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OP-ED: Alaska Legal Advocacy Project Receives National Recognition


ANDVSA Legal Advocacy Project Receives National Recognition for Unique Partnerships in Providing Legal Services to Alaska's Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault

By Susan Christianson

Alaskans Kari Robinson and Christine McLeod Pate are uncharacteristic superheroes.

Robinson, Director of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault's Legal Advocacy Project, has the kindly demeanor and inviting presence every parent hopes for in their child's primary school teacher.  But her soft-spoken manner and McLeod Pate's Clark-Kent-like demeanor disguise the toughness these women share when it comes to championing the rights of abuse victims to access Alaska's civil and criminal legal justice systems.

Robinson is a graduate of Seattle University School of Law and has been a practicing attorney in Alaska since 1993. The founder of the ANDVSA's Legal Advocacy Project, her job includes providing statewide training to attorneys, court personnel, police officers, and victim advocates, as well as providing technical assistance and legal resources for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault throughout Alaska. 

McLeod Pate, a cum laude graduate of the New York University School of Law, is Supervising Attorney and Project Director for the ANDVSA Legal Advocacy Project Pro Bono Program, which provides direct representation through both staff and volunteer attorneys to low-income victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in divorce, child custody and protective order proceedings. 

Together, Robinson and McLeod Pate spearhead what has become the legal dream team for domestic violence and sexual assault victims throughout Alaska. And for many of those they serve, these women, the victim advocates they train at domestic violence shelters across the state, and the Pro Bono Program volunteer attorneys they mentor and support, are nothing short of superheroes.

"Victims of domestic violence and sexual assault and their advocates continue to identify the need for civil legal representation as a top priority to meet victim's needs within the state," Robinson recently told members of the Alaska Senate Judiciary Committee.  "A landmark study by economists found that increased provision of legal services for victims was critical to reducing domestic violence rates. The study found that because legal services help victims with practical matters, such as protective orders, custody and child support, this presents victims with real, long-term options to enhance safety."

"Enhancing the safety of victims in a state with some of the highest rates of domestic violence and sexual assault in the nation is a job that has required enormous energy and commitment from Robinson, McLeod Pate and a multitude of pro bono attorneys for the past 15 years," said ANDVSA Executive Director Peggy Brown. "Kari's energy and dedication to the work is amazing."

"Literally, Kari never sits down," said ANDVSA Training Project Director Patti Bland. "She made a tabletop that holds a phone, laptop and papers that sits on the handles of a treadmill in her office so she can walk on the treadmill at the same time she reads her emails and keeps up on the needs of victims and legal advocates across the state," Bland said. "She's an inspiration!"

"And because she is so humble, most people even within our own agency and member programs don't know that Christine Pate was the recipient of the Alaska Bar Association Robert K. Hickerson Public Service Award, recognizing lifetime achievement for outstanding dedication and service to the citizens of Alaska in providing Pro Bono legal services," Brown said. "Not to mention being named Sitka Woman of the Year! We are lucky to have two such outstanding women as Kari and Christine serving our member programs and serving victims of abuse across Alaska."

"We provide comprehensive services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault," said McLeod Pate, "The legal system is so complicated, and the issues at stake are so critical, that victims really need help through it," she said. "It is satisfying to know we can provide those services to those who need them."

According to Anne Bennett, legal advocate for AWARE, Inc, Juneau's domestic violence and sexual assault victim-services program, a legal advocate at a shelter program is often the first person women in crisis see when coming in for services. "On average I serve 30 - 40 women per month on a range of legal issues," Bennett said in testimony before the Alaska State Legislature. "My goal is to provide support and referrals to help the women find their way through the civil and criminal legal systems," she said. "These situations are often very complicated and I often need to consult with an attorney to give even basic information. I feel gifted to have the ability to contact the attorneys at the Pro Bono Program and at Alaska Legal Services for guidance."

While the Legal Advocacy Project and Robinson's work have not gone unrecognized - Robinson is the recipient of the 2007 Beyond the Call of Duty Award from the Violent Crimes Compensation Board, The 2004 Advocacy Award from the National Crime Victims' Rights Week and the 1995 Alaska Governor's Volunteer Award" - it is the help her program provides Alaska's most underserved and invisible populations that provides Robinson her greatest reward.

"For the past 12 years the Network's Legal Advocacy Project has partnered with the Alaska Immigration Justice Project to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate services - including statewide training and technical assistance - to immigrants," Robinson said. Robinson also serves as a volunteer Board member for AIJP, the only agency in Alaska protecting the human rights of low income immigrants and refugees. AJIP provides both legal services to victims of crimes and qualified, trained interpreters across the state for victims needing to access those services. It is this unique partnership between ANDVSA's Legal Advocacy Project and AIJP that is being looked at as a national model for helping low-income immigrant victims.

Dan Rogers, a member of the Alaska Bar since 1978 and a former attorney for ARCO and ConocoPhillips until his retirement just over two years ago, has played a major role in AIJP's work. Rogers recently received the 2010 Alaska Bar Association Pro Bono Award for his volunteer work with AIJP and other programs.

Often the clients AIJP works with are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault or other abuse who are  married to US citizens who failed to comply with the paperwork to allow them to live and work in this country, Rogers said.

"To make matters worse, the abusers use the immigration system as a tool to help inflict this abuse - they threaten to report the victim to immigration," Rogers said. "Our office helps victims of domestic violence by explaining the law to them, providing qualified interpreters through our Language Interpreter Center, and representing them in Court," he said.

"The Pro Bono Program provides comprehensive services to all survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.  Often the partner of immigrant victims of violence threatens them with immigration deportation," said McLeod Pate. "Working together with AIJP is a great partnership because they have expertise to handle immigration issues and we have the family law expertise, so through this partnership we are able to provide comprehensive services to victims."

The Legal Advocacy Project and Pro Bono Program also partner with the Alaska Native Women's Coalition, and work closely with law enforcement officials and other state agencies to enhance service delivery. Alaska's Attorney General Dan Sullivan recently held meetings in Anchorage and Juneau to help raise awareness of the need for volunteer attorneys to provide pro bono legal services.

"Often the abuser has complete control of the finances so the women leaving this situation is without funds and also facing housing and child care costs," AWARE's Bennett said. "The vast majority of women I see from all brackets of life do not have the financial assets to hire representation in these types of cases. A quick check from the last quarter was about one in 40 women who had the ability at the time needed to come up with finances to hire a family law attorney."

According to McLeod Pate, the Pro Bono program encourages pro bono attorneys to work closely with legal advocates like Bennett in each of the Network's 18 member programs in order to provide holistic services victims often need.

"The Legal Advocacy Project has had approximately 2000 referrals since May 1999," said Robinson."Sixty percent of those cases are placed with volunteer attorneys each year. While our 60 percent placement rate is good, that means we still have a significant percentage of people with unmet legal needs."

"We are always looking for more volunteers," said McLeod Pate. "We have more cases than we are able to staff. The need has outpaced our ability to provide volunteer attorneys. "

"Through our partnerships with other agencies, and through the dedication of our staff and volunteers, we are able to help stop the cycle of violence," Robinson said.

And when it comes to stopping the cycle of domestic and sexual violence, Alaskans are lucky to have Robinson, McLeod Pate, and all of the program's partners and volunteer attorneys on the job. 

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