Finding her way out


It seemed fun and exciting. Meeting someone online, chatting for some time, greeting him when he traveled from Utah to Australia for a visit. This woman had fallen in love.

Harmony, who asked that her full name not be used for safety and legal reasons, was 36 at the time. She had two daughters, ages 6 and 9. The small family moved from Australia to Utah where she and her fiancé were soon married.

But the fun and excitement quickly vanished. Harmony was about to find out what kind of man he really was.

“He was a master of manipulation,” she said. “He conditioned me and then reinforced it throughout the marriage.”

Harmony and her husband were married for just over two years. During that time, he belittled her and ignored her daughters.

“He never physically hit them but he played mind games and ignored them. When I wasn’t there, he wouldn’t feed them or pay any attention to them,” she said.

He mostly abused Harmony emotionally and psychologically but that all changed in February 2007.

“He grabbed her arm and threw her on the bed and then began to hit her on the left side of her head,” said Marlene Gonzalez, Harmony’s attorney from the Multi-Cultural Legal Center. “He continued to hit her until she saw a bright light and became dizzy.”

Harmony and her daughters were eventually able to escape the room where he was holding them and went to a trusted neighbor. She called police and they started investigating. Julie Johansen, a Murray City Crime Victim Advocate, was called to the scene shortly after and began speaking with Harmony.

“I spoke with her and gave her information on where she could go to get help for domestic violence,” Johansen said. “I also went through the signs with her and showed her that it was definitely abuse. I told her that he would come back and try to apologize and make things better.”

After the attack, Harmony’s husband overdosed on medications he used for his bipolar disorder and post traumatic stress disorder. He was admitted to the psychiatric ward after the overdose and was there for a couple days.

During that time, Harmony went to the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake (LAS) and obtained a protective order. He was served and told to stay away from Harmony and her daughters.

“After he received the protective order, he called me 17 to 20 times. I had to unplug all the phones in the house,” Harmony said.

He didn’t stop there. A couple days after the incident, Harmony was on the phone with the police when she heard someone at the door. She could see him through the window above the door; he was holding flowers and ready to apologize, just as Johansen had predicted.

“I told the police that he was at the door. They told me to not open the door and they were on the way. He went around the back but since he’s a bigger guy, he couldn’t get his arm through the gate,” she said.

He left but returned to remove the price tag from the flowers he left behind. By that time the police showed up and took him to jail. After a couple weeks, he violated the protection order yet again and was back in jail.

Harmony went to LAS to obtain a divorce. She obtained her protective order there but when she went for the divorce, she overestimated her income and was not able to receive help. Her friend helped her and took her down to the 3rd District courthouse in West Jordan, Utah, where Harmony was able to file for divorce online. She continued to help her estranged husband, though.

“Harmony had been going to counseling with her LDS bishop,” said Marlene Gonzalez, Harmony’s attorney. “Her bishop asked if she needed help finding a new home. All she wanted was for him to help her estranged husband find a place to stay after the divorce. She didn’t have any family here. She used the people who had become family to help him. She was very unselfish.”

Two weeks after the divorce, Harmony’s ex-husband was married for the third time. Harmony had been his second wife. The harassment didn’t stop after he remarried. Not only did he start sending harassing e-mails to Harmony, so did his wife. The police couldn’t do anything about her e-mails because there wasn’t proof he had told her to send those.

After 18 months Harmony had not heard from her ex-husband or his new wife. She says she is working as a business systems analyst and her daughters, now 13 and 10, are doing well.

“Harmony is an amazing woman. Statistics show that it usually takes eight or 10 times of being abused before someone gets out. She got out the first time,” Johansen said.

Legal aid attorneys ride emotional roller coaster


The story of a mother under domestic violence is quite harrowing. What about the attorney or paralegal that assists her? Along with their client, employees of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake look trauma right in the face. Being skilled to separate their work from their personal lives is a necessity.

“There are no happy cases. We don’t do adoptions, it is just degrees of misery. Some [employees] just can’t take it … they can’t deal with the misery all of the time,” said Stewart Ralphs, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake.

Most LAS employees deal with 120 cases at one time, each client thrown in a situation they never expected to be in. The results of their cases are rewarding, but the process can be an emotional roller coaster. Because their clients are often disconsolate, the LAS employees can become miserable, too.

“I try really hard to make sure there is a good separation, that I’m able to leave work and enjoy my personal time. But there is definitely overlap and I find myself thinking about it at home. I try not to let it affect me, or my job would be even more overwhelming,” said Jen Ungvichian, a paralegal for the LAS.

Ralphs said many of the clients are “basket cases.” They seek legal aid after dealing with one of the most traumatic experiences of their lives, so who can blame them? Ungvichian said that dealing with their state of trauma takes a massive amount of listening skills to make sure the client understands what his or her options are.

“We are helping people navigate the legal system, who have no idea what the rules are and the procedures. Really knowing how to understand and communicate with the client is the whole function of our organization,” Ungvichian said.

The most common client LAS encounters is a middle-aged mother suffering domestic violence. She desperately needs to file for a protective order or civil stalking injunction, divorce, or custody for her children, but cannot afford it. By approaching LAS, she will receive financial and legal assistance to regain her rights.

A protective order limits the husband from going to specific locations, seeing certain people or obtaining specific objects such as phones, computers or money. Ninety percent of the cases are domestic violence and about 90 percent of protective orders are not violated, according to LAS statistics.

“Protective orders are helpful, but they don’t stop a bullet,” Ralphs said. To prevent clients from encountering further abuse or possible murder, they are trained to keep doors locked and to always have a cell phone nearby.

LAS is further helpful when it comes to people who are representing themselves (pro se). Ralphs said they are often inarticulate and have trouble filling out their paperwork. “We like to provide these services from start to finish to make sure we are giving them all that the government can provide them,” he said.

For the employees, domestic violence cases are not about winning or losing, but simply discussing the issue and coming up with a solution. In order to give proper aid, employees are trained in law, finances and family issues. They also must be culturally sensitive. They make it a priority to avoid trial. Avoiding trial with a judge means dodging high costs and saving time. Ralphs is proud to say that he only goes to about one trial every 12 months, and he has been working for LAS for more than 20 years.

Clearly, working for the LAS can be very stressful, but employees find themselves in love with their job. They love helping their clients escape from physical and emotional slums, and changing their lives for the better.

“Sometimes it is the first time in my client’s life that someone has stuck up for them…. There is something really nice with doing something absolutely necessary for somebody and to not worry about money,” Ralphs said.

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