Fighting Back: What Chicago groups are doing to combat domestic violence

Dozens upon dozens of Chicagoans are working tirelessly to support, protect, counsel, and ultimately save the lives of both victims and survivors of domestic violence as they face an uphill battle.
In recognition of October being Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the Defender sought out local individuals who work tirelessly to provide services, resources, assistance, and advocacy to survivors of domestic violence.
The United States’ Department of Justice defines domestic violence as:
“..a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.  Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person.”
But what does a survivor of domestic violence look like?  Debra Pogrund Stark, professor of law and founder/director of Family Law & Domestic Violence Clinic at the John Marshall Law School, asked attendees of the day-long 5th Annual Domestic Violence Clinical Advocacy Program Conference to answer that very question as she juxtaposed two pictures of music icon Rihanna. One picture of Rihanna was of the superstar at a police station after she was viciously attacked by then boyfriend R&B superstar Chris Brown prior to the 2009 Grammy Awards followed by a separate image of the star with flawlessly applied make-up on the red carpet. Stark contended that the two women were one in the same and that domestic violence survivors are more prevalent in our society than we realize.
Family Law and Domestic Violence Clinic
Stark said she founded the Family Law & Domestic Violence Clinic at the John Marshall Law School to provide comprehensive support and services to survivors of domestic violence. She said the clinic attempts to cover all the barriers domestic violence survivors face in these areas:

  1. Orders of protection
  2. Divorce/parent protection cases
  3. Employment protection
  4. Housing protection
  5. Debt relief
  6. Federal income tax liability relief
  7. Immigration law
  8. Estate planning
  9. Criminal self-defense cases
  10. Crime/victim compensation

For more information about the Family Law & Domestic Violence Clinic at the John Marshall Law School, visit

“Our clinic is probably the only one in the country that covers 10 practice areas for domestic violence survivors,” said Stark.  “We work with domestic violence service organizations that provide risk assessment and safety planning to the clients so that it’s safe for them to exercise their rights. We try to exercise their rights in a way that promotes their safety.”

Stark said in order to work for the clinic an individual is required to be a student at the school in their second or third year. Clients must be victims of domestic violence who were referred through one of the clinics’ more than 10 agencies that it partners with in respect to domestic violence along with an intake form to notate the areas they need legal counsel.
Stark said while she’s aware the clinic can’t help everyone, they make a true effort to “help deeply” those they can. She said last semester the clinic helped more than 30 individuals who typically needed assistance in two to three areas of law. She said 12 new students each semester address the needs of the clinic’s clients after they’ve been trained by their professors and always under the supervision of one of the clinic attorneys.
Life Span

Ish Faith Orkar

Ish Faith Orkar, a staff attorney for Life Span, an agency that provides comprehensive services for women and children who face domestic violence and sexual assault, was among the attendees at the domestic violence conference. She said she was drawn to attend the conference because of her desire to learn more about domestic violence. She said she has been working at Life Span for nearly two years.
To learn more about Life Span, visit
Orkar values her work calling it a “privilege” to serve people in this area of their lives. She said it’s important that women know they have affordable options to pursuing and achieving safety.
“It’s really rewarding work to be part of and it’s also very humbling,” said Orkar. “Our survivors are extremely strong and courageous, all of them.”
Unfortunately, people don’t recognize the warning signs involved with domestic violence, Orkar noted. She said typically people become aware of domestic violence behaviors after they’re already invested. She said based on many societal stereotypes involving appearance, education, and social economic factors, some people are viewed to be more likely to be domestic abusers than others.
“The reality is people who engage in acts of domestic violence want power and control and those are two factors that you cannot see from the outside,” said Orkar. “Whether or not someone is going to be an abuser or abusive in their relationship is unfortunately something survivors discover after the fact.”
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) reported an Illinois fact sheet that supports Orkar’s claim. In 2014 only nearly 65,800 intimate partner incidents were reported in Illinois; however, the report asserts that number is much smaller than the true number of incidents. Nationwide, the NCADV reports 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience a form of physical violence from an intimate partner.
Orkar said women of all races and ethnicities ultimately must maintain their same lives despite all of what they must endure due to domestic violence. However, she said that most African-American women have the feeling of not being able to catch their breath in their day-to-day lives.
“I think particularly in the African-American community what you’re going to find is women who might struggle with feeling empowered in several areas of their lives so maybe at work they might feel like they’re not being heard or respected or promoted or recognized for their contributions as readily as people who are not minorities, and when they go home and they’re feeling further isolation or verbal abuse or being made to feel that they’re worthless, it sort of compounds the stress levels in their lives,” said Orkar.
On a day-to-day basis Orkar said she encounters survivors at various stages of the assistance process. She said that when she counsels her clients who have not yet left an abusive relationship, one of her goals is to focus on “safety planning” to keep her clients safe. She said it’s important for survivors to have a support system including counseling, resources and more.

“I think what people don’t understand is leaving a relationship is a multi-step process and it’s definitely not something that happens quickly or instantly, and even if a survivor makes the decision to leave, the after effects of that [abuse] last a really long time,” said Orkar.

Navigating all domestic violence cases in court is not straightforward. In particular, domestic violence where the abuse is not physical but rather emotional or financial is especially hard to litigate, according to Orkar.  She said domestic violence is even being extended to persons facing immigration uncertainty.
“Abuse comes in so many various forms and being able to clearly tell your story to a criminal justice or civil justice system can be so challenging to survivors,” said Orkar.
But how can one help their loved one(s) they suspect or can confirm are in a relationship plagued by domestic violence? Offering continuous support to victims of domestic violence or even suspected victims of domestic violence is the best way to help, said Orkar. She said it’s important to follow the lead of the survivors as they know what’s best for them.
“The most important thing is to not tell a survivor what to do or tell them what you think they need but certainly be there and let them know that with whatever they do need you’re ready to help them,” said Orkar.
Looking beyond October, Orkar said increasing the comfortability and transparency around discussions surrounding domestic violence would go a long way toward putting an end to it. She said silence around the issue can be one of the most damaging impediments to survivors. She added that throughout society individuals should be more vocal about domestic violence awareness, acknowledge it as a problem, and actively seek ways to address it.
“[These conversations] need to happen at home around the dinner table, it needs to happen in the schools in terms of how people treat each other and what’s defined as a healthy relationship, and certainly in government and the legislature when we’re talking about policies and how they may or may not affect survivors of domestic violence,” said Orkar.
Metropolitan Family Services
One group of women who are domestic violence survivors is reclaiming their power by helping others in similar situations. Elena Calafell, clinical program manager, Metropolitan Family Services (MFS), told the Defender a group of their former clients decided to obtain 40 hours of domestic violence training as well as leadership and community engagement training in order to give back to the community with Metropolitan Family Services’ assistance. She said the self-directed group hosts support groups on a weekly basis on self-care, immigration laws, raise awareness about domestic violence, and more.
“They’re very empowered to do for their community and that’s also a part of domestic violence,” said Calafell.
The group’s name, Alas Con Valor, which roughly translates from Spanish to English as “brave wings,” is comprised mostly of Hispanic women, however, any and everyone is welcomed to join, according to Calafell. She said the group hosts weekly meetings at their Midway office, 3843 W. 63rd St., to discuss various topics. The Midway office services the Englewood, West Englewood, Chicago Lawn, West Lawn, and Clearing communities, according to its website.
“One of the things that happens with domestic violence is willful intimidation and power and control, and what happens is perpetrators of domestic violence use isolation, precisely, willfully so they can have more power and control over the victims,” said Calafell. “So for these survivors to have a time and space in which they can network with other women who have gone through this thing who are already in stages where they are already empowered is really important because they don’t feel as isolated anymore.”
Calafell offered statistics on the demographics her company assists based on MFS’ FY ’17 report. The report stated MFS offered services to 1,573 women and 126 were children. She said according to MFS’ department of evaluation, 30 percent or roughly 513 clients were African American. She also stated that domestic violence is the leading injury for women even if you combine car accidents, mugging, and rapes. She added too that domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness in families.
“We all should be involved in ending domestic violence and putting remedies to end domestic violence and to keep supporting services and survivors of domestic violence to keep sending the message that it is a crime,” said Calafell.
To learn more about the services the Metropolitan Family Services offers, visit


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