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Practice Group Update: Family Law

Posted August 24, 2021
2:13 pm

For survivors of domestic abuse, the coronavirus pandemic meant more than just the threat of an infectious disease. It meant facing another serious threat in their very own homes.

Legal Aid’s Family Law Practice Group was prepared to help those in need of protection and worked quickly to prepare operations for a time of social distancing.

“COVID-19 didn’t change our advocacy,” says Tonya Whitsett, Managing Attorney of Legal Aid’s Family Law Practice Group. “We worked with local courts to help them quickly implement virtual hearings to keep our clients safe. We also worked with partners to publicize crucial information about available community resources.”

Cuyahoga County was one of the first courts to create a bench-bar task force in response to COVID-19. Senior Attorney Alexandria Ruden and Staff Attorney Hailey Martinelli joined the Domestic Relations sub-committee, which still meets regularly over Zoom.

“I think the court did a really good job with Zoom. The harder part has been not getting to know my clients as well,” says Alexandria, noting that in-person meetings are better for building trust.

Leadership and Advocacy Across Ohio The Family Law team remains actively involved in numerous projects and initiatives that have impact statewide. For example, Alexandria is training attorneys, magistrates, and judges – including members of the Ohio Supreme Court – all around the state on using Ohio’s new civil protection order (CPO) forms. She is also part of a group working to create a CPO registry for Cuyahoga County, which will include both protection orders and no contact orders.

Legal Aid attorneys continue to engage in advocacy surrounding House Bill 3, which was passed in late May and is now in the hands of the Senate. The bill, named Aisha’s Law in honor of Aisha Fraser, who died at the hands of an ex-partner in 2015, would expand aggravated murder charges to include domestic violence circumstances and would create a “lethality screening” for law enforcement at the first contact with a survivor. This short screening is to be used by police at the point of service when they respond to a violent domestic incident. Answers will guide officers on how to identify when people are in immediate danger.

COVID-19’s Lingering Impact Sheltering in place at a time of widespread economic instability is a recipe for danger for those experiencing intimate partner violence. Local shelters and courts have reported that during COVID-19, domestic violence cases increased and became more violent (notably, there was a rise in alcohol consumption during the same period).

“One of our biggest goals throughout the pandemic,” says Tonya, “has been to connect with all of the services in our service area, so we can work together on providing better services for our clients and their families.”

Looking ahead, Alexandria thinks the court will continue to offer Zoom as an option in certain circumstances, such as pretrial meetings or hearings for uncontested cases.

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