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Published: Monday, 7/21/2008

Abused women get help beyond the courtroom

BY BRIDGET THARP
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The woman studied her cell phone, trying to look preoccupied, as she sat uncomfortably about a dozen feet away from her attacker for two hours outside Judge Amy Berling s courtroom recently in Toledo Municipal Court.

She lived with the man and the abuse for many years, the woman later would tell the judge. He s the father of her son.

He called her cell phone more than a dozen times from across the room, she told her advocates.

Just go home, he d say. Domestic violence charges often are dropped if the victim doesn t show up in court.

Now, the man just stared.

Rachel Richardson, right, confers with Shirley Guardiola of the Toledo police during a court proceeding. Ms. Richardson and her business partner coach clients on legal options. Rachel Richardson, right, confers with Shirley Guardiola of the Toledo police during a court proceeding. Ms. Richardson and her business partner coach clients on legal options.
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Rachel Richardson, 30, a court advocate for abused women, stood with her back to the man and looked at the woman.

Are you OK?

The woman nodded.

Since forming Independent Advocates in February, Ms. Richardson and her business partner, Rebecca Facey, have opened 25 such cases. Their agency is meant to help women victimized by domestic violence by guiding them throughout the court system and into better lives.

Ms. Richardson and Ms. Facey feel so strongly about their efforts with abused women that they work jobs at night to pay the bills and to allow themselves to be in court during the daytime. They provide the service free of charge and, at this point, lack any outside funding to do so.

Most often, their clients first appear as names inked on the court docket. Sometimes, the advocates will trace the offending gaze and kisses blown by a suspect in handcuffs to a woman in the audience.

Court is a time of crisis, 26-year-old Ms. Facey said.

Her business partner nodded.

That s when they really need someone to pay attention, Ms. Richardson said.

There were three cracked ribs, two black eyes, and a broken nose before Krystin Round met the advocates.

After 16 years in an abusive marriage violent enough that she d crafted good-bye letters to her mother and children in case she didn t survive she filed her first complaint in 2006.

The last time I left, and that was the first time I reported to police, because I was afraid, Ms. Round, 41, said.

She might have been too afraid to show up for court, she said, but Ms. Richardson sat next to her in municipal court, and Ms. Facey stood by during custody hearings of her four children in Domestic Relations Court. Both were employed by another agency at the time.

Rebecca and Rachel, they are my complete support system, she said. Even if I don t have a court case, I can call them at any time.

An average of 3,181 police reports related to domestic violence, including arguments or violations of protection orders, were filed in Toledo during the last five years, Domestic Violence Unit Detective Mary Jo Jaggers said.

Fewer than two-thirds of those reports became formal charges filed in the court system.

About 68 percent of the 1,982 domestic violence cases filed between April, 2000, and March, 2001, were dismissed, according to a University of Toledo Urban Affairs Center analysis.

Those estimates likely would hold up if a similar study were done this year, Toledo Municipal Court Judge Michael Goulding said.

Who knows why, Judge Goulding said of the domestic violence dismissal rate. It could be that there is nothing to the case. Or it could be that the victim is scared out of her mind to show up in court. That s where the advocates can really help.

Advocates accompany the alleged victims to court proceedings and coach them on legal options, such as filing for a protection order against their attackers or applying for child custody.

Sometimes, advocate services reach beyond the courtroom. That means helping clients write a resume, open a bank account, or find an apartment and fill it with furniture because it s about their individual safety plan and what s going on in their life, not just the case, Ms. Facey said.

Sometimes women coming out of a relationship where they ve been abused are starting from scratch, Ms. Richardson said.

As a start-up venture, the Independent Advocates also is starting from scratch. Its services are different than others in Toledo, the co-founders said, because the venture is designed to have one designated advocate help the victim throughout criminal hearings, child custody hearings, and divorce the entire court process.

They say you re going to have to go talk to so and so across the street, and there s no one to walk you across the street, Ms. Facey said. It s easy to lose nerve.

Independent Advocates generally hasn t been perceived as competition or duplication of established services, said Areti Tsavoussis, who is the executive director of the Toledo/Lucas County Victim-Witness Assistance Program. Her program exists as an arm of the Lucas County Prosecutor s Office, and also has court advocates to deal with felony offenses in the county s Common Pleas Court and Juvenile Court, and Sylvania and Maumee municipal courts.

I just believe they are interested also in helping the victims, Ms. Tsavoussis said of Independent Advocates. It doesn t seem to me that competition is an issue.

Court administrators agree.

We ve got 135,000 new cases a year. We certainly have the case load to support more advocates, not fewer, Judge Goulding said, adding that Independent Advocates do a great job. They know what they are doing and they have a real passion.

The partners have a sort of yin and yang arrangement.

As a jazz vocalist and the daughter of prominent defense attorney Jon Richardson, Ms. Richardson is comfortable in the courtroom, taking the stage by speaking to the judge or attorneys on behalf of a victim.

After changing her major six times in college, Ms. Richardson said she believes she found her calling by accident, answering a help-wanted ad for court advocates that seemed to fit her degree in nonprofit management and sociology from the University of Toledo.

I don t want to sound weird and metaphysical, but my life kind of plops me where I belong, Ms. Richardson said.

Ms. Facey, meanwhile, is low-key and passionate about helping victims through outreach and other out-of-court services, so she s more likely to be in the back of the court quietly chatting with the victim.

It s a familiar role for Ms. Facey, being one she found herself in back in high school.

After she became the ear for a close friend abused by her boyfriend, she became wrapped up in anti-violence activism and decided to major in women s studies at DePaul University in Chicago.

The venture started about six months ago, when the partners left their jobs at another advocacy agency to start their own out of Ms. Richardson s apartment.

A pair of their former college interns joined the venture in May.

Having interns gave us the impetus to get out and get an office, Ms. Facey said.

They set up shop in downtown Toledo in Suite 818 of the Spitzer Building, 520 Madison Ave.

But most of their time is spent in the courtroom their real center of operations.

The partners volunteer most mornings in court to solicit potential clients but if the term implies a payout, it s by formality only.

Because there is not yet funding to subsidize their services and the victims of violence never will be asked to pay for services rendered Ms. Richardson and Ms.

Facey plan to continue moonlighting as waitresses at local restaurants to pay the rent. Until the group is awarded nonprofit status, the business partners cannot dig for grants or solicit tax-exempt donations to fund the organization.

That leaves their paychecks as waitresses as the only incomes to pay personal bills and keep the office open.

But none of those financial woes mattered that day inside Judge Berling s courtroom. The woman listened beside both her advocates as the judge ordered the accused to have no contact with the victim.

If you are in a restaurant having the best meal of your life and she walks in, you walk out. You don t look over. You don t wave, Judge Berling said. That s what no contact means.

As the woman requested, her attacker also was ordered to undergo counseling rather than jail time. Prosecutors often consider a victim s wishes when recommending punishment.

Judge Berling believes court advocates such as Ms. Richardson and Ms. Facey deserve credit for supporting victims who might not otherwise show up in court to express those wishes.

They re of great service to the court because a victim doesn t always have a lawyer or a truth seeker, she said. Because we [judges] must remain neutral. And that can be very, very hard.

Contact Bridget Tharp at:btharp@theblade.comor 419-724-6061.



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