by Gina Sestak
I blogged back on November 18, 2006, about working for Neighborhood Legal Services Association as a law student. I returned to Legal Services in 1980 as a lawyer.
Because I'd spent the last three years working on a research project in mental health, which resulted in the publication of my book, Informed Consent: A Study of Decision-Making in Psychiatry, Legal Services hired me as a mental health attorney. In that capacity, I was able to visit local mental health institutions and speak with patients about their rights. I even had a clinic key to the forensic unit at Mayview State Hospital, where the "criminally insane" were treated.
I also practiced family law, which eventually came to consume the bulk of my time. Initially, I supervised the law students working in the "divorce mill," but the need for representation in that area fell off after Pennsylvania updated its 1797 divorce law to permit no-fault divorce. Under the new Divorce Code, it was no longer necessary to have a hearing and prove that one party's bad deeds led to the break-up of the marriage. Spouses who wanted to divorce had only to sign a consent form and wait ninety days. My students and I shifted to domestic violence, handling nearly all "protection from abuse" cases filed in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
At that time, the Protection from Abuse Act required that the abuser have legal access to the victim's residence. The remedy was to issue a court order excluding the abuser from that home for up to one year and directing the abuser to stay away from the victim.
An emergency ten-day exclusion could be obtained quickly. Clients would come into a Legal Services office for an interview, then a paralegal would prepare a Petition for Protection from Abuse, which would include a detailed description of the alleged abuse. My law students and I would take the client to Family Division Motions Court, an afternoon session in which a designated judge would hear arguments from attorneys about various requests concerning pending cases. When those were finished, a court reporter would be brought in and the protection from abuse hearings would begin. We would present the victim's sworn testimony under oath and the judge would issue a protection from abuse order good for ten days, after which another hearing would be scheduled so the alleged abuser would have the opportunity to present a defense. We then obtained a certified copy of the court order for the victim, who was instructed to take it to the local police department and request assistance in serving a copy on the abuser, as well as in removing the abuser from the home.
Local police generally did not like to do this, so I often found myself on the phone with the police or their local government solicitor, explaining the requirements of the Protection from Abuse Act. One of the deputy sheriffs assigned to the Court of Common Pleas Family Division, Lieutenant Parker, often helped me out by speaking to police -- with decades of law enforcement experience, he had the credibility I lacked.
Although entitled to bring attorneys to the final hearings, most abusers chose to represent themselves, which led to some rather odd testimony. I had one case in which my client's husband had allegedly beaten her with a vacuum cleaner. She brought the vacuum cleaner in as evidence. Her husband began his defense by trying to negate the vacuum cleaner's battered appearance: "Your Honor, I want you to take notice that this is a very flimsy vacuum cleaner. I only had to hit her two or three times . . ." Another defendant brought an attorney but did not put on any defense. The judge issued an order excluding him from the home. I later found out, though, that he managed to convince my client that his attorney had bribed the judge, and that was why he didn't have to testify. This was total BS, of course. Not only did the judge have a good reputation for integrity, but if he'd really taken a bribe, he would not have issued the order against the Defendant! I was occasionally threatened, and once had to duck quickly to get out the middle of a fist-fight which was broken up by deputy sheriffs before too much damage was done. The Sheriff's Office did a great job of keeping peace in "Loveland," as the Family Court area was facetiously known.
I left Legal Services in 1982 due to funding cuts. They laid off virtually my entire staff -- the law students, my secretary, and one of two paralegals, then asked if anyone else would like to volunteer for layoff. I raised my hand. There was no way I could have handled all those cases alone, so I opted to avoid malpractice or shoddy representation by ducking out.
What did I learn from this job?
I learned a lot about violence, both from the perpetrators and the victims.
I learned that there is a lot of domestic violence going on -- there were at least a few emergency petitions every day, often more than a dozen. We once had 27 final hearings in one day.
I learned that it's sometimes better to just walk away when it becomes impossible to do a job right.