During most academic years, the Domestic Violence Clinic at Rutgers Law School in Camden serves the community through four projects: students handle restraining orders for victims of domestic violence; students and attorneys represent survivors of sexual assaults and write briefs for appellate cases, and students provide legal information and referrals for domestic violence victims to get restraining orders through a project that operates on site at the Camden County Hall of Justice.
Clinic attorneys and students routinely provide services to more than 400 people each year, regularly consult with other agencies on complex matters, and provide training and technical assistance to other agencies on legal responses to gender-based violence.
When the Covid-19 pandemic started and the university switched to remote learning, attorneys and students working in the clinic were determined to continue the clinic’s important work. Professor Victoria Chase, Clinic Attorney Denise Higgins, and the students affiliated with the program, have continued to work remotely to assist survivors and provide additional services for people who must remain home and who needed legal assistance.
To try to expand services and be available on a statewide basis, the students set up a helpline that people could call and receive up-to-date information about court processes, legal services and options when someone is experiencing abuse. That helpline number is 856-225-2915.
"COVID-19 has been an unprecedented event. Everyone faced great uncertainty concerning the illness and the economy,” said Chase. “Our client population was particularly vulnerable, as many faced "shelter-in-place" with an abusive partner. The closure of the courts to physical access as well as the changes in law enforcement protocols increased our belief that being available to survivors was more important than ever before.”
Access to resources is especially challenging when a victim may be home with an abuser or have a lack of resources due to the pandemic, said Higgins. That lack of resources may be due to the physical shutdown of the court, the rising unemployment rate, and the legitimate fear of seeking assistance and risking exposure to the virus. Court and law enforcement procedures continued to change and evolve as government services responded to the unprecedented event of the pandemic.
While the clinic continued to provide legal services to existing clients, new cases were moving through uncharted territory. Higgins, and Child and Family Advocacy Clinic Attorney Cheryl Turk, were amongst the first attorneys in the state conducting Zoom hearings and trials for clients. Students also continued to work on cases and navigate the changing practices that were announced by the courts.
Usually, student directors and volunteers station themselves at the court house to speak to victims in person and explain the process of obtaining a restraining order. Since that can no longer be done, volunteers from Rutgers Law School assisted those who needed that information through the helpline. Throughout the pandemic, students handled cases virtually in the Superior and Appellate courts and continually spoke to victims.
“Rutgers Domestic Violence Clinic continues to be a statewide legal resource and leading agency in appellate practice and sexual assault work in addition to continuing to provide direct representation in trial level cases and maintaining access for pro se parties,” said Higgins. “When the shutdown occurred we were in the midst of several matters including matters before the Appellate Division and before the New Jersey Supreme Court, appearing as amicus on a matter at the Superior Court level, cases at the trial level before the Superior Court and being a resource for legal assistance/information both in South Jersey and statewide.”
In addition, the clinic continued to work closely with the Camden County Women’s Center and other non-profit agencies to refer victims for counseling and legal representation. In fact, the clinic broadened its outreach to help victims statewide, after realizing county courts were operating differently across New Jersey in their handling of cases.
Students Hannah Lee RLAW ‘20 and Liliya Bonderanko RLAW ’21 created a comprehensive list of each county’s procedures, including evidentiary requirements, counseling referrals, and legal resources by reaching out to other attorneys and calling individual courthouses. They also scheduled student volunteers each day to handle incoming calls. Madison Rupert RLAW ’22 worked with callers on the Helpline and researched how domestic violence funding supports police work, besides researching pandemic-related legal questions.
"Working for the Domestic Violence Clinic has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my law school career,” said Bonderanko. ”I am so proud to be a part of this project knowing that there is a way to help victims of domestic violence during a pandemic, especially when there is no physical access to the courts. It was a challenge to transition the project online, but the helpline that we have created and the resources we have compiled will continue to be useful even after things get back to normal."
Lee said, “I've volunteered for the Domestic Violence Project for two years before becoming the student director for my last year at law school. It was encouraging to hear so many student volunteers want to give their time to help domestic violence victims during a pandemic. . . Many victims need guidance on what to even expect in the remote trial, let alone their legal rights and resources available to them.”
By collaborating with the Camden County Women’s Center and the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice, the clinic developed a public service announcement that could be distributed to anyone applying for a restraining order through his or her local police department.
The law school works collaboratively with Camden County Women's Center, the Camden Center for Law and Social Justice, the Hispanic Family Center, the Prosecutor’s Office of Victim Witness and the Court, as well as with other agencies around the state, including the New Jersey Coalition to End Domestic Violence and the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault. As New Jersey continues to navigate the pandemic, and courts continue to operate both remotely and begin to reopen in person services, the Domestic Violence Clinic intends to continue offering services consistent with the court’s procedures.