Individuals seeking a restraining order in court may be asked questions that feel like attacks: Why did you wait so long to file for a restraining order? Why didn’t you call the police before? Were you drinking?
And they might not understand everything asked of them by judges, police officers and attorneys, so they may not hit on the points the court needs to serve the order.
“Have you ever been on the witness stand in a courtroom? It’s very scary,” said Marsha Mansfield, director of UW Law School’s Economic Justice Institute.
To support survivors of domestic violence, the UW Law School created the VOCA Restraining Order Clinic, with attorney Ryan Poe-Gavlinski as director. Since January, the clinic has trained students to represent or advise about 25 clients seeking restraining orders.
To secure a restraining order, an individual must file a petition at the Dane County courthouse. If granted, a temporary restraining order is served, and a hearing date is set where both parties appear. If the court finds abuse has occurred, it can grant an injunction, or long-term restraining order.
In 2018 in Dane County, 407 domestic abuse temporary restraining petitions were filed and 188 injunctions were granted.
The VOCA clinic, which stands Victims of Crime Act, is funded by federal money administered by the state Department of Justice. The DOJ was interested in working with the UW to develop a clinic that would serve victims of crimes, Mansfield said.
They decided to go with a restraining order clinic for two reasons, Mansfied said: the “huge need” and the learning opportunity for students.
Most people seeking an injunction don’t have a lawyer, Mansfield said. Poe-Gavlinski was surprised by how many times she saw that the respondent had an attorney, but the alleged victim did not.
The family law clinic has worked on restraining orders and injunctions in the past, Mansfield said, but not “nearly at this level.” In setting up the program, surrounding counties were “ecstatic that there was another resource being added because they struggled to find anyone to represent their clients,” Poe-Gavlinski said.
Though Dane County has “a lot of attorneys who seem to be willing to take these cases,” smaller counties have fewer resources, she said.
“In Rock County, the legal advocate for the domestic violence program has said that without us she would have been lost this past semester,” Poe-Gavlinski said.
This year, four UW law students tackled cases from Dane, Sauk, Jefferson and Rock Counties. The program has service partners in each of those counties; Domestic Abuse Intervention Services is the Dane County partner. Other clients come via referrals from the prosecutor’s office or find the clinic online
Students didn’t go to court with all 25 of their clients; some they advised on the phone or could only help prepare them before court.
The length of restraining order cases is well suited to a semester, Mansfield said.
“Most other civil cases extend longer than the three to four months than we have as a semester in law school,” Mansfield said. “Students can wrap their heads around it, they can get the training, they can develop the skills.”
The UW also runs clinics for Consumer Law, Family Court, Immigrant Justice and Neighborhood Law (which covers several areas of law including rental housing). Mansfield said each of the clinics have “the same overarching vision and teaching objectives,” but one big difference with the VOCA clinic is how many times students get to be in court.
Mansfield, who also directs the Family Court clinic, will have her students in a courtroom once or twice; VOCA clinic students will likely be in a courtroom four or five times in a semester.
Students in the clinic attended class weekly, first learning about trial skills, including how to give opening statements, closing arguments, direct and cross examination.
Guest speakers taught on topics like how to engage clients who have experienced trauma, helping students understand “what actually is going through the brain” of a traumatized client, Poe-Gavlinski said.
“It’s hard for people to think straight when they’re suffering trauma,” Mansfield said. “One of the roles the students play is helping them organize their thoughts and feelings.”
Students also heard about self-care and dealing with secondary trauma.
“When you’re new to this type of work, you can take it very emotionally. So learning how to part those emotions and feelings into perspective and how to deal with them was important for the students,” Poe-Gavlinski said.
“Attorney wellbeing is really important to all of our clinics,” Mansfield said. “As you might know, attorneys are one of the most mentally health-challenged professions.”
Throughout the semester, some students surprised by their own bias. They had an idea of who a domestic violence victim would be, but witnessed what a universal issue it is, Poe-Gavlinski said, with clients of all different socioeconomic classes and races.
Some students found a passion for the work.
“A lot of them said, ‘I will never do family law!’ And now a lot of them are looking into jobs possibly in family law,” Poe-Gavlinski said.
Poe-Gavlinski loved watching students develop courtroom skills or “find a gift they didn’t know they had.”
“I think it was just a lot of self-growth for all of them in different ways, which was kind of really awesome to see, because that’s not what I expected,” Poe-Gavlinski said with a laugh. “I’m like a proud mom.”
Poe-Gavlinski’s heard similarly positive things from clients about how well her students performed.
“That’s mostly what I get, is ‘Wow, this student really put in a lot of time, I was a little concerned in the beginning about a student helping me, but they were well prepared and I never questioned them,’” Poe-Gavlinski said.
Even when the students were unsuccessful in getting an injunction for a client, students could explain why they did not receive it and what clients should do next. That’s important, because otherwise victims they can feel like they are being told the abuse didn’t happen, Poe-Gavlinski said.
“Whether you win or lose, at least you've been heard by the student or by the judge. Giving a voice to victims is really, really important,” Mansfield said.
After a student lost a case, his client told him: “This is the first time I’ve ever been respected by a man,” Poe-Gavlinski said. “He did listen to her and he believed in her and he fought like he believed in her.”
In the future, Mansfield and Poe-Gavlinski would love to expand services. Mansfield would like to explore the possibility of having time for students to set up in the Dane County courthouse to help individuals as they come in to file restraining orders.
Poe-Gavlinski said they’ve seen that after a restraining order proceeding is over, the next step is often a custody or divorce proceeding. But the VOCA clinic doesn’t have the ability to represent clients in those matters. They’ve discussed partnering with other UW clinics to provide a “holistic approach with the client.”
Poe-Gavlinski will continue providing VOCA services over the summer, and a group of students will join the effort again this fall.