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Most of us by now have heard at least one of the terrifying tapes allegedly made by the award winning actor, Mel Gibson to his girlfriend. He has been accused of beating Oksana Grigorieva and chipping her teeth. His rants are dehumanizing and brutal. It should be noted these are all alleged at this point and neither Gibson nor his attorney have conceded authenticity or accuracy of any of the recordings. If nothing else, these tapes and Gibson’s questionable behavior, which is not in dispute as it has been documented via several media outlets, put the spotlight on domestic violence in this country yet again. A. Harrison Barnes, lawyer and career coach, and also the founder of LegalAuthority.com, says this has been an important, yet not always effectively addressed, crisis for several years. This led us to wonder: are law schools preparing new lawyers to represent the victims of spousal or domestic abuse? After speaking with the LegalAuthority.com founder, it was clear the proverbial ball was being dropped.

Despite many who say domestic violence rates are declining as a whole in this country, nearly every state is reporting increases in 911 calls requesting assistance due to violence within the home and indeed, domestic violence is being sought more in divorce cases than ever before. Intimate partner homicides are on the rise and in Oklahoma, Renee Brewer, the Executive Director of the Native Alliance Against Violence says the “statistics are only getting worse…Oklahoma is on track to be the state with the most domestic violence related homicides in the country”.

Is better educating those in the legal community, such as lawyers, paralegals and detectives, the key? The Department of Justice says it is, and A. Harrison Barnes agrees. Judges and other legal professionals who are uninformed about these violent issues can endanger the safety of victims, says one DOJ report released in late 2008. The report continues, “One need is to alert lawyers to the ways in which domestic violence issues crop up in seemingly unrelated fields of law…lawyers who practice any kind of family, criminal, tort, financial or poverty law are likely to have cases complicated by domestic violence”.

This, says Barnes, is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s important for lawyers to be able to identify victims or signs that a client is being abused. While he’s quick to point out the responsibility should never rest solely on one outsider’s shoulders; understanding the psyche of an abuse victim is like turning on a light switch. Once you’ve witnessed it, you’re likely to always know it when you see it.

Many law schools are now beginning to shift their stances and have begun the transition towards the inclusion of this important social issue in their respective curricula. Some are offering courses that address the dynamics of the abuser, the abused and the cycle of abuse while others are discussing the “dynamics of domestic violence and civil and criminal litigation on behalf of battered women”.

Clearly, there’s much work to be done and will take time, but Barnes says keeping the focus on this important issue is key.

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