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Lawyers step up to help domestic violence victims

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Each year, hundreds of women abused by a boyfriend or spouse reach out to the Nassau Coalition Against Domestic Violence for legal assistance with divorce, custody and other matters.

But when the nonprofit organization’s money from a federal grant ran out last fall, the coalition was the one that desperately needed help.

The organization had to let go of three lawyers and a court advocate who assist clients.

That left one lawyer and one legal assistant to deal with about 100 cases.

On Thursday night, at a meeting of the matrimonial committee of the Nassau County Bar Association in Mineola, nearly 70 local attorneys will be honored by Judge Stacy Bennett of the Nassau County Family Court and State Supreme Court. After the coalition’s funding problem came to light, the lawyers stepped up to provide help for free to women who need advocates for orders of protection, divorces, child support and spousal support.

Lois Schwaeber, the coalition’s director of legal services, says there are usually 20 to 30 outside lawyers, mostly early in their careers, doing pro bono work for the coalition. So it’s unusual that so many more lawyers, many of them veterans, stepped forward to assist abuse victims.

Still, Schwaeber says maintaining help from so many volunteers, many of whom took multiple cases, might be difficult to sustain.

She says a recent state grant of $150,000 will help the coalition keep its one staff lawyer and one legal assistant through March. In the meantime, the coalition is applying for a new federal grant of $500,000 for three years to hire more legal staff. Money would be allocated through the federal Violence Against Women Act, which is bogged down in the partisan wars in Congress. The crisis in Nassau County is the real consequence of the gridlock in Washington.

Bennett says the voluntary participation of so many lawyers is extraordinary.

“They just agreed without hesitation to do it,” the judge says. “These are some of the finest attorneys we have in our county. It's something really positive. ...

“I’m hoping by recognizing them, some of the attorneys who didn’t know about the need will step up and also volunteer themselves.”
 

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