Daily Report: Enforce Laws Against Domestic Abusers Having Guns

Vicky O. Kimbrell.  Photo by John Disney/Daily Report.

Vicky O. Kimbrell. Photo by John Disney/Daily Report.

This commentary piece was originally published in The Daily Report on Oct. 6, 2015.

Guns are being left in the hands of abusers despite a federal law making it illegal in certain cases. In the past few months, at least four women have died, reportedly shot and killed with weapons that should have been removed from abusers under federal law.

Amanda Cloaninger-Colley was killed just hours after her estranged husband was ordered to turn in his firearms and stay away from her at a hearing in August; her friend was also killed. Police in Florida have charged Cloaninger-Colley’s husband with their deaths.

In July, authorities charged boxer Yathomas Riley with fatally shooting his wife in Leesburg, outside of Albany. Riley reportedly used a gun he held illegally, due to his arrest for family violence assault and battery the month before the killing. In the same month, 39-year-old Jamie Sandefur of Cairo was shot and killed by her husband, who had been arrested weeks before on domestic violence charges; he killed himself after killing his wife, authorities said.

A 1996 federal law makes it illegal for people convicted of domestic violence crimes and for those with a protective order entered against them to possess a firearm. The reasons for enacting this law, as Congress noted, were clear: “anyone who attempts or threatens violence against a loved one has demonstrated that he or she poses an unacceptable risk, and should be prohibited from possessing firearms.”

But nearly 20 years later, Georgia does not have a statewide procedure in place to enforce this law. While the law bans abusers from possessing firearms, many are still walking out of court with no clear order or follow-up from law enforcement officials. This can be deadly for domestic violence victims because the severity of the risk increases substantially when guns are involved, according to the Georgia Fatality Review. A domestic assault involving firearms is 12 times more likely to result in death than one without, a Johns Hopkins study says. And while domestic violence happens everywhere, rural women may be more at risk, given the scarcity of services outside metro Atlanta.

After a Family Violence Act protective order is entered, abusers are prohibited from possessing firearms. But the standard Family Violence Act protective order in Georgia does not specify how firearms are to be removed, and this hinders enforcement.

In some Georgia counties, judges are reluctant to order that the guns be removed by law enforcement. And even when the judge specifies in the order that the abuser is not to possess a firearm, enforcement—confiscating and storing weapons for the duration of the order—doesn’t always happen.

While some areas in Georgia have excellent policies on the removal of guns once the TPO is entered, as pointed out in the Georgia Fatality Review, some of Georgia’s law enforcement departments claim that they lack the space and capacity to seize and store weapons for the mandated period of time. With nowhere to store the firearms, police in many counties don’t confiscate weapons from the abuser or follow up to ensure weapons are removed.

It is unrealistic to believe that abusers will voluntarily relinquish their firearms to authorities without intervention. Often the point at which a protective order is filed against an abuser is the most dangerous time for the victim, when the abuser perceives a loss of power, subject to a legal restraint. To allow the possession of a firearm during this time exacerbates an existing threat to the victim’s well-being and can, as we have seen, have fatal results.

Judges, lawyers and law enforcement officials need to understand the life-saving potential and importance of enforcing this law consistently throughout our state. Convicted abusers and those who have been found to have committed acts of family violence have lost the right to bear arms by inflicting violence on another. Victims of domestic violence who are seeking safety by obtaining a protective order against their abusers should not have to continue to fear for their lives because the abusers have illegal firearms.

It’s our job in the legal profession to help protect people. In this case, that means enforcing the laws that already exist to protect domestic violence survivors, their children and their communities—before another tragedy strikes.

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AJC: Legal aid fights Ga. poverty

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution featured this commentary piece authored by GLSP Executive Director Phyllis Holmen on Sept. 30, 2015. 

I went to law school with a vision of making a difference in the world. Those were the heady days of demonstrations and organizations, of picketing and protesting — the days when we watched the rule of law sustain our democracy. A peaceful departure of a disgraced president, a world leader’s relinquishment of power, showed Americans the strength of our democracy.

But my dream as a young law student hasn’t turned out quite like I’d hoped.

Poverty plagues us. In fact, we anticipate Georgia’s poverty rate will be higher than ever this year — and with it, access to justice is diminished. Two million Georgians live in poverty, including one in four of our children, up significantly from just seven years ago when it was one in five. Nearly a third of Georgians struggle to keep food on the table. Increasingly, more seniors go without heat or needed medicine. I’ve come to see that eliminating poverty is a truly complex undertaking, especially in Georgia, where the chances of escaping it are among the worst in the U.S.

Do I throw in the towel? No.

I also see the importance of civil legal aid in the fight against poverty. A quarter of Georgia’s population is eligible for legal assistance, yet lawyers outside Atlanta are scarce, as 70 percent work in the capital city. This gap makes funding legal aid critical to rural Georgians’ ability to seek justice, whether to fight an unlawful eviction, escape a violent situation and seek spousal support, obtain health care through Medicaid and Medicare, or protect access to affordable housing.

Such legal victories truly can make a difference. Legal advice can play a very real role helping an individual climb the economic ladder, often securing basic needs and protecting the stability needed to maintain these and advance further. Minnesota Judge Kevin Burke said it another way: “(A) good lawyer can mean the difference between sickness or health, oppression or liberty, fear or peace of mind.”

Most lawyers know this, or they wouldn’t do what they do. But those who offer civil legal aid to needy clients, many of whom work for non-profit law firms funded by the Legal Services Corporation, are being forced to turn away more and more low-income Americans seeking help. Congress is failing to provide the resources to offer needy clients the hand up that would help lift them out of poverty.

Federal funding that supports these lawyers has failed to keep up with inflation even as poverty grows. Since it was first funded by Congress in 1976, funding for legal aid through Legal Services has been cut by more than half, taking inflation into account. Meanwhile, Georgia’s poverty population continues to grow. While many Georgians are finding their way out of the Great Recession, there are too many for whom recovery remains a dream.

With civil legal aid, they might find that opportunity out of poverty. Without it, the dream dies.

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Eliminating Barriers to Justice: Language Access

This Georgia Bar Journal article featured and interview with GLSP attorney Jana Edmondson-Cooper on language barriers and access to justice. Read the full article here, on pg. 76.

Eliminating Barriers to Justice: How and Why to Ensure Language Access for Limited English Proficient and Deaf/Hard of Hearing Litigants

The Lawyer’s Creed states that we should: “strive to improve the law and our legal system, to make the law and our legal system available to all, and to seek the common good through the representation of my clients.” This access to justice extends to those with limited English proficiency, and deaf and hard of hearing litigants. In his 2014 State of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice Hugh P. Thompson addressed the subject of language access: “As Georgia continues to grow in population and diversity, access to justice is a challenge requiring the commitment and hard work of us all. . . . In addition to poor people, those who do not speak English are entitled to justice as well. . . . To prepare for the future, Georgia’s courts need an army of trained, certified interpreters. . . .

Currently, Georgia has only 149 licensed court interpreters, and they speak only 12 languages. That is not enough. . . .” Through the leadership of Chief Justice Thompson and other justices, and the work of attorneys like Jana J. Edmondson-Cooper, Immediate Past President Patrise M. Perkins-Hooker and countless other Georgia judges and attorneys, we are making strides toward ensuring access to justice for those with language barriers such as limited English proficiency (LEP) and deaf/hard of hearing litigants (DHH).

Spotlight on Jana J. Edmondson-Cooper
I asked Jana J. Edmondson-Cooper, Bilingual Staff Attorney in the Macon Regional Office of the Georgia Legal Services Program (GLSP) and member of the Supreme Court of Georgia Commission on Interpreters (COI), to share her involvement with this important issue—ensuring those persons involved in our judicial system who have limited English proficiency or are deaf or hard of hearing get the justice they are owed, and we had an enlightening dialogue. AH: How did you get involved in the movement to recognize language as an access to justice issue?

JEC: After fellow GLSP attorney Lisa Krisher and I co-wrote an article in 2012, “Seen But Often Unheard: Limited English Proficiency in Georgia,” Bernadette Olmos, of A.B. Olmos and Associates P.C., contacted us and told us she was pleased to learn that other attorneys were also interested in addressing language access challenges faced by LEP and DHH litigants. As a result, the three of us formed an ad hoc committee of attorneys representing various public interest organizations and the private bar that began meeting monthly in January 2013. We discussed ongoing issues seen in courtrooms statewide regarding language access and in several practice areas including family law, education law, criminal law and civil rights, and later invited other attorneys, interpreters and judges to discuss these issues in greater depth. The committee decided that one way to tackle the common problems of language access in the courts was to develop a comprehensive training where language access stakeholders, especially attorneys and judges, would learn best practices when using interpreters in legal proceedings, strengthen cultural competency skills and learn the legal ethics of language access.

AH: Can you share some contexts where language access and the need for an interpreter are at issue?

JEC: Here are a few anecdotes provided by Georgia attorneys: SCENARIO #1: An attorney represented a client in a family violence matter on a day when no interpreters were available. The judge asked the bailiff to go to the local Mexican restaurant and grab somebody to come and interpret for the proceedings

Read the full article here, on pg. 76.

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GLSP Family Violence Project Director Responds to Christian Science Monitor

The following letter to the editor appeared in The Christian Science Monitor weekly print magazine on Sept. 26, 2015.

Help for survivors of domestic violence

The July 23 online article “Georgia murder-suicide underscores challenge of domestic violence intervention” (CSMonitor.com) documented the challenges in protecting children from abusers in domestic violence situations. When spouses are abused, they are often financially dependent on the abuser. While it has been shown that the most effective way for the state to protect a child in a spousal violence situation is to protect both the child and the victim, Child Protective Services often lacks resources. There is another option. Civil protective orders offer legal protection by awarding custody to the victim and ordering the abuser to stay away from the victim. Legal aid organizations such as Georgia Legal Services help domestic violence survivors seek child and spousal support, health care, unemployment benefits, and subsidized housing to become independent.
Vicky O. Kimbrell
Georgia Legal Services
Lilburn, Ga.

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GLSP Receives $197,813 Pro Bono Innovation Grant

Originally posted on Legal Services Corporation here.

WASHINGTON – The Legal Services Corporation announced today that Georgia Legal Services Program will receive a 24-month $197,813 Pro Bono Innovation Fund grant to create a learning lab within a nonprofit legal incubator. Legal incubators are post-graduate training and support programs for recent law school graduates interested in solo or small firm practice and committed to serving communities in need, both pro bono and for an affordable fee.

The learning lab will coordinate pro bono opportunities for participants in the incubator program, oversee and track pro bono cases and outcomes, and coordinate training and mentoring of incubator attorneys with legal aid advocates. The project will also develop two toolkits on incubator pro bono best practices for law schools and legal aid programs.

Lawyers for Equal Justice is a new, freestanding incubator program that was established by the State Bar of Georgia, the Georgia Access to Justice Committee, and the five Georgia law schools. The incubator is designed to help recent graduates establish practices that use technology, alternative fee arrangements, new models of practice and enhanced pro bono. The incubator attorneys will handle basic poverty law cases including family, consumer, administrative law, simple wills and advance directives, and housing, all with an emphasis on cases in rural areas.

“We are grateful to Congress for funding this competitive grant program to increase pro bono support for civil legal aid,” said LSC President Jim Sandman. “The grants we are funding will expand the resources available to serve low-income people, engage more private lawyers in rewarding pro bono work, and leverage our federal appropriation.”

Georgia Legal Services is one of 15 recipients of LSC’s $4 million Pro Bono Innovation Fund, a competitive grant program that invests in projects that identify and promote replicable innovations in pro bono for low-income legal aid clients. This is the second year LSC has awarded the funds.

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Transit as an Opportunity Out of Poverty

GLSP Attorney Bill Broker spoke with Savannah Morning News about the way Savannah’s public transportation system’s possible expansion could change the lives of the city’s low-income residents. Originally posted on Savannah Now.

Using CAT as ‘vehicle for opportunity’

A lot has been said about Chatham Area Transit’s plans to expand the system to the community’s underserved areas.

In the city of Pooler, for example, where there is no CAT service, many say it’s an unwanted tax burden and contributor to traffic.

In Garden City, where some areas are served and some are not, there are those who have argued adding routes could aid in redevelopment.

And at the CAT board of director’s meeting this week, I heard it described in a new way, as “a vehicle for the expansion of opportunity for our community.”

“One of the things I’ve been thinking about is sort of the role that transit plays in providing people with opportunities for moving out of poverty,” Board Member Bill Broker said.

Broker invited Step Up Savannah‘s Suzanne Donovan and Director of Planning for CAT Nick Helmholdt to brief the rest of the board on the boundless potential for CAT to improve the economic state of the local community.

View their presentation here.

“There’s been a lot of research recently on using transportation as access to opportunity,” Donovan said. “Both location and transportation matters when it comes to people’s lives. It’s not simply about getting around, but opening up opportunity and connecting people and resources. Rather than talk about route expansion, let’s start talking about opportunity expansion, because that’s what’s at stake here. Mobility changes people’s lives.”

Some of the research Donovan mentioned has concluded that personal vehicles are the most expensive form of traffic for people of any income bracket. A lack of transit stops in the meantime limits a person’s ability to choose where they live and work, especially if they have no or only one vehicle to serve the household.

Locally, she said, this means that new jobs cropping up in south and west Chatham County are essentially unavailable to the families that need them most.

But locating transit routes and stops in employment areas has proven useful to employers, because their employees have reliable transportation that gets them to work on time, Hemholdt said. This has helped employers maintain employees longer.

He pointed to another groundbreaking study out of Harvard University, which revealed that shorter commute times can contribute to a person’s ability to improve their economic situation.

So how can CAT have an influence?

“(We) make sure our riders can access employment destinations within our entire metropolitan area,” Hemholdt said. “(By) helping our regional employers understand the value of public transit, the benefit to their bottom line. Responding to initiatives that are out there that are really trying to connect communities to these efforts.”

He said CAT will be “actively purusing” funding from the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, Ladders of Opportunity, and other state, federal and local sources to accomplish these goals.

“I think the thing that’s the most compelling about this is indicators for economic success,” Broker said. “We can’t do anything about two and one parent households, we can’t do anything about test scores, we really can’t do anything about crime. But what we can do, is something about transit. And transit … is the primary indicator of people’s ability to achieve economic success. That opportunity is what we’re charged with here.”

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Stopping Domestic Violence on Campus

C. Wilson

Chandra Wilson speaks to the press at the workshop. Courtesy of Ledger-Enquirer.

Chandra Wilson, a Georgia Legal Services attorney in the Columbus office, led a workshop on domestic violence at Columbus State University, just 100 miles southwest of Atlanta, in August. As a member of Domestic Violence Roundtable, Inc., Chandra focused on educating students on how to recognize domestic violence and what they can do to stop it.

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GLSP Health Policy Specialist Honored

Linda Lowe_Award Ceremony_Sept 9 2015_2

Georgians for a Healthy Future’s First Annual Consumer Health Impact Awards were held on Sept. 9, 2015, and included a Health Advocacy Award in honor of Linda Lowe, Health Policy Specialist at Georgia Legal Services. The award is to be given to a professional or volunteer advocate whose “work advances access to quality, affordable health care in Georgia”, focusing on a vulnerable population and working toward policy change. Georgians for a Healthy Future say Linda, “has dedicated her career to serving as an advocate on behalf of underserved Georgians who need a voice on health and human services issues.” Linda is a public policy advocate focusing on Medicaid and other health programs for low-income Georgians, and has been at GLSP for over thirty years.

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New student discipline policies, practices and training this year in Henry

Georgia Legal Services Program handled nearly 100 school discipline cases last year, including many in Henry County as mentioned in the article below. 

Originally published in The Henry Herald, by Johnny Jackson.

This summer, the school board reached a consensus on changes to its student discipline policies and practices. The decision came after months of surveys and studies by a review committee tasked with researching best-practices in identifying student misbehavior and instituting fair penalties for misconduct.

Virgil Cole, the district’s assistant superintendent of administrative services, led the committee established in the summer of 2014.

“I find it very exciting to see it come to life,” said Cole.

He and members of the committee presented to the board in February recommendations on student discipline policy and procedure changes. They also proposed school-level training to help educators develop so-called “positive behavioral interventions and supports.”

Officials said the idea is to improve school cultures by cultivating understanding among students, teachers and administrators. They expect the training will yield greater empathy in the school community — more positive interactions and fewer discipline referrals.

The district was criticized heavily in 2013 for its perceived unfair discipline practices against minority students.

State Sen. Emanuel Jones (D-Decatur) blasted the district as a leading offender among Georgia school districts with discriminatory student discipline practices.

Jones called for a statewide study committee and has been active in his pursuit of legislation to address the disparities throughout the state.

Georgia Legal Services Program attorneys have also been busy appealing individual cases of students expelled or suspended from schools in Henry County.

Attorney Mike Tafelski regularly attends appeals hearings, representing mostly minority clients fighting school suspensions and expulsions for “often minor infractions” or misunderstandings.

Tafelski said the district, in recent years, has claimed a lion’s share of appeals cases in his office, which serves clients throughout the state.

He pointed to district reports that confirmed his suspicions of unequal outcomes in student discipline.

For example, in a monthly cumulative report for elementary school students ending June 6, 2014, black students were shown as likelier to be disciplined than any other racial subgroup.

The district’s report showed most policy violations were minor. There were 23 Section-1 offenses — six for detrimental behavior, six for disrespect, four for bus violation, three for inappropriate contact and one each for insubordination, non-physical fighting, “inappropriate item” and bullying.

There were 30 offenses between Section III and Section IV, including 20 for weapons, five for use or exchange of a drug, two “felony” violations and four for physical contact.

Of the resulting 51 discipline hearings, only four cases were found not guilty or with insufficient evidence. Seventeen cases received out-of-school suspension, 14 of which were long-term without the option of alternative education.

The data stated that 40 of those hearings were attended by black students compared with 10 for white students and one Asian student during the 2013-14 school year.

Black middle and high school students were also nearly three times as likely to be subjected to a disciplinary hearing — 548 blacks to 161 whites, according to district data.

The demographics districtwide — across school levels — were 48 percent black, 37 percent white, 4 percent multi-racial and 3 percent Asian in 2013-14, according to attendance data provided through the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.

However, district data revealed those schools reporting most of the hearings had large minority populations, such as Stockbridge High with 95 hearings and Luella High with 91 hearings.

The Stockbridge student body was 69 percent black in 2013-14, while Luella’s pupil population was 57 percent black, according to GOSA reports.

Board policy and student handbooks have been adjusted to reflect changes gleaned from recommendations put forth by the student discipline review committee in February.

Cole said he believes the edits to board policy are clearer and more current than before. The changes also provide for more administrative discretion on disciplinary matters and alternative penalties for certain policy violations and student misconduct.

He recalled an experience he had some 15 years ago as a school-level administrator when a Navy JROTC cadet was disciplined for having a pocket knife he likely forgot he had on his person. He said it fell out of the student’s pocket during a physical training exercise.

“It was one of those things,” said Cole. “I remember being sick about that. Most teachers always want to do what’s best for the student.”

He said the experience demonstrated the dilemma some teachers and administrators have when they are unable to use their discretion, even though the outcome for that cadet might still be the same today.

Cole said the district will work next on offering training through the aforementioned positive behavioral interventions and supports framework, also known as PBIS.

PBIS training will be funded and incorporated with existing professional development opportunities as decreed in Jones’s Senate Bill 164 amendment, which passed overwhelmingly in the House and Senate this past spring.

The bill defines PBIS as an evidence-based, “data-driven framework to reduce disciplinary incidents” and increase a school’s sense of safety at it aims to improve academic outcomes.

“It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of training,” said Jones. “The next step is to monitor the process and continue to look at the data. I strongly hope that they (Henry County Schools) continue to get the community involved and dialogue with them in an open discussion.”

Jones said he is hopeful efforts to reduce discipline referrals will continue in districts across the state.

He opined too many young students are deprived time in the classroom because of suspensions for minor behavior issues and as a result are more susceptible to falling behind academically.

“The whole goal is to teach students in school,” he said.

Jones said the movement toward PBIS is necessary “so that you don’t have third-graders expelled from school.”

He lauded school officials in Henry County for taking significant initial steps in reforming the district’s disciplinary practices partly by appointing its first director of discipline and safety.

Earlene Crump, formerly the principal at Eagle’s Landing Middle, entered that position this summer. She is tasked with acting as a liaison between the district and the Sheriff’s School Resource Officer Program.

Her department is charged with gathering and analyzing data, conducting surveys on discipline and building community relations on the issue of student discipline.

“I’m under no illusion that just because Henry County put someone in place, all problems will be solved,” said Jones.

“I think they’ve made a really good choice in Earlene,” he added. “My only reservation is that she does not have a legal background. (But) I think what she lacks in legal knowledge she makes up for in classroom experience and administrative experience.”

Visit the district’s website to learn more about changes to its student discipline policies and procedures, which are outlined in this year’s student handbooks.

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#StudentsHaveRights Campaign Launch

Minor Offenses of Children Threaten Expulsion
Legal Representation in Disciplinary Hearings May Keep Kids in School

Georgia Legal Services Program, Inc. (GLSP) launched an education campaign this week, #StudentsHaveRights. The civil legal aid organization handled nearly 100 school discipline cases last year, working to keep students charged with minor, non-violent offenses in school. Most were facing expulsion before attorneys stepped in.

“Understanding children’s rights can ensure that your child is not being unfairly disciplined,” Kenji Roberts says, speaking from experience. Her granddaughter, 12 years old at the time, was threatened with expulsion for yielding to the pressure of a bully who demanded she write “Hi” on the bathroom wall— the student’s first and only offense.

Given the high numbers of disciplinary hearings that take place each week in school districts throughout the state, it’s believed that thousands of students go without the legal representation they need in these proceedings.

“Parents often don’t realize how serious these matters can be until they get there,” GLSP Attorney Jessica Stuart told WABE’s Rose Scott and Denis O’Hayer in a July 30th appearance on their radio show, Closer Look. “In our organization, we provide free services. We can represent students at these hearings.”  GLSP offers legal representation to families in Georgia with low incomes who live outside the five-county metro area.

The #StudentsHaveRights campaign is targeted toward students and parents in Georgia, as well as attorneys who are interested in representing students in school discipline matters.

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