Chi Lives: attacking the cycle of domestic violence | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Chi Lives: attacking the cycle of domestic violence 

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Her last clients have left, including the woman whose boy got a little carried away drawing the Terminator and scribbled red crayon on her wall. Pamela Poynter doesn't bother cleaning it off--it makes the office look a little homier. And she's trying to create an atmosphere that isn't at all threatening.

As the only emergency domestic-violence attorney at United Charities Legal Aid Bureau, Poynter knows that the women she helps are already threatened. Bruised and battered by the men in their lives, they've come to her for protection.

So her office at 14 E. Jackson looks like a small day-care center. Posters of Minnie and Mickey Mouse line one wall, a Disney calendar is on another. A crayon holder in the shape of a dinosaur is on her wooden desk, which is badly in need of refinishing.

On this particular day, Poynter, who's 39, has gone to criminal court on behalf of a young woman with green and purple and yellow bruises on her body. The woman wants an order of protection against her husband, but she doesn't want to file for divorce yet. She just wants time away from him to sort out her feelings. Which is a good thing. Until recently, the Legal Aid Bureau had a two-year backlog of divorce cases. A concerted effort has reduced the wait to less than a year.

Yet Poynter doesn't want this woman to believe the order of protection will actually protect her. "It's just a piece of paper," she says. "If he's bent on killing you with a gun, saying 'No, no, don't do that John--I've got an order of protection' isn't going to stop him."

Poynter's next appointment has canceled, and she is visibly upset about it. "It just means there's a woman out there in need of help and I can't get to her." The woman has already talked with Poynter on the phone. Her boyfriend has been beating her a lot more lately, and she's afraid he'll go too far. She got up the courage to call for an appointment, but coming into the office is another thing.

"She said she had no way to get here," Poynter says. "Most of the families I deal with are on public aid. If they don't have the money to take the bus, they don't show up. And most of them don't own a car." However, the woman might have had the money but been too afraid to keep the appointment. "It takes a lot of courage to admit you need help and then to go out and get it," Poynter says.

At any one time, Poynter is working on about 120 emergency cases. And every week she deals with a dozen or more new clients. The workload never eases up.

Her services are free, paid for by the United Charities Legal Aid Bureau, though clients do pay a small amount for court costs. Any woman whose earnings are near the poverty level can qualify for Poynter's services, and those earnings are based on the woman's income, not on what she may receive from her husband or boyfriend. "The husband might be making $40,000 or $50,000 a year and not sharing that money," Poynter explains. "In that case the wife would qualify if her own earnings were pretty low." Which is quite likely. "One of my clients was locked in her home every day, and her husband came home each day and beat her with a two-by-four. She was given just enough money to run the household, never knew how much money her husband was earning--it's a very powerful situation for that husband. He has all the control; she's very isolated. It makes it all the more difficult for the women to break out.

"Once they make the break, getting that order of protection is very important psychologically. It sends a message to the man that she's not going to stand for this anymore, it's going to stop. And it enables her to get a quick response from the police should he try anything against her."

Poynter says battered women lead such frightened lives that they don't always know what they need to do to protect themselves. "I tell them to arrange to go to a shelter for an evening, or have four big brothers move in for a week, or move to Mom and Dad's house for a week.

"Maybe Dad can move in with her for a while. The landlord should be notified and can be on the watch for any problems. And answering machines are a biggie. If you've got someone calling you at all hours threatening to kill you, answering machines are wonderful. Leave it on 24 hours a day. Better yet, change your phone number."

Poynter has spent years giving this kind of advice, first as a social worker and for the past five years as a lawyer. "There's a point where the two lines become blurred. I ask myself, 'Are you being a lawyer or a social worker?' Whenever I relate to someone or talk to them about any kind of a problem, I am using my social-work skills."

During her first year out of law school, Poynter worked for the Legal Aid Bureau in its family-law division. It was exhilarating, she says, but she was handling 300 to 400 cases and had little time left over for her husband and young daughter.

Her frustration coincided with a second pregnancy, and being on maternity leave gave her a chance to think about her future. She quit the bureau--and then got an offer from it to handle emergency domestic-violence cases. Having always wanted to specialize in helping battered and abused women, she accepted.

Since starting the job four years ago, Poynter has also developed a specialty in retrieving children who have been abducted by their fathers.

"Child abduction under our laws is considered harassment, which is considered abuse, which is therefore considered domestic violence under the laws of Illinois," she explains. "Over the years I've managed to get three children back from California, two from Nevada, some back from New York, a couple from Missouri.

"Most of my clients are very poor, and getting back a child who has been abducted involves being pretty sophisticated and dealing with many, many systems. My clients really need someone like me to help coordinate the work. When child abduction occurs, a criminal complaint needs to be filed. That involves working with the local criminal-court system, police, and youth officers. Frequently the youth officers will try to dismiss our client, saying 'Well, the kid is with the father.' And that's not the statute.

"The statute says that if you're not married, you don't have any right to take the child. If you're married, you can't conceal the child from the other parent for more than 15 days, absent any court papers or custody orders."

Once the child-abduction complaint is filed, the names of the children are put on a nationwide police computer system and the search begins.

"Then I work with my client on the approach she has to take to get the father to reveal where he's taken the kids," Poynter says. "I tell these women, 'He'll call you. They always do. He'll want to gloat over the fact that he has the kids. Don't yell and scream at him. Be more conciliatory. Tell him you want to work it out.' All we want is for him to break down and tell her where the kids are." Once the children have been located, Poynter runs to criminal court and gets an emergency custody order so the mother can retrieve them.

On the wall outside Poynter's office hangs a huge photo of Oliver Wendell Holmes and this quote of his: "Whatever else lawyers may accomplish in public affairs, it is their privilege and obligation to assure a competent administration of justice to the needy, so that no man shall suffer in the enforcement of his legal rights for want of a skilled protector, able, fearless and incorruptible."

Poynter says, "What I do has a tremendous impact on the children. That's where it's really at for me."

To her, a parent's anger--whether it involves abducting a child or battering a spouse--has no place in the lives of children, who are bound to repeat the mistakes they witness. "If we can break that cycle of domestic violence and use the order of protection to stop the abuse, we hopefully are impacting upon generations." And, she adds, "If I can get one family into counseling, there's a high chance that the children won't become abusers and their children won't become abusers. Or their daughters won't marry abusers."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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