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Service Highlight: Legal Services Program

In January 2019, the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County hired a full-time Civil Legal Services attorney following the October 2018 grant award from the New York Office of Victim’s Services

Victims of domestic and sexual violence have unique and varied legal needs, and the Advocacy Center has long identified legal representation as one of the most requested services from victims of domestic violence. On April 2, 2019, we officially opened the doors to our Legal Services Program to serve clients currently working with advocates at our agency. The legal services are provided as part of a holistic, trauma-informed model, where victims and survivors can continue to access the full spectrum of support and resources provided by the Advocacy Center with the added benefit of in-house legal advice and services. The grant award allows the Legal Services Program to provide representation and consultation in any legal matters except criminal cases. With this broad mandate, we are able to truly meet survivors where they are at and offer legal services that fall both within and outside of stereotypical courtroom legal work. 

Early Outcomes and Plans for Growth

Since April, we have provided legal consultation, advice, and representation to more than three dozen survivors of gender-based violence — with legal needs ranging from housing and employment to inter-state custody and international property disputes. While the Legal Services Program is currently unable to take divorce cases — and divorce representation is one of the greatest needs for domestic violence survivors in Tompkins County — we are working to leverage resources so that we can potentially offer divorce counsel in the future. “Our Legal Services Program is not intended to replace existing resources; rather, we’re identifying unique legal needs of survivors and assisting them in a holistic way so that, in some cases, survivors can tackle a legal issue before it ever goes to court,” according to Executive Director Heather Campbell. “In this way, our model is client-centered and also relieves undue burden on the courts to resolve issues that are often solvable with the help of a lawyer early on. We hope to scale victims’ access to these services in the future, as we continually assess the needs of our community and ways we can fill these gaps in available legal services.” 

Legal Services Program in the Community

The Legal Services Program attorney is now the Finger Lakes Representative to the New York State Women’s Bar Association Committee on Domestic Violence, ensuring that rural survivors’ voices are heard on statewide domestic violence policy issues. Our Legal Services Program is also actively involved in the Tompkins County Access to Justice Task Force, through which we work with local and county partners to raise awareness of unmet legal needs and identify partnerships and resources for solutions. The Advocacy Center also plans to offer trainings and information sessions for the community with the help of the Legal Services Program. We offered our first training regarding the Child Victim’s Act and Childhood Trauma on May 31, 2019, through which local attorneys received an introduction to the adverse effects of childhood sexual abuse and the new New York law the changed the statute of limitations for civil and criminal lawsuits regarding child sex abuse.


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