As a child in Kentucky, Michelle Broyles made a little book in school about how she wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up.
“My friend actually saved my picture book,” said Broyles, division chief of JALA’s Family Law and Victim Advocacy Unit. “He kept it, and I didn’t even realize it. I actually made that decision in second grade but had forgotten about it by the time I got to law school until my friend called me to congratulate me on having achieved my life’s goal.”
Driven to help those who can’t help themselves, Broyles also serves on the board of the Family Nurturing Center, which assists JALA clients with supervised visitations and supervised safe exchanges of children, and she volunteers with the Humane Society.
“It might actually stem from my sister,” she said. “She’s about 15 months younger than me, but she was born premature, and she has health issues. She can’t speak, she can’t take care of herself. So, it probably started when I was taking care of her as a toddler and making sure she was safe.”
Broyles was in private practice until August 2018, when she joined JALA to serve survivors of domestic violence.
“We represent and assist survivors of domestic violence, sexual violence and stalking in any type of civil legal proceeding,” Broyles said. “My department focuses on family law cases: divorce, paternity, custody, temporary relative custody, and should it come up, adoption.”
The main eligibility criterion is that the potential client must be a survivor of domestic violence perpetrated by the opposing party in the case.
“Our department is the only department that does not have an income cap. A lot of people don’t know that,” Broyles said. “One of the reasons is that a lot of times in these situations, the person who is abusing the potential client has control of all the financial resources. So even if the person was making money, they might not have access to it to get to the help they need to leave their abuser.”
About half the unit’s cases are divorces, and the rest are paternity, modifications, and injunctions for protection against domestic violence. The unit also provides emergency legal services, such as emergency pick-up orders or temporary relief.
And when the 10-attorney unit doesn’t have the resources to fully represent a client, the attorneys try to offer other services such as drafting and filing the case, giving advice for a hearing, or doing a limited representation at a specific hearing or at mediation.
“We try to give everyone some type of assistance,” Broyles said.
Six of the unit’s attorneys are in the downtown Jacksonville office, which serves the Fourth Judicial Circuit, while the others are at JALA’s offices in Clay County and St. Johns County.
The unit is supported by grants, the largest being through the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA). One VOCA grant covers the Fourth Judicial Circuit, while another covers St. Johns County, which the Florida Attorney General’s Office recently assigned to JALA since the county’s domestic violence survivors weren’t being served by any other legal aid organization. In 2019, JALA served over 350 survivors under the VOCA grants. A smaller grant through the Violence Against Women Act enables the unit to assist those referred to JALA from domestic violence shelters, including Hubbard House in Duval and Baker counties, Micah’s Place in Nassau County, Quigley House in Clay County and the Betty Griffin Center in St. Johns County.
Hubbard House CEO Gail Patin said the legal services JALA provides are crucial to helping women escape the cycle of violence.
“Legal aid plays a vital role in helping survivors achieve desirable outcomes,” Patin said. “Without it, many of those we serve would struggle to move forward. JALA provides a legal way to end abusive relationships, ensure safety for their children through the courts, and move forward more safely.”
Broyles said she loves helping survivors of domestic violence even though it can be difficult.
“What means the most to me is being able to empower them, to give them some control back, and making them realize their worth,” she said. “They are the most grateful clients I’ve ever had.”