Domestic violence is a serious problem in the United States. On average, three or more women in the country are murdered every day by their boyfriends or husbands. About 74 percent of all murder-suicides involved an intimate partner of which 96 percent of the victims were women.
Stephanie Whack, an outreach program counselor at the Haven Hills domestic violence shelter in the San Fernando Valley, routinely helps victims of domestic violence obtain restraining orders through an AI-assisted platform called HelpSelf Legal. The program asks victims emotionally sensitive questions to fill out the necessary court documents against their abusers.
This platform was founded by Dorna Moini, who developed it after quitting her job as a corporate trial attorney, in an effort to help low-income victims of domestic violence. Almost a year after its launch, Moini says the service seems to be the most effective when it is used through a legal aid organization or a domestic violence shelter.
“While individuals can find and use the platform on their own, we have found it is better to have victims use it through an organization because those organizations can help with anything that comes after filing the paperwork like helping the victim find a counselor,” relayed Moini in a personal interview.
The service aims to help lawyers, not replace them.
The HelpSelf site “interviews” users by having them answer a number of easy to understand, friendly questions that are designed to be sensitive to trauma-victims. Explanations are also provided throughout the process so that the victim can truly understand what is being asked. The questions are asked in a bite-size manner so the process doesn’t emotionally overwhelm. If it does become too overwhelming, the user can leave the system and come back to finish the interview at any time. Users can also upload evidence and screenshots throughout the process.
Once the interview is complete, the documents are ready to be e-filed, mailed or filed in person depending on the court’s requirements.
The time a victim spends on the platform depends on their state of mind but ultimately reduces the overall process time. “The process can take up to five hours if a victim is extremely distressed. We provide emotional support while they are answering questions. If a victim is triggered during the process, we take a break and help them calm down,” said Whack.
The platform drastically reduces the time a lawyer has to spend looking at the final paperwork because there is no longer a need to talk through the documentation each time. Once the paperwork is complete, it is printed out at the shelter and reviewed by a lawyer. If there are any mistakes, they are corrected before the documents are filed.
The platform works best for relatively easy and straightforward cases, according to Whack. If cases are extremely complicated involving child protective services, for example, counselors at Haven Hills will refer them to agencies that provide on-site attorneys for legal advice.
Of course, the HelpSelf platform is not a victim’s only option to get a restraining order. There are traditional ways to file restraining orders for low-income victims such as self-help lessons at the courthouse or workshops at the police station but these avenues typically have long wait times. The other challenge is that these programs are only available at set times, which may not always work for victims.
“The self-help lessons at the nearby courthouse are usually only offered in the mornings and are on a first come first serve basis, which can be difficult for clients who have children,” Whack explained.
There are also safety concerns. The courthouse is open to everyone and sometimes the abuser is trying to file a restraining order at the same time as the victim.
HelpSelf isn’t the only AI tool helping victims of domestic violence. Deevi is an Australian emotionally intelligent Chatbot that asks victims with a list of questions and provides them with a list of services at the end.
In California, Jael.AI helps victims by helping them find a safe place to stay, the service contacts nearby shelters and gives them other resources as well. Deevi and Jael.AI, however, connect victims to legal professionals as opposed to guide the victim through the legal process itself.
AI-based resources in the realm of domestic violence are relatively new and their large-scale effectiveness remains to be seen. One thing is clear, however, it is an area of law that will always require a component of empathy, which is why the most effective tech solutions will likely involve a human element.