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Trump has a chance to help domestic violence survivors

Trump has a chance to help domestic violence survivors
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This month, domestic violence was a major topic in the White House news cycle. Accusations of domestic violence against a top aide and questions about who in the administration knew what and when, have overshadowed the rollout of the president’s budget proposal. If he wants to change the story, and at the same time provide real support for survivors of domestic violence, the president has an opportunity at his fingertips: Defend, don’t defund, the Legal Services Corporation.

Like most Americans, President TrumpDonald John TrumpGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race Scott Atlas resigns as coronavirus adviser to Trump MORE may be surprised to learn that domestic violence survivors aren’t guaranteed a lawyer. An abuser facing criminal charges has a right to an attorney regardless of his ability to pay, but if the person he assaulted needs a restraining order, or to fight for custody of her children, she might be on her own if she can’t afford to hire a lawyer.

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Research confirms that legal help makes a huge difference for domestic violence victims and their families. One study showed that, while 83 percent of survivors represented by a lawyer succeeded in getting a protective order, only 32 percent of survivors without a lawyer were able to get one.

That’s why the Legal Services Corporation, created by Congress in 1974, exists. It administers federal funding to nonprofit groups that provide civil legal aid nationwide. Last year, these organizations helped 1.8 million people and their families dealing with urgent, complex legal problems like domestic violence. President Trump has proposed closing it down, but in fact, it’s in the best interest of domestic violence survivors — and Americans nationwide — to keep this vital program alive.

Legal aid lawyers are a core component of our justice system, just like judges, public defenders, or courthouse facilities. Instead of hiring these lawyers directly, Legal Services Corporation supports organizations like Iowa Legal Aid and Pittsburgh Neighborhood Legal Services, which can tailor their work to local needs. Unfortunately, more than 1.3 million American women experience domestic violence every year. This is an issue that affects every community, and when it does, federally-funded legal aid groups are there to help.

That’s exactly what happened with Theresa in Iowa. When her husband became abusive, Theresa had no car, no money, and no safe place to take her children. An Iowa Legal Aid attorney with expertise in domestic violence law helped her find safety and stability by securing a divorce, alimony, and primary custody of her children. Theresa was able to finish her college degree and get a job as a teacher that allows her to provide for her family.

Brenda in Pennsylvania has a similar story. Even after divorcing her abusive husband, she got caught in a yearslong cycle of family violence in which her young twins became the primary victims of their father’s pattern of abuse. After exhausting all her resources on attorney fees but failing to secure safety for her children, she found her way to a legal aid lawyer at Neighborhood Legal Services. He secured an order of protection from abuse and made sure it was enforced. Today, the twins are in college, and Brenda is helping others as a domestic violence shelter board member and volunteer.

President Trump proposed to eliminate federal funding for legal aid last year as well. But Legal Services Corporation is still around because it has strong bipartisan support, in Congress and around the country. Chief justices of state supreme courts, state attorneys general, major corporations, and private law firms have all voiced their support because the organization is an indispensable part of our national commitment to ensure justice for all.

It’s clear that Legal Services Corporation is the most efficient and effective way of ensuring fairness in our justice system. Getting rid of it would be as foolish as eliminating judges or courtrooms. In his State of the Union, President Trump talked about wanting to unify the country. Supporting the organization would be a good place to start.

Domestic violence survivors won’t be the only beneficiaries. Legal aid lawyers funded by the organization also help elders targeted by financial scammers and families facing foreclosure in the wake of hurricanes and other natural disasters. Veterans and military families get legal help to fight for their federal benefits and to navigate the legal system.

By supporting, not attacking, the Legal Services Corporation, President Trump has a chance to demonstrate support for domestic violence survivors and all Americans. Moreover, it’s a gesture of unity and bipartisanship at a time when his proxies on Capitol Hill are trying to pass legislation with both Republican and Democratic votes. Backing this organization would be a win for Trump, a defense of our American justice system, and a vital lifeline for domestic violence survivors.

Martha Bergmark is a former president of the Legal Services Corporation. She is now executive director of Voices for Civil Justice.