Sojourner House, a Providence-based nonprofit, has received one of eight grants as part of a new program from the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, allowing the organization to provide more extensive legal services.
Founded in 1976 by Brown students and Providence residents, Sojourner House provides “support, advocacy, housing and education” for survivors of domestic abuse, sexual assault and other gender-based violence, according to the organization’s website.
The two-year, $400,000 grant is part of the “Expanding Legal Services Initiative,” which is meant to create programs that “provide legal representation to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence or stalking,” according to a DOJ press release.
According to Gloria Greenfield, deputy director of operations at Sojourner House, legal support is an important resource for the organization’s clients. “Victims of domestic violence have many legal issues,” she said, including “custody issues, child support issues (and) divorce issues.”
The grant money, she said, will be put toward hiring a project coordinator to oversee the creation of the legal services program, as well as an attorney, who will widen the scope of clients that Sojourner House can help.
“In the agency’s 47-year history, we’ve never had a licensed attorney on staff to provide client programmatic support, and this transformative grant will change that,” Executive Director of Sojourner House Vanessa Volz said in a press release. “It will enable us to expand the range of legal issues that we can address and also help us to better serve some of our community’s most vulnerable victims — adult immigrants and undocumented children who have experienced domestic violence, sexual assault or human trafficking.”
Accredited by the DOJ in 2012, Sojourner House can currently represent clients in immigration cases, which are considered administrative. The organization has helped over 400 people obtain legal status, Greenfield said.
But restrictions associated with not having a licensed attorney on staff have prevented the organization from helping clients in many cases, Greenfield added.
One such issue, she explained, is that Sojourner House has been unable to help unaccompanied minors who were “victims in their home countries.” These minors are eligible for special immigrant juvenile status, which makes applying for legal status easier.
But applying for special immigrant juvenile status requires having an attorney go to court. “We can do the immigration part. … We just need the attorney to go to court,” Greenfield said, adding that this grant will allow Sojourner House to close that “gap.”
In addition to supporting clients who are immigrants and survivors of abuse, the program will provide legal representation for housing, custody and divorce cases, according to the press release.
Annell Vidal, director of immigration advocacy for Sojourner House, said that the organization hopes to “grow the legal department” in order to serve more individuals facing a greater variety of challenges.
Besides plans for the new grant, Sojourner House is also working on renovating newly acquired properties and is engaged in a capital campaign to pay off the mortgage for their drop-in center on Westminster Street. According to Greenfield, housing is the most “basic need” of many people who seek assistance from Sojourner House, and renovating these properties will allow the organization to better meet this need.