YWCA adds legal guidance to services offered assault victims


YWCA West Central Michigan CEO Carla Blinkhorn stands with the Y’s new paralegal, Charlie Campbell.

By Cynthia Price

Legal News

The YWCA West Central Michigan has just made a great thing greater by adding a legal assessment and assistance dimension to their already-comprehensive programs serving victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Renovation of the YWCA’s building on Sheldon will make possible a confidential triage-based approach to helping those who have experienced rape, domestic violence, sexual assault, and related abuses.

A newly-created position will offer broad legal help, including stepping clients through upcoming court processes, assisting them with filling out court forms such as Personal Protection Orders, and finding potential attorneys for them -- including pro bono help if deemed necessary.

Filling the position is paralegal Charlie Campbell, whose past experience at Kent County’s Legal Assistance Center (LAC) will serve him well in determining what requires an attorney and what can be handled there.

“Given my experience with the Legal Assistance Center, I have a fairly firm background in advising on fairly complex procedural issues.?Most of the time I’m confident in dealing with that part of it without giving legal advice,” Campbell says.

Campbell was the Program Coordinator at the LAC for over six years, having previously served as a student intern and a volunteer.

A graduate of Cedar Springs High School, Grand Valley State University, and the post-baccalaureate paralegal program at Davenport University, Campbell worked briefly for an individual attorney before starting at the LAC full-time.

Carla Blinkhorn, who has been the CEO of YWCA West Central Michigan since 1984, comments, “We were specifically looking for a paralegal like Charlie who has a depth of knowledge about a variety of different ways to provide legal help. We have pro bono attorneys who work with us, but with Charlie’s position, some of the up-front work will have taken place and it will be clear if we really need one of those attorneys to get involved before he or she makes a trip to talk to the client.”

Blinkhorn believes that the triage approach the YWCA will offer may be unique in the country. “In some ways we’re looking at a new model here. Family justice centers have often used a team response, often just focused on the criminal justice aspects but co-located with domestic and sexual violence agencies. We’re interested more in the other issues, for example, evictions, or the many legal needs if a woman has to move out of a relationship.”

Of course, the YWCA already provides many of those direct services. Blinkhorn says that for any number of reasons comprehensive, triage-based services depend on having a designated space to ensure success. This will be accomplished once the renovation of the Sheldon building, where the Y has been since 1922, is complete.

“In the history of the YWCAs, all over the country there were fitness centers, which made sense at the time they were set up. But over time, we realized that space was more urgently needed for other services, so the fitness centers closed. Here, there was a pool, and we closed it something like 15 years ago, so that space in the basement had been sitting empty.

“We provide rape examinations and work with child sexual abuse victims, so confidentiality is absolutely necessary. We also needed to provide better handicap accessibility. But even more important, developing a team approach to domestic violence means it’s best not to have to go to four different places. So here the person served will stay in one place and everybody will come to him or her.”

Though the fitness centers were closely identified with YWCAs at one time, the organization has really always been about the broad spectrum of services to women.

Many people are unaware that the YWCA has never had any affiliation with the YMCA. The YWCA came into being in 1858, with the local YWCA founded in 1900. In about 2008, national YWCA added a slogan to its name that reflected the mission it had from the very beginning: “eliminating racism, empowering women.”

Indeed, the YWCA West Central Michigan has a proud history in both those areas. The building on Sheldon is said to have been the first place in Grand Rapids where a woman could go unescorted by a man to eat a meal in safety. Its Caroline Putnam School  was the first public school for girls in Grand Rapids, established when  the young Putnam came from Massachusetts to be its teacher.

The national YWCA has been involved at every step of the way in fighting racism, and the YWCA?West Central Michigan is proud that its efforts started as early as the 1940s, when it integrated its Health Education Department.

The involvement of nationally-renowned civil rights activist Helen Claytor in the Grand Rapids YWCA led to shaking up the preconceived notions of many in the 1940s, 1950s and beyond. She had a history working for other YWCAs around the nation, but after marrying Dr. Robert Claytor and moving here, she became the local Y’s president in 1949, prompting white board members to quit in protest.

Claytor went on to be the first African-American female president of the national YWCA?as well, but not before making a substantial difference in local policy and attitudes.

That history led the YWCA West Central Michigan, in the 1970s, to make addressing violence against women and children its top priority.

Blinkhorn says that the organization processes about 300 sexual assault examinations a year. They also have housing for domestic violence victims off-site and provide counseling and personal advocates, in emergency or non-emergency circumstances. Their Girls Inc. program helps build self-esteem and other skills to reduce vulnerability.

The proceeds of the Women Lawyers of Michigan versus Judges charity softball game go to the YWCA. “When it first started, the money specifically went to child sexual abuse. Judge Benson was the coach of the Judges team and he also helped start the child sex abuse services here. But now it goes to a number of different needs where we can’t find money from other sources, such as staff training,” Blinkhorn explains.

It was the availability of funding from another source that made hiring Charlie Campbell possible. The federal Victims of Crime Act of 1984 (see article below) is now providing funding for broad services to crime victims.

“As we were developing more of a team approach, we realized that what we needed was somebody focusing on legal advocacy,” Blinkhorn said. “But one of the challenges was that we didn’t have enough funding. So when money became available, we started the search right away.”

Campbell will be visiting other agencies around the state which provide legal service; even if not done in the comprehensive way the YWCA West Central Michigan intends to, there should be a lot to learn from their experiences.

“The idea is then to provide as much information to people as we can when they’re going through that process,” Campbell said. “For example, we might tell them, ‘This is what the other party has the opportunity to do.’ We’ll help them understand what the process is going to look like in whatever they’re facing, prosecuting in criminal court, PPOs, housing cases, fair treatment. And if they feel like they need accompanying, I’ll do that.”

Victims of assault or domestic violence may appear in person, call in, or use Skype to protect confidentiality.

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