Lt. Governor Simon launches virtual legal clinic for domestic violence survivors


Success in Peoria paves way for Jacksonville, statewide expansion


PEORIA, IL – During a visit to a Peoria women’s shelter, Illinois Lt. Governor Sheila Simon announced a new pilot program that is connecting survivors of domestic violence with free legal experts using webcams and a high speed Internet connection.

Simon designed the Virtual Legal Clinic to link domestic violence survivors in underserved areas with attorneys across Illinois that specialize in family law. The survivors receive a single, free consultation via webcam using internet technology at a local shelter and learn about legal options and remedies to keep their families safe.

The Virtual Legal Clinic began at The Center for Prevention of Abuse in December and is expanding to the Crisis Center Foundation in Jacksonville this month. After the pilot program is complete with additional expansions elsewhere in the state, Simon will provide the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence (ICADV) with a packaged program it can use at agencies statewide.

Simon’s pilot project comes at a time when funding for human services is being cut, but the Lieutenant Governor said the resource was developed in-house with materials funded by ICADV, and participating attorneys can receive free continuing education credits developed by Simon’s legal staff.

“The Virtual Legal Clinic is a free, safe and ethical way to help victims of domestic violence become survivors of domestic violence,” said Simon, a longtime legal advocate for domestic violence survivors. “The legal system can be overwhelming, and this service will help people take the next step toward safety and stability.”

Sandra Quello Chiz is an attorney who consults with the Peoria clinic via webcam from her Manteno office. She immediately saw the benefit of the Virtual Legal Clinic in her first consultation.

“At the time of the consultation, my first client was involved in a legal battle and was fearful because she didn’t understand what was happening,” said Quello Chiz. “Not only did I explain to my client what was happening legally, but I was able to point her in the direction of other resources, too. The Virtual Legal Clinic is the best idea I’ve heard in a long time and I wish we could expand it faster.”

Martha Herm, the executive director at The Center for Prevention of Abuse in Peoria, said her agency is averaging two to three consultations per month, primarily women who are new to the shelter and need legal guidance after obtaining an order of protection. The center serves 3,500 domestic violence survivors each year in Peoria, Tazwell and Woodford counties.

“Survivors often face many legal challenges and they don’t know where to turn,” Herm said. “If we can offer survivors a starting point – a free and confidential legal consultation – they’ll know their options before making any other decisions.”

The project’s second site in Jacksonville serves between 350 and 400 clients in Morgan, Scott, Cass and Greene counties each year, said executive director Dona Leanard.

“Domestic violence survivors are already facing a great deal of stress and pressure, before adding in legal issues,” Leanard said. “These attorneys are trained to handle domestic violence situations and can be incredibly helpful to clients that can’t find help anywhere else.”

Nationally, one in four women has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime, and in Illinois, nearly 40 percent of women will experience domestic violence by an intimate partner.

The Virtual Legal Clinic turnkey program should be available to ICADV member agencies (all outside of Chicago) by 2014 to fill a gap in services, Simon said. Ideal agencies are those that serve rural or underserved communities, and likely users are survivors who cannot afford a legal consultation but do not qualify for legal aid, or survivors whose alleged abusers are represented by legal aid. Legal topics for consultation include child custody and visitation, marriage and divorce, elder abuse, immigration and property issues.

This is not Simon’s first foray into legal representation of domestic violence survivors. She prosecuted battery cases as a Jackson County prosecutor and founded Southern Illinois University School of Law’s domestic violence legal clinic, which now has a second location at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.