By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — A new program through the city’s Family Peace Center aims to provide survivors of domestic abuse with legal support to navigate the complex family court system.
The pilot program will help parents obtain attorneys for the first steps on issues such as child custody, child support and emergency orders. The goal, advocates say, is to empower parents who may not have the financial resources or legal wherewithal to leave their abuser.
Winnebago County Board member Angela Fellars, a Democrat who represents District 19, directed $17,000 in federal American Rescue Plan funding to get the program off the ground.
“I know from talking to survivors of domestic abuse that a lot of times the reason that they have not left their abuser was because they didn’t have access to legal representation and they were afraid to leave their children,” said Fellars, who reached out to the Family Peace Center with the idea for the program.
She said that domestic abuse is often coupled with financial manipulation, which can leave victims trapped in an abusive situation.
“This is something that will allow them to feel more confident and more empowered,” Fellars said. “There’s nothing more empowering than knowing your children are safe.”
The Family Peace Center will study the outcomes of the initial clients of the program to determine its success. It can then show that data to other potential financial backers to grow the program out of its pilot stage.
“This gives us an opportunity, a grace period if you will, to really establish the fact that this will work,” said Jennifer Cacciapaglia, executive director of the Family Peace Center. “Then we can go to funders and say ‘you can invest in us more because we have a track record here of progress.'”
The Family Peace Center has served roughly 1,150 people in a little more than two years since opening. About 85% of its clients have children.
“From the day our office opened, and we started talking to the community, they identified the complexities of the family law court system as a significant barrier to their decision to leave or stay,” Cacciapaglia said.
The center does offer pro bono legal services for items such as an order of protection and divorce. However, the complexities of child custody cases and other family court issues can stretch on for years, said Sierra Kellen, operations manager for the Peace Center.
“Our pro bono partners are really stretched,” she said. “To represent somebody on a pro bono basis is a huge commitment of any one attorney over many years. … That’s often why our pro bono services can’t take on the breadth of these custody matters.”
The money Fellars directed to the program comes from a portion of the $54.8 million in American Rescue Plan money allocated to Winnebago County. Each County Board member can allocate $50,000 in those federal funds to initiatives that meet the ARP criteria.
“This program, especially being a pilot program here in Rockford, will definitely empower those people who are in domestic abuse situations to be able to leave their abuser and get back on their feet and not have to worry about their children,” Fellars said.