battered-women's advocates who've called the N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence recently for advice about how to operate in court. "In this arena, it's hard to know where you cross the line," she says. "We have a good system here. We're allowed access to the courthouse and the judges realize we're an emotional support [for victims]. But you never know when an attorney's going to have a bad day."

Sherri Simpson Million doesn't look like someone leading a backlash against women. With her long, straight hair, flowered-print dresses and silvery nail polish, she seems more like a hippie schoolteacher than a hardened defense attorney. Before she began practicing law in 1988, she studied studio art. To make a point, she's as likely to quote Frank Zappa as a legal statute.

Million, herself a survivor of an abusive relationship, has long experience in handling domestic cases. Although in recent years her practice has focused mainly on defending men accused of battering, she says she understands and appreciates the work of battered-women's advocates--both in and out of the courtroom.

Million says she's also well aware that battered women often come to court without attorneys and need lay advocates to help them negotiate the system. But while advising abuse victims of their rights and their legal options is fine, she says, talking to a judge about changing a protective order without an attorney present is not. For Million, filing a complaint with the state Bar was a matter of principle. "My motivation was to alert someone that there are rules that are not being followed," she says. "I took an oath before the Bar and I'm accountable if I do something wrong. But these advocates are not held to any standard."

Some days, Million wishes she had never sent the complaint to the Bar because of the isolation it has brought her. "For a long time after I wrote that letter, I felt like I was out there on my own," she says. Although she's gotten phone calls from a number of male attorneys who share her views, they won't speak publicly for fear of being seen as anti-woman. Even a fellow female attorney who wrote a letter supporting her arguments to the Bar refused to talk to The Independent about the issue.

When pressed about her reasons for speaking out, Million cites the need to protect the rights of accused batterers. In some cases, she says, advocates from the family violence center have convinced defendants to sign protective orders when they don't realize the orders can later be used against them in criminal proceedings. That's not an outcome that would necessarily bother those who want to prosecute batterers. But it does bother Million, who often defends them. "This could be your brother or father or best friend," she says. "It's not just some man out there."

Sanders, the family violence center's director, says that particular issue is "ancient history" in Chatham County courts. "We don't talk to the men anymore" without attorneys present, she says.

But Million believes that even victims of family violence are sometimes ill-served by the advocates, whose presence "escalates tensions" and precludes many cases from being settled out of court--including, in her opinion, Griffin vs. Russo. "It used to be we could all work together. But now a lot of the [defense] attorneys will try every damn case," rather than negotiate with battered-women's representatives, Million says. "Passionate advocacy is not necessarily always a good thing. Any advocacy that goes on should go on in their offices, not in the courtroom."

But if it does, many victims will be left stranded. A national study published in 1993 by Duke University law professor Karla Fischer found that only 20 percent of women were represented by attorneys at court hearings on domestic protective orders. The crisis nature of many family violence cases and a lack of knowledge of the legal system were some of the reasons cited by battered-women's advocates she surveyed.

But Fischer's research also showed that the percentage of defendants (mostly male) who had legal representation at those court hearings was only 31 percent--a statistic that hints at a broader reluctance on the part of attorneys to take domestic cases on either side. "The biggest reason is that these are not money-making cases," says Fischer, who submitted a brief in support of Gruelle to the state Bar. "Lawyers aren't likely to participate unless they are doing it in an organized, pro bono manner"--without charging fees.

Many lawyers don't want to take domestic cases because they are so often labor-intensive and hard to resolve, says Melissa Averett, a former battered-women's advocate who recently opened a nonprofit law practice in Chapel Hill. "A lot of times the women go back [to their abusers] and they often change their minds" about filing charges, she says. "Lawyers aren't attracted to these cases because they're so emotionally exhausting."

Averett's practice specializes in domestic cases and offers sliding-scale fees to clients. It's a policy that hasn't done much to help cover her overhead costs. But it has allowed her to provide help that many women can't find anywhere else. "The going rate for a divorce or child custody case is $2,500 to $5,000 on retainer," Averett says. "For a restraining order, the fee would be $1,000 to $1,500. Most of the women I'm seeing don't have anywhere near that kind of money. A lot of them have just run out the door to the shelter without taking anything with them."

Deborah, a 42-year-old mom and part-time nurse, says she was turned away by five or six attorneys before the Pittsboro family violence center gave her Averett's name. "I was hitting a stone wall. Either they weren't taking new clients or they would pass me on to somebody else or they wanted an exorbitant amount of money," says Deborah, who asked that her real name not be used.

After three years in her current marriage, Deborah says she decided to go to court after her husband grabbed her by the hair, kicked her in the stomach and smashed her head against a kitchen countertop. When she arrived for her first court hearing without an attorney representing her, "it was a completely foreign world to me," Deborah says. "I didn't know what was going to happen or what to expect. My husband and me were standing within 4 feet of one another. And I was just shaking all over."

Faced repeatedly with such scenes, many judges have come to rely on battered- women's advocates to help move domestic cases through the system. As a result, the boundaries between lay advocacy and formal representation aren't always so clear.

"Judges often do ask advocates to step over the line because we just don't have the resources to deal with these cases," says one Triangle-area district court judge who spoke on condition that his name not be used. "The judicial system is set up as an adversarial system," but family violence "is really a social-work problem. I think we will have a better service for women when we have lawyers who are supporting the advocacy."

In a brief filed on behalf of Kit Gruelle before the state Bar, Durham attorney William Mills suggested two ways the legal community can avoid similar disputes and ease tensions in domestic violence cases.

"Ms. Gruelle and all similarly situated advocates who provide support to the victims of domestic violence would benefit from any guidance offered by the State Bar so that these victims are not forced to be alone during an intimidating proceeding simply because they cannot afford an attorney," Mills wrote. "The pressures placed upon the advocates from Family Violence and Rape Crisis would be greatly lessened if the legal community would more effectively provide legal assistance to the victims of domestic violence."

Led by the Pittsboro family violence center, an informal working group of lawyers and battered-women's advocates has begun researching guidelines used in other state courtrooms. In Massachusetts, for example, battered-women's advocates are offered training through the state's Office for Victim's Assistance, which also lays out rules governing their role in court cases.

Such guidelines might have helped Gruelle in the situation she faced in Chatham County. In hindsight, she says, it probably would have been wiser if Griffin herself had gone to the judge's house that night in June to ask for a new protective order. But at the time, given the pressures of the situation, the option just didn't present itself. Judge Coleman says he didn't object to talking with Gruelle because he saw it as a way to ease a crisis. "That's the way things come up sometimes and you're not paying attention to the niceties," he says. "It didn't strike me as being so out-of-line."

Without clear direction from judges who control courtroom procedures, advocates are never really sure where the lines are, says Sanders, Gruelle's supervisor. "We never know what we'll be asked to do or what we'll be reprimanded for. It depends on the judge and what kind of mood they're in."

Chief District Judge Joe Buckner, who oversees judicial assignments and procedures in Orange-Chatham courts, says that's just the way system works. Each judge, he says, is an individual with her or his own approach to cases. In Buckner's view, any strains between attorneys and battered-women's representatives can best be eased by more open communication between all the players in the courtroom.

"That's what we have to work on," he says. "We have other participants in court that play pivotal roles but don't prosecute the case or make the arrest," such as staff members of drug and alcohol counseling agencies. "It's just a matter of understanding what the roles are. It's an evolution of learning."

The state Bar has been slow to set guidelines for lay advocates. Deputy Counsel Clayton Davidson says some members have expressed interest in the subject. But there are no official study committees or recommendations underway.

Some in the legal community have worked to help more victims of domestic violence find legal assistance. Raleigh attorney Lisa Angel took up the cause based on her experiences in Wake County domestic court. She noticed that women were usually successful in getting protective orders. But 10 days later, when they returned for court hearings, their accused abusers were most often the only ones with legal representation, and the women frequently ended up losing their cases. "A lot of times, whether a woman stays in an abusive relationship turns on what happens during and after those 10 days," Angel says. "Sometimes [child] custody is decided at those hearings, or who is going to be living in the home. My concern was the playing field was not level."

So three years ago, she set up a volunteer program called Project Together that recruits and trains lawyers to take domestic cases for free. Clients are referred by battered-women's advocates, and the program is coordinated by East Central Community Legal Services. The program is geared toward women who meet Legal Services income guidelines--those least able, in other words, to afford attorneys. Under those rules, a single person with an annual income of $15,450 would qualify for assistance. For a family of three, the annual income limit would be $26,025.

Angel says a volunteer corps of between 50 and 75 attorneys now handles one domestic case each month. That's far from enough to meet the need. The Legal Services office in Wake has a caseload of four to seven new family violence cases each week. And Angel says there's been some criticism from attorneys who feel the program should be recruiting lawyers for accused batterers as well. But at least it's a start, she says. "We're trying to make this a fair process. The bottom line is that lawyers really need to step up to the plate on this one."

In Chatham County, Family Violence and Rape Crisis is raising money to hire more local attorneys to represent women in domestic cases. And a group of law students at UNC-Chapel Hill is developing a pro bono assistance program for Chatham-area victims of family violence modeled on programs operating in Wake, Forsyth and Mecklenburg counties.

While such efforts will help some family violence victims, many others will still need to rely on the services of battered-women's advocates. That's why Gruelle believes the best solution to the problems that have arisen in Chatham County is education about the nature of domestic violence work. She says clashes with attorneys are likely to continue until more people understand the role of the advocates. They aren't there to cause problems in court, Gruelle says. They are there because the violent strains in one relationship or one family have already gone past the breaking point. "We're not out to barbecue anybody," she says, raking her hands through her hair in frustration. "We're social workers, for God's sake."

Whether the Chatham County case is a signal of a backlash against women's advocates, or merely a bump on the road to making the legal system more welcoming to victims of violence, remains to be seen. If nothing else, battered-women's groups hope the attention it has drawn will shed light on the ways that the legal system, while much improved, is still falling short.

Despite the personal toll that case in June has taken on her, even Gruelle is hopeful. "A wire has been tripped now and these issues are coming out," she says. "It's all for the good." EndBlock

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