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What is a Court Advocate

A court advocate is a type of social worker who can help domestic violence survivors navigate the legal system. Court advocates tell survivors what to expect after an arrest is made, help file paperwork to obtain a protective order and accompany survivors to criminal and family court proceedings.

Most domestic violence court advocates work in shelters and other domestic violence nonprofit organizations. Some are employed by police departments, municipal courts, prosecutor’s offices and legal aid centers.

I was told my police department has a victim advocate. Is that the same thing?

Many police departments employ victim advocates, who can be excellent resources for survivors of domestic violence. While it varies by department, their primary functions often include notifying victims about the abuser’s arraignment (initial court appearance) and speaking on the victim’s behalf at the arraignment if the victim is unable to attend, as well as working with the victim to get restitution for the cost of damages or medical care that resulted from the abuse. Some victim advocates will advise domestic violence victims on how to file for a protective order even if they haven’t filed a police report.

However, victim advocates are generally a function of the criminal justice system. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that victim advocates who are employed by a police department serve many types of victims, not only domestic violence survivors.

Court advocates who specialize by area of expertise (such as domestic violence) can help whether or not criminal charges have been filed or you report abuse to the police at all.

How can a court advocate help me?

A court advocate who specializes in domestic violence can be an excellent resource, whether you’re deciding to file for a protective order, considering divorce or custody proceedings or preparing to face an abuser in court on criminal charges.

“We help victims of domestic violence navigate the court process—and, actually, I would say the judicial system as a whole,” says Lisa Rahiem-Kennedy, a long-time court advocate and domestic violence outreach coordinator for Palmetto Hope Network. “Normally we come on board after the police have made contact, but we’re here even if an individual prefers not to go to law enforcement. In that case, the survivor comes directly to us and talks to us about orders of protection and what options they have as far as custody goes and retaining attorneys for various family court issues or criminal issues.”

Some court advocates, like Rahiem-Kennedy, will work with a survivor to fill out the paperwork to obtain a protective order and then actually file the paperwork for them. Others will only educate survivors on protective orders, including what they are, how they can help, and their limitations in protecting a survivor from further abuse.

The same is true for survivors needing assistance with immigration-related matters.

“Many domestic violence victims are hesitant to seek help due to their immigration status or fear of deportation. Court advocates can help alleviate these concerns by providing them with accurate information and guiding them through the legal process,” says Philadelphia-based immigration attorney Min Hwan Ahn, Esq. “One way that court advocates can assist victims of domestic violence is by helping them apply for immigration relief under the Violence Against Women Act, which allows certain victims of domestic violence to file for immigration benefits without the involvement of their abuser. Court advocates can help gather documentation—such as police reports, medical records and witness statements—to strengthen the victim’s case.”

Court advocates also tell domestic violence survivors what to expect during the legal process, including what will happen at various hearings and if/when a survivor will be expected to testify. They commonly accompany survivors to criminal and civil court proceedings, as well as immigration interviews, to provide support and encouragement.

“This support can make a significant difference, as navigating the legal system can be daunting for many victims,” Ahn says. “Their presence can provide emotional support during what can be a stressful and challenging time.”

What can’t a court advocate do?

Court advocates, particularly experienced ones, are a wealth of knowledge. They can act as a sounding board as you decide how to proceed through the justice or family court system.

“I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve seen a lot of proceedings,” Rahiem-Kennedy says. “I often make suggestions, such as advising clients they can request the judge address visitation in a protective order or to ask their attorney about designating a safe place in which to exchange children in a custody agreement.”

But court advocates are not attorneys and cannot give legal advice or represent survivors in court.

“I can tell my clients what to expect and suggest lots of questions to ask,” Rahiem-Kennedy says. “But at the end of the day, I don’t have a law degree and I didn’t pass the bar [exam], so I can’t give them legal advice.” Survivors may be able to reach out to various organizations for legal advice.