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Lechner advocates for abused women

A woman’s live-in boyfriend severely beats her. She sustains broken ribs, black eyes, a partial hearing loss and countless bruises.Facing felony substantial battery charges, the defendant paints the victim’s character at his trial as highly immoral, delving into the details of her sexual past. But she is determined to see the matter through, and a West Bend jury — a community known for its conservatism — convicts him.It’s a true story told by attorney Kim A. Lechner of Friends of Abused Families Inc. in Washington County, who helped the victim survive the ordeal.Lechner, who sat at the victim’s side throughout the nightmarish trial, says that her client “is feeling validated that she’s taken this stand. It’s wrong, she’s not going to put up with this, and justice needs to be served.”That’s just one success story for Lechner, who counsels abuse victims — both men and women — in a wide variety of ways. Her practice has its foundation in family law, but she also helps the shelter’s clients to navigate through a whole host of different legal processes. “Safety planning in the context of the legal arena is basically what my role is,” she explains. While the initial focus is usually upon the criminal portion of what is happening with the abuser, Lechner might also help with the victim’s juvenile law, landlord and tenant issues and so on.On a typical day, Lechner will return calls from the 24-hour crisis line to those with legal questions, in addition to face-to-face counseling. She also attends charging conferences after mandatory arrests in domestic abuse matters to offer assistance to the victims.The charging conferences are usually twice per day, Monday through Friday — which reflects the incidence of alleged abuse in the area. There were approximately 400 arrests of that nature in 1999 in Washington County.The job brings many challenges, but many rewards, too.It’s difficult when victims don’t seem to want to escape their situations. A few times, Lechner has learned of former clients who had obtained injunctions against their batterers, only to petition the courts to remove them later because they have reconciled.But Lechner knows that this is the client’s decision, and the best she can do is simply to explain the legal ramifications of the various options. She adds that research shows that many times, abuse victims must “rehearse” a leave, anywhere from seven to 10 times. So even if a victim makes a bad decision this time, maybe the next time, he or she will take it to the final stage. Another challenge of her job, Lechner says, is that legal services for the poor in her area are in short supply. She can’t help everyone whom the shelter serves with every legal matter that they might have. Moreover, many of them are the “working poor,” so they don’t qualify for help from legal services agencies. Or they may be unemployed because the abuse has prevented them from establishing a good work record. A desire to help people who might not otherwise have access to legal services was, in part, what motivated her to take the job.“When this came about, it just struck the nerve of working for an un-derserved population, which appealed to me,” she says.Lechner had been a teacher for two years then worked in the business world for 17 years, prior to making the decision to attend Marquette University Law School. On paper, she’d already achieved a high level of success before changing careers.But she says that the non-monetary rewards weren’t as great as she thought they would be, and that she wanted to do more.“I’ve got a chance now to do something that I really enjoy, and feel really good about at the end of the day,” she explains, adding that there’s nothing better than a client’s thank-you note. Plus, she knows that she is making a difference for many people. From 1997 to 1999, she worked with approximately 700 different clients.“I have no regrets that I’m not grinding out 70 hours per week for a large firm,” Lechner says — although graduating cum laude and in the top 15 percent of her class in 1996 certainly could have landed her in that kind of job. “I feel I need a balance in my life. And part of that balance is not just working in the law. It’s working in my community, being with my family, and being involved in my church.”

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