Victims' advocates allowed into civil court 

By Lesley Weidenbener
Victims of domestic violence and other crimes will be allowed to have advocates sit with them in civil court under a law that will take effect on July 1.

The change is meant to help victims when they're in court to obtain protective orders, deal with divorces and child custody issues, or establish paternity.

"Often times - especially when they're seeking a protective order or there's been a violation of an order - victims are incredibly hesitant to follow through because they have no support with them," said Laura Berry, the executive director of the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "And the other side may have an attorney, which makes them intimidated and frightened by the process.

"By allowing an advocate to attend and sit with them, studies in other states have shown us they have increased follow-through for victims."

Currently, advocates are permitted to be with victims in criminal court when their abusers are being prosecuted. But Berry said many of those situations extend into civil cases, where advocates have not always been permitted to sit with the victim.

In Marion County, for example, victim's advocates aren't permitted to be with victims during paternity cases, Berry said. In other cases, an abuser's attorney might argue that the advocate had no right to be at the counsel's attorney, a move that further intimidates a victim, she said.

"We've never challenged it," Berry said, "because we weren't certain what legal grounds we were on."

The law solves that problem, she said. It says advocates "cannot provide legal advice and they're not there to do that," she said. "It's to provide emotional support."

The bill's author, Sen. Vaneta Becker, R-Evansville, said the law is part of a larger effort over the past several decades to help victims of domestic violence. When she came to the General Assembly in 1981, state law required women to file for a divorce from their husbands to have the right to obtain a restraining order from them.

Becker worked to change that law and many others. This year, women's advocates came to her with the proposal to make it easier for women to have access to help in civil cases.

The law - part of Senate Bill 138 - also lifts a cap that prevented domestic violence shelters and organizations from receiving more than $100,000 from the state's Division of Victim's Services.

Lawmakers approved that cap in 1987 and the issue hadn't been revisited, she said. So when the General Assembly upped funding last year for domestic violence organizations, groups in 40 counties lost money to the cap and left some $325,000 undistributed, Becker said.

"This allows the money to be spent the way we wanted it to be," Becker said.

Lesley Weidenbener is managing editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.

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