Center advocates for children caught up in domestic violence

The law office of Iris Sunshine (’89)  isn’t much different than other law offices, except for the room full of toys.

Sunshine’s clients are children. She is the executive director of the Children’s Law Center of Central North Carolina.

The center handles high-conflict custody cases and domestic violence cases in which one of the parents has filed for a protective order. The center gets the majority of its cases through referrals from judges.

“Our passion is about children,” said Amy Kuhlman, the center’s director of operations.

The center’s role is critical because of the long-term effects that domestic violence has on children, said Shannon Heck, the director of development for the center.

In Forsyth County, incidents of domestic violence where children are present increased about 74 percent between 2008 and 2010, according to the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office.

The criminal-justice system has only recently recognized the long-term effects of domestic violence on children, said Suzanne Reynolds, a professor who teaches family law at Wake Forest University and was on the initial board of directors for the center.

“Domestic violence is child abuse,” she said.

In recent years, studies by child psychologists have shown the impact of domestic violence on children, Reynolds said. That research led state legislators to change the law so that a judge is required to consider acts of domestic violence in deciding custody cases, she said.

“There’s been a sea change in our thinking about it as child psychologists have educated the legal system on the impact of children living in domestic violence,” Reynolds said.

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