Launching Domestic Violence Protection in the 70’s

In 1978 I started working as a lawyer for poor people with Iowa Legal Services in Sioux City.  It was an exciting program because the focus was on impact cases – lawsuits in federal or state court challenging laws or regulations that affected thousands of poor Iowans.  While the program did represent some individual clients with individual issues, odds were that If a case was accepted by Iowa Legal Services some bureaucratic agency was about to get an ass whipping.

In my first week as a Legal Services lawyer I did an intake interview with a potential client who presented a classic domestic violence case.  She had been married for several years, the abuse of her husband had escalated from verbal insults to pushing, and now to punching and choking.  I did some research and found that Iowa had passed a domestic violence protection act a year earlier, although I could not locate any cases which had been filed under the act. 

Every Thursday we had staff meeting to decide which of the week’s intakes we could accept.  As I started my pitch to have my woman accepted as a domestic violence case everyone started shaking their head, with one lawyer giving me an exaggerated thumbs down.  Roger Foreman was the supervising attorney and he often recounted what followed.  “As lawyers we heard her facts and knew she was a reject because domestic violence cases turn into divorce cases and Iowa Legal Services did not do divorce cases because the only impact they had on Iowa’s poor community was to expand it by taking one middle class family and dividing it into two low income families.  But Bob began arguing not as a lawyer, but as someone who had just finished eight years as a firefighter.  ‘There is a house on fire, this woman is trapped inside, I’m going in to try and bring her out, who’s going with me?’  And the next thing we knew we were doing domestic violence cases.”

After that meeting I put together a group, mostly paralegals, and together we set up a state-wide program and to train lawyers, paralegals, and receptionists on compassionately interviewing the women and preparing their cases.  We reached out to judges, prosecutors and court administrators on how to process this new form of cases which required expedited scheduling, a “rocket docket,” in which a hearing to settle the matter was required within three days of the first filing.  At this hearing the abuser could be ordered out of the house, custody would be determined, and a support order filed.  Because time was of the essence I also had to drive out to the county and hand deliver the complaint to the police to make service of these legal papers on the abuser a top priority.

After two years with legal services I burned out and moved to the Caribbean where I spent a year helping to run a small hotel in the British Virgin Islands, but that’s another story.

When I returned to the USA I was invited to join the office of Iowa Legal Services in the small town of Ottumwa and one day I had a typical domestic violence client come into the office, very upset, and I settled her down and in the course of the intake interview she mentioned that her husband belonged to one of Iowa’s many motorcycle gangs.  I told her that was irrelevant. 

Two days later, the afternoon before her hearing, she burst into my office in in an absolute panic. She said that her husband had torn up their apartment and said the gang would be at the courthouse tomorrow to kick our asses and keep us out, and she pleaded with me to cancel everything. I calmed her down, told her not to worry, I said I would just ask the other lawyer in the office, Jim Elliot, to tag along and we would be fine. She was extremely dubious, but she did show up the next morning and the three of us headed out for the courthouse.

County courthouses in rural Iowa are always located smack dab in the middle of the town square with an architecture we called Iowa Wedding Cake.  Shops and cafes line the four streets around the grassy square. 

On the day of the hearing we turned the corner and parked in front of the courthouse which had 20 motorcycles parked on the grass and the steps were filled with knuckleheads, arms crossed and pissed off looks.  Jim and I approached with the woman quaking between us and the gang looked at Jim, looked me, looked at Jim, and parted like the Red Sea and we proceeded in for the hearing where the Judge ruled in our favor on everything we asked for.

Because Jim and I rarely had our lawyer costumes on at the same time our Office Manager Nancy Thompson took this picture before we left for court.

And that reminds me of this:

Service of Process – one stop shop – skipping the legal niceties

Back in those early days I went into a Sheriff’s office in a tiny town with a domestic violence complaint to be served.  My practice when we filed such a complaint in a county for the first time was to spent some time carefully explaining that the hearing would be in three days and therefore it was imperative the abuser be served that day.  I was halfway through my explanation when the clerk yelled, “Sheriff, you might want to come listen to this guy.”

And right out of Hollywood casting, enter stage left, a short man with the buttons on the front of his khaki uniform struggling to contain a well-fed stomach, a cigar clamped in the corner of the mouth, beet-red cheeks.  He stepped to the counter, snatched the complaint out of my hand, glanced at it, and handed it back.

“Son, this won’t be necessary, we have our own way of handling wife beaters in this county.  You see, I take a polaroid of her, then me and the boys take him in the backroom and make him look like her.  End of story.”

And I must say, I considered the simplicity of that for a moment.  “I can see how that might be effective, but this isn’t Hollywood, and you aren’t Dirty Harry, so I guess we are going to have to let the judge handle this one.”

He looked at me for a long moment.  “Have it your way, we will give him your piece of paper and see if it scares the mean out of him.   But I can promise you one thing, we never have repeat customers, let’s see how well you do.”

Dirty Harry

And Finally,

In 1980 I was appearing in court in a small town to argue a motion before a judge I had not met before.  I was a few sentences into my argument when he raised a hand.  “Pardon the interruption, Counsel.  I just wanted to say that you may not look your age, but you sure look your era.”

My era:

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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