Tuesday, November 20, 2018
Hernando News

New Brooksville office to provide free legal services for domestic violence survivors

BROOKSVILLE — Survivors of domestic violence here will soon have a new place to find free legal help with protective orders.

The Dawn Center of Hernando County, which helps people affected by domestic and sexual violence, plans to open an office in downtown Brooksville before the end of the year.

Inside, visitors will find lawyer Cailtin Wilcox who will offer pro bono legal services to those seeking an injunction for protection — a court order to prohibit an abuser's contact with her victim and more. The project is funded by a grant.

Wilcox has been doing the job in a small space in the Hernando County Government Center. But she and others said the new office will make the job — and client experiences — easier.

"To come to a place that looks like they're going to a house ... there's less intimidation," Wilcox said. People seeking protective orders can grow anxious about going to a crowded public place for something so stigmatized.

"We're dealing without someone who's trying to leave a violent situation," Wilcox said.

Her work won't be constricted by the county center's hours once she moves into the new office. Visitors will be able to set up appointments with Wilcox that better fit their schedules. Most of them are mothers, she said, and that can make it hard to seek help because someone needs to watch the kids.

The building on East Jefferson Street should provide privacy and comfort to those robbed of it.

Work on the service began in 2016 when the center discovered that the Floridia Coalition Against Domestic Violence had started an initiative to bring together survivors and lawyers for free, said Shannon Sokolowski, the Dawn Center's executive director.

The coalition would help pay for the lawyers' services.

She and her team weren't sure at first whether they could join the effort. The project required at least a 25-percent match of funds and a viable space.

Then the center got a call from the owners of the building on Jefferson Street. Instead of selling the property, the owners wanted to donate it.

That solved those problems, Sokolowski said, because the center could use the value of the building as the match.

But the building posed some of its own problems. It was about 100 years old. The floors were uneven, and parking spaces were unpaved.

"There was literally nothing that we could save, except the exterior walls and some of the roof," said Eddie Brady, a volunteer with the center who has been leading the renovation.

Since the revamp began in 2017, donated materials, labor and money have poured in from the community.

Sokolowski and Brady said that about $60,000 was given toward the project, which they figured would net a contracting bid of around $120,000. The remainder has come from the Dawn Center's reserves, the director said, which were depleted to get the job done.

"Everyone was just so extra generous and helpful," Brady said. "Whenever you asked, they said yes, and they gave you a big cut on their prices."

The refurbished space has warm, wooden floors and wide windows to let in the light. It's mostly empty, but Sokolowski can picture where desks, chairs and more will go. Outside, volunteers have been planting plants in the shape of letters that eventually will spell "Hope" to anyone passing by.

Sokolowski and Wilcox said the pro-bono project is about giving survivors a fair shake.

Petitioning for a protective order — commonly called a stay-away order — is free. But for success before a judge, victims often need an attorney.

"You'll see the victims have no access to the family funds, whereas the perpetrator has the sole access to the family funds," Sokolowski said.

When they can't get a lawyer, many survivors struggle with courtroom rules about witnesses, evidence and more, she said. That weakens their cases.

"You see a lot of people who have very strong petitions on the front end get dropped," the director said.

With the new building, she and others hope to see that trend dip. They're planning to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Dec. 5.

Contact Justin Trombly at [email protected] or . Follow @JustinTrombly.

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