Beginning in the late 1970s, shelters and other resources began to become available for survivors of domestic violence in West Virginia. But navigating those resources and legal processes that can go with it isn’t easy.
A longer version of this story will be shown in the upcoming season of The Legislature Today on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Check back in January 2020 for more on this story.
Domestic violence can affect anyone – male, female, young and old – it doesn’t discriminate. It can be physical, psychological, emotional or sexual, and sometimes, the abuse is not obvious to the victim – and it’s not always easy to leave an abusive situation.
Trying to understand what legal paths are available can also be scary if you’re going it alone.
“You're in a completely unknown situation. A lot of times you've lost your home, or, you know, where you're staying; your clothes, your money, your food, your vehicle, you've lost everything, and you have to start over,” Charleston area resident Amy Thomas said.
Six years ago, Thomas and her two children, Brooke and Maverick, survived a domestic violence situation that resulted in Thomas being kidnapped and beaten by her abuser.
After the incident, Thomas got a protective or restraining order filed against the abuser. She also got custody of her children. But she said it wasn’t easy.
“You're panicked, you're frantic, you're in a horrible state of mind sometimes,” she said. “That alone, you can't necessarily think about what you need to say and what you need to do on [a] paper. The protective order alone is pretty thick. Then if you need to do a child custody or modification packet, that's another one that is enormous.”
And then to get the help you need, Thomas said you have to share your story over and over again with advocates, attorneys, judges, or law enforcement – and, while it’s important to do that, it can be emotionally taxing.
It was for all those reasons, Thomas asked for help. One of those places was from Legal Aid of West Virginia.
Legal Aid is a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services and a free attorney to low income individuals.
It has 12 offices in West Virginia, and there are about 60 Legal Aid attorneys.
Supervising attorney Susana Duarte is one of them. She’s based in Charleston. Duarte helps people like Thomas navigate the state’s legal system, which, she admits, is complicated.
“Once we become involved in that process, we can really explain what's going to happen,” Duarte said. “We can walk people through that process, and they're going to be able to understand what's going to happen in a way that they otherwise would not have.”
Legal Aid can help guide an individual through the paperwork, the court hearings and the legal jargon. They can help to determine what a person needs legally to find safety.
“We try to look holistically at the person in front of us to see what their issues are, whether they've identified them or not, so that we can determine what legal solutions we might be able to bring to the table,” she said.
Anyone can reach out directly to Legal Aid for help, but most of their clients come in the form of referrals from a licensed domestic violence program.
West Virginia has 14 licensed domestic violence programs spread out across the state that serve all 55 counties. Each program offers services such as individual safety planning, shelter, a 24-hour emergency hotline, legal advocacy, peer support counseling and more.
In 1981, the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence formed as a way to connect all these programs in the state.
“We kind of see ourselves as a statewide collective voice for the programs that serve the survivors,” Joyce Yedlosky, one of two team coordinators for the Coalition, said. “And ultimately, you know, we really come at it from the fact that we try to be voices for survivors.”
The Coalition’s mission is to bring awareness of what resources are available on both the state and federal level. They also take concerns to the West Virginia Legislature to help lawmakers understand what policies may need changed or strengthened to better help survivors.
Yedlosky says many great strides have been made in recent years to better protect survivors of domestic violence, such as the Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights that passed the West Virginia Legislature in 2019.
The West Virginia Supreme Court also created step-by-step YouTube videos to help survivors better understand how to navigate the state’s legal system.
Watch the W.Va. Supreme Court’s entire four-part video below:
Prevention, Yedlosky said, is the next key step in combating domestic violence.
“Our prevention efforts, many of them are in our schools, but we also need to get out more into our communities, and working with prevention and changing our mindset about what we think about domestic violence, and where it comes from and how it is a societal and a community issue, not just an individual party issue,” she said.
Yedlosky said the state’s domestic violence programs receive $2.5 million annually from the West Virginia Legislature, but she’s planning to request an additional $500,000 for prevention services – to be split between all of the licensed domestic violence programs in the state.
She also hopes there will be more discussions on how to better serve rural areas.
As for survivor Amy Thomas, she wants the legislature to consider creating a domestic violence registry, similar to a sex offender registry. She also hopes the legislature will strengthen punishments for those who break protective orders.
“I would love to see harsher penalties for people that break the protective orders,” Thomas said. “It shouldn't take three or four times to get something done. It shouldn't need to escalate with me like it did.”
Following the traumatic incident Thomas endured, she decided to go back to school. She got two bachelor’s degrees from West Virginia State University in criminal justice and psychology. In 2017, she got her master’s degree in criminal justice. Today, she’s an advocate for other survivors of domestic violence.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.