Legal Advocate in Michigan Looks Out for the Vulnerable

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Published:
April 22, 2020

Danielle Barnard assists victims of sexual assault, and in this time of crisis, her work is more difficult than ever. 

Question: You work as a legal advocate for a sexual assault/domestic violence services non-profit in Benton Harbor, Michigan, is that right? What does your work entail? 

Answer: Yes, I am a Legal Advocate at the Cora Lamping Center in Benton Harbor. We have two programs: the domestic violence services and the program I work for: sexual assault services. 

My work entails a variety of things. Primarily, when we get new clients, I work with them to assess any legal needs they might have. If they are interested in pursuing criminal charges against their perpetrator, I help them at each step from making a police report if they have not already done so, to accompaniment at any case-related meetings, to providing support during a hearing/trial, and assistance with developing a victim impact statement.

I also help with some civil legal assistance, such as providing assistance with filing a civil personal protection order and prepping clients for those hearings. 

If clients have other legal needs, like dealing with custody/family court or employment, I have resources in the county and out-of-county to connect them with lawyers for legal advice. Outside of my specific legal assistance, I also do crisis response and provide support for clients who go to the hospital for a sexual assault forensic exam. 

I do some case management with clients, community presentations/engagement, and psycho-education groups with survivors. 

I guess you can say that I do a little bit of everything. It's a non-profit, so that's usually how it goes. 

What does a typical day at your job look like?

It is funny that you ask this because I asked this same question during my interview. The answer is that there is no typical day. 

Unfortunately, sexual violence comes in waves. So, during slower times of year, my day involves me getting to the office at 8:30 a.m., having coffee and breakfast with my co-workers as we check emails and catch up on anything that might have happened overnight, then I spend a lot of time preparing curriculum for psycho-education groups, participating in professional development and trainings to stay up-to-date on best practices in survivor services, and I might have one or two client meetings either in my office or at the courthouse. I check in with my current clients, or have a community meeting. 

On a busy day, I have clients back-to-back. We could get a crisis call in the middle of the day and I or one of my co-workers will go to the hospital within the hour of receiving the call. That client might need shelter, so then I am on the phone finding available shelter, gathering items if they need clothes, and taking care of those immediate needs. If the client needs transportation, then my day involves driving (I can drive over 100 miles on a busy day). I may or may not get lunch and on our busiest days I could get home after 10 p.m., depending on what needs to be done to get our clients to safety. 

Has the drastic change in circumstances in most people's lives meant there has been an increase in domestic violence? Are some people stuck at home in abusive situations?

Since the stay-home orders began, cases of domestic and sexual violence have increased. But since I don't work specifically with domestic violence, I can't say exactly how many calls our programmatic counterparts have gotten.  

Having to stay at home can increase vulnerability for already vulnerable populations. Being at home gives perpetrators an upper hand and enables them to use vulnerabilities such as income, disability, age, medical needs, or even children against a survivor.  

I dealt with a sexual assault case where the client was violently assaulted by a boyfriend the client was staying with during the quarantine. There was another case where there were squatters in the client's home that wouldn't leave and repeatedly sexually assaulted the client for weeks, under threat of harm to pets or withholding food or medication. 

Perpetrators do what they do because of power and control, and unfortunately, this crisis helps them. 

What can people do to get out of difficult situations at home during a time like this?

I know the first instinct of most people is to tell those in abusive situations to leave, but that is actually dangerous, especially without a safety plan and support. In most cases, survivors will return to their abusers six or seven times before actually leaving, but each return gets more and more lethal. 

So, my advice is to first find a safe way to connect with a crisis center. There are both national and local crisis centers, like the Cora Lamping Center, that are still open and have 24/7 phone lines or web chat services available. You can talk with an advocate, safety plan, and choose what the best option is for you at the time. If leaving is your chosen option, then an advocate can and will help you get to safety. I am happy to help individuals find their local resources if they send me a private message on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). 

How has your work changed since the COVID-19 outbreak? Are you working remotely?

My work has changed a lot. My co-workers and I are working remotely, and the past month has presented us with numerous challenges. We are essential workers, but we can no longer go into the hospitals for crisis response.

We are told to provide tele-advocacy through phone or video, but there are not many secure platforms that our organization has access to that would meet our very strict confidentiality standards through HIPPA and our other funders. 

In addition, we are in a rural area and all of our clients are low-income or extremely low-income, lack reliable phone and/or have no internet service. It has been difficult to reach some of the clients I was seeing regularly. Previously they came to our office to use the internet to do what they needed to do. 

We are still transporting clients, but with the lack of personal protective equipment our team doesn't have masks.

It is much more difficult to find shelter for clients who need it because many shelters are not taking in new residents because of the virus, and Berrien County lacks adequate shelters. 

I still have meetings at the courthouse. 

This COVID-19 outbreak has pushed us to be more creative with how we find solutions for clients, but it has also exacerbated barriers of class and socioeconomic status that impact the populations I work with all the time. 

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. How has the shutdown changed the way April will be marked? Do you think it's even more important now to raise awareness?

Yes, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The shutdown has led to the cancellation of many of our events, and events from similar organizations around the country. 

Our team was planning to have a dinner for our community partners, work with local bakeries and coffee shops to raise awareness, and spend time on the college campuses in the area. With the shutdown, everything was cancelled, and we moved all of our awareness activities online. 

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center is having a #30daysofSAAM Instagram Challenge, so we have been participating in that. 

We also created an extensive social media push for the month of April on our Facebook. We are hoping to not only gain followers, but push some conversation about sexual assault and particularly about consent and boundaries. 

Everyone is online right now, so I would say this has given us an even wider reach because our awareness activities and posts can be shared worldwide, not just in Berrien County. 

Sexual assault is certainly still in the news! Do you think the way people view sexual assault and sexual harassment has changed in recent years, with #MeToo and more?

I do think that the conversation has shifted. While there is more conversation and more discussion about sexual assault and harassment, there is also a lot of misinformation about sexual assault and harassment as well. 

I see two things happening in society right now. On one hand, we have survivors finding ways to speak out and up about the prevalence of sexual violence for all populations. On the other hand, we have a conversation that reflects the pre-existing culture that values what perpetrators value: power and control. Everything in our culture supports perpetrators and the mindset of perpetrators. I recently wrote a social media post for my organization about metaphors for sex and shared a TEDTalk video that analyzed how the metaphor of baseball that is often used for sex in American culture promotes sex as a game, as something to be won and dominated, and as something that one person has control over. But this is the prevailing metaphor in our culture where young people talk about "scoring" and "stealing bases." There is no consent, no communication, nothing healthy about that. 

So, the changes in recent years have pointed out the way we all think, and how little we actually question how we think. 

You work as a legal advocate, but you are not a lawyer — is that right?

Correct, I am not a lawyer. The title “legal advocate” leads a lot of people to assume I am a lawyer, but advocates provide assistance not advice, which is the main difference. 

I cannot represent my clients in court. I work with county prosecutors’ offices, court victim advocates, and my clients to ensure that my clients' needs are met. 

I can assist with forms and paperwork, if needed. 

One way I describe my job is as a social worker who also has knowledge of relevant laws and court systems and can provide some legal assistance. 

I initially applied for this position because I wanted to go to law school (I took the LSAT last summer), but after working around lawyers and the legal field, I find I am much more drawn to one-on-one relationship-building with clients, which is something most lawyers working with low-income populations just don't have the time to do. 

My personality and strengths are more fit for social work and counseling than for law. 

What is your degree in? Is this your first job?

I got my bachelor’s in theology from Washington Adventist University in 2015 and now I am finishing up my master’s in Community and International Development at Andrews University. 

This is my second full time job because I took the year after college to work before graduate school. My first job was as an Office Coordinator at a community development financial institution in Arlington, Virginia. That is where I was inspired to study community development as a discipline. 

I would say that this is my first full time job in my specific field of passion and interest. 

Tell us more about the master’s degree you are working on.

I finished my course work and all my requirements. Now, when I am not working, I am trying to finish my research article with my advisor. 

Community and international development is a broad field and I honestly had a limited view of what I wanted to do with this degree when I started. But I spent a lot of time in my program researching issues of affordable housing and housing insecurity. I also spent time studying the impact of race and class bias on humanitarian disaster response. 

Ever since I was a child, abuse of power and inequity rubbed me the wrong way, and so I took my master’s education as an opportunity to explore issues of inequity in depth. 

When will you graduate? What do you plan to do with your postgraduate degree?

I was originally set to graduate in May 2020, but with the COVID-19 outbreak, graduation was cancelled, and I decided to wait for my degree conferral until August 2020 (this will also give me more time to work on my research). 

I am originally from the D.C. Metropolitan Area, so my plan is to return home and hopefully work in the field.

After starting my work as a Legal Advocate, I also decided to pursue another master’s degree in social work. I believe that these two degrees will work together for the rest of my career. 

I consider community and international development to be a macro study. I learned how to work with institutions and policies and how to develop and manage programs that enable individuals and communities to thrive. 

The work I do now and my future work as a social worker, I consider to be my micro study, where I am able to engage with individuals who make up communities and empower them to flourish. 

I can see myself moving later in life from direct client work to more policy focused or administrative work, but all within the field of sexual violence, trauma, and mental health. 

What do you most want people to know about sexual assault and domestic violence?

I would like people to know that sexual assault and domestic violence are not the fault of those being abused. One of the largest barriers in my work is running into individuals in law enforcement, medical staff, social security, and even in the courthouse who don't believe survivors. 

I see how sexual violence impacts the lives of my clients and the disbelief and victim-blaming is almost more difficult to bear than the violence itself. If people saw what I see on a regular basis, they would understand why people recant or choose not to disclose in the first place. No matter who the survivor is, what they look like, or what they've done, I want people to know that they should believe survivors. Yep, that's all I will say. Just believe survivors.

 

Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.

Photo courtesy of Danielle Barnard.

 

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