November 17, 2011 - CWT and Ford County Circuit Clerk Implement Skype Program to Assist Victims
PAXTON — A court advocate from a social-service agency in Champaign is being made available five days a week at the Ford County Courthouse to guide victims of domestic violence through the process of seeking an order of protection.
Ford County Circuit Clerk Kim Evans said the service is being offered by the Center for Women in Transition in Champaign, which plans to have a court advocate available Monday through Friday, either in person or through videoconferencing, to assist people in crisis with filling out the required paperwork.
“Ford County is one of the counties that we cover — and we’re not able to get up there very often — and we felt that the women who need orders of protection need to be seen face to face with an advocate at every possible chance,” said Lisa Little, a case manager and court advocate for A Woman’s Place, a women’s shelter in Urbana operated by the Center for Women in Transition.
The court advocate will assume the same duties once held by Barb Cleary, a former secretary for the state’s attorney’s office. Cleary was serving as the county’s “victim/witness coordinator” prior to her retirement in September 2010, but the position was eliminated earlier that year when the $19,000 grant that funded the job was no longer available.
As a result, for the past year abused women have had to handle the legal process in gaining orders of protection by themselves — or with the help of employees of the circuit clerk’s office, who lack the resources and training to provide the service, Evans said.
Evans said she and her four employees have been overwhelmed with the time it takes to help people file orders of protection. Already this year, 45 orders of protection have been filed, surpassing the number filed in any of the past 15 years.
“When they come in to file an order of protection, on the whole it takes one of our staff members two hours,” Evans said. “And we’re already overwhelmed with everything (we are responsible for doing in the circuit clerk’s office). A lot of people are wanting assistance in every aspect.”
Meanwhile, Evans added that she and her employees are not professionally qualified to serve as victim/witness coordinators, and may not legally be allowed to. Evans said she contacted the Center for Women in Transition to seek assistance as a result.
“It’s state-mandated that we cannot” assist with the paperwork, Evans said. “I’ve had other circuit clerks tell me that we can’t even hand out the forms because it’s not our job.”
The Center for Women in Transition received a grant to make the service possible again in Ford County, Little said.
Little said the plan is to have a court advocate available once a week, but more likely once every two weeks, in person at the Ford County Courthouse. When the advocate is not present, advocates will be on call and use an Internet-based videoconferencing system called Skype to communicate with domestic violence victims whenever needed, Little said.
She said the advocate will help the victim “walk though the paperwork, which isn’t easy to do,” especially when the victim is in a time of crisis.
“If someone comes in for an order of protection, they’ll be given the paperwork by the clerk, and they’ll be referred to us if they appear to be in crisis or need help,” Little said.
As of this week, the Skype videoconferencing system is not yet in place, but both Little and Evans said they expect it to be set up soon. The videoconferencing system will be set up in a room in the basement of the circuit clerk’s office, allowing the victim to communicate directly and privately with the advocate through a television screen, Evans said.
The confidentiality is important, Evans noted.
“There had to be a secure place where somebody can’t come down there while the person is being interviewed, and where nobody can hear the conversation,” Evans said. “Our staff is more than willing and able to help anybody that comes in, but this is a very private matter. What is said in there stays in there.”
After the paperwork is filled out with the help of the advocate, the person seeking the order will see Judge Steve Pacey, who will hear their side of the case. The judge then usually has the person seeking the order, as well as the person the order is being sought against, return to court at a later date for a hearing, Evans said.