Granite State increases funding for low-income victims

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CONCORD, N.H. >> When Abby Howard decided to seek a restraining order against her husband in 2012, she had no legal help to navigate the civil court system.

Her husband, meanwhile, hired a lawyer who helped him lower his monthly child support payments, from about $800 to $50, and file for a divorce. Howard, a mother of four with a part-time job, felt outsmarted and unsure how to best advocate for her and her children.

"I left that hearing feeling like his lawyer had totally mopped the floor with me," Howard, a resident of Gilsum, N.H., said. "It was a terrible feeling."

Howard eventually found a lawyer through New Hampshire Legal Assistance, a nonprofit that provides free services to low-income victims. Her attorney helped her push back against the child support reductions and ensure she got a fair deal in the now-finalized divorce.

Howard was one of the rare victims who had access to legal help. But many more low-income people soon will have similar access.

That's because the Executive Council approved $1 million in new funding last week for New Hampshire Legal Assistance and two other organizations to expand legal aid services to more victims of stalking and domestic violence. Of the more than 5,000 domestic violence and stalking victims who filed restraining order petitions in the state in 2015, just 9 percent received legal help, according to the court system.

"Victims who are unrepresented are at an enormous disadvantage in court," said Amanda Grady Sexton, public policy director for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

With the new money, New Hampshire Legal Assistance will hire two attorneys focused solely on domestic violence and stalking cases, more than doubling the organization's current capacity to help victims. The Legal Assistance Resource Center, which connects victims with crisis centers and lawyers, will hire an additional intake worker.

And the New Hampshire Bar Association's Pro Bono Program will launch a new statewide program to help stalking victims and work to recruit more private volunteer attorneys. They will put more effort into reaching immigrant, refugee and non-English speaking victims who may face cultural or language barriers that prevent them from seeking help.

The goal of the organizations is to identify victims early and begin helping them at the start of the court process. Victims often don't know what information to include to ensure their restraining orders are granted and they win fair child support.

Victims are in crisis and suffer from trauma, said Mary Krueger, co-director of NHLA's Domestic Violence Advocacy Project.

"They're not going to be able to put down this perfect narrative on paper when they're in that state of mind," said Krueger, the lawyer who helped Howard.

One of the new attorneys at New Hampshire Legal Assistance will work on cases in Rockingham and Strafford counties. The other will work with victims in Manchester and Nashua, with a particular focus on non-English speaking victims. Some non-citizens who are victims of domestic violence are eligible for increased immigration status under the Violence Against Women Act.

"We're hoping we can better build our program to be culturally accepting and be able to serve a variety of diverse people," Krueger said.

Howard, meanwhile, hopes sharing her story will encourage other women to come forward and ask attorneys for the help that they need.

"It's just a world of difference having good legal representation," she said.


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