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Domestic violence legal program expands 

Jacksonville Journal Courier
July 4, 2012 

A new pilot program that connects domestic violence victims with free legal experts using webcams and a high-speed Internet connection is coming to Jacksonville.

Lt. Governor Sheila Simon designed the Virtual Legal Clinic to link domestic violence victims in underserved areas with attorneys across Illinois that specialize in family law. Those who have suffered domestic violence receive a single, free consultation via webcam using Internet technology at a local shelter and learn about legal options and remedies to keep their families safe.

The Virtual Legal Clinic began at The Center for Prevention of Abuse in Peoria in December and is expanding to the Crisis Center Foundation in Jacksonville this month.

After the pilot program is complete with additional expansions elsewhere in the state, Simon will provide the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence with a packaged program it can use at agencies statewide.

“The Virtual Legal Clinic is a free, safe and ethical way to help victims of domestic violence become survivors of domestic violence,” said Simon, a longtime legal advocate for domestic violence survivors. “The legal system can be overwhelming and this service will help people take the next step toward safety and stability.”

The program was developed in-house with materials funded by Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence and participating attorneys can receive free continuing education credits developed by Simon’s legal staff.

Sandra Quello Chiz is an attorney who consults with the Peoria clinic via webcam from her Manteno office.

She said she saw the benefit of the Virtual Legal Clinic in her first consultation.

“At the time of the consultation, my first client was involved in a legal battle and was fearful because she didn’t understand what was happening,” Quello Chiz said. “Not only did I explain to my client what was happening legally, but I was able to point her in the direction of other resources, too. The Virtual Legal Clinic is the best idea I’ve heard in a long time and I wish we could expand it faster.”

Martha Herm, the executive director at The Center for Prevention of Abuse in Peoria, said her agency is averaging two to three consultations a month, primarily women who are new to the shelter and need legal guidance after obtaining an order of protection.

The center serves 3,500 domestic violence survivors each year in Peoria, Tazwell and Woodford counties.

“Survivors often face many legal challenges and they don’t know where to turn,” Herm said. “If we can offer survivors a starting point — a free and confidential legal consultation — they’ll know their options before making any other decisions.”

The project’s site in Jacksonville serves between 350 and 400 clients in Morgan, Scott, Cass and Greene counties each year, Executive Director Dona Leanard said.

“Domestic violence survivors are already facing a great deal of stress and pressure, before adding in legal issues,” Leanard said. “These attorneys are trained to handle domestic violence situations and can be incredibly helpful to clients that can’t find help anywhere else.”

Nationally, one in four women has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime, and in Illinois, nearly 40 percent of women will experience domestic violence.

The Virtual Legal Clinic turnkey program should be available by 2014 to fill a gap in services, Simon said. Ideal agencies are those that serve rural or underserved communities and likely users are survivors who cannot afford a legal consultation but do not qualify for legal aid, or survivors whose alleged abusers are represented by legal aid. Legal topics for consultation include child custody and visitation, marriage and divorce, elder abuse, immigration and property issues.