Bar News - November 18, 2011
Family Law: Fear and Finances: Removing Barriers for Clients Fleeing Domestic Abuse
By: Mary Krueger
As Director of NH Legal Assistance’s Domestic Violence Advocacy Project, I am often asked why a domestic abuse victim would be willing to stay with an abusive partner. The answer to that question is multi-layered, but, practitioners can be on the lookout for two major barriers that may prevent abuse victims from successfully leaving: fear and finances.
In the context of divorce and parenting, there is a lot that a lawyer can do to help abuse victims overcome these barriers. The following ideas can be tailored to your individual client’s needs.
First and foremost, we may not readily identify that our client is an abuse victim, primarily because the client may not label himself or herself in that way. The American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic Violence provides screening tools that family law attorneys may find useful for screening for domestic abuse. Check out: www.americanbar.org/groups/domestic_violence/publications.html.
One main reason for screening is to help identify, before filing a family law case, issues unique to abuse victims that could compromise safety over the long run.
For some victims, filing for divorce or parenting may be an empowering step. For others, leaving can create a much more dangerous situation for them and their children. Most victims know this and many stay because they fear what will happen if they leave. A first step for a client who leaves is to prepare a safety plan. This planning can give back some control to the victim and reduce fear. We recommend referring clients to a local domestic violence crisis center for assistance with safety planning. You can find your local domestic violence crisis center on the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence website at www.nhcadsv.org/crisis_centers.cfm.
Your client should update you about their safety plan during the course of the case so that any requested court orders can account for that plan.
If your client has or qualifies for a 173-B restraining order, then, such an order can complement the safety plan for that person. While cynical people may characterize this as a tactic to "get a leg up" in a family law case, restraining order laws exist to protect people fleeing abuse and provide sometimes needed structure for a client to safely escape.
As many practitioners know – children may be at risk of being exposed to additional abuse when separated parents interact. In these cases, co-parenting is not recommended. Parenting orders that incorporate principles of parallel parenting are best in protecting victims and children at risk of further abuse – with the non-abusive parent as the sole decision maker.
Parallel parenting orders are designed so that parents will individually parent the child while the child is in their care with little to no interaction with the other parent. Parallel parenting plans create structure and contingencies for all possible scenarios. They are very specific. They often include using parenting notebooks to communicate needed information back and forth; transitioning children with the least amount of parent contact (pick up or drop off at school or day care); and providing for third parties to communicate information back and forth.
Financial instability is an inevitable result for many families separating in these rough economic times, but, for victims, is can be particularly acute. Assisting clients in planning for financial hardship is critical and should be done before filing a case if possible.
A common dynamic of domestic abuse is often that the survivor has little or no control over finances, and little or no information about marital assets. That financial abuse can continue with an abuser refusing to pay child and spousal support after separation. Even if we obtain reasonable support orders for our clients, it may take additional litigation to enforce these orders leading to months of financial stress for victims. This kind of stress is what may lead a victim to decide to return to an abuser, especially when children are involved.
Additionally, some victims may have been prevented from working outside the home during the marriage and have little to no work history. They may not easily transition back into the work force.
There are some resources available to assist clients who are struggling to make ends meet. Emergency assistance is available through town welfare or general assistance. Under New Hampshire law, all towns and cities are required to assist anyone who is unable to meet their basic living needs. The formula to qualify for local welfare is simple: if the cost of meeting your basic needs, food, shelter, heat and electricity, exceeds your income, you qualify. Many local and city welfare departments can also assist clients in connecting with other resources to assist in meeting these needs.
The State’s Division of Family Assistance can also meet emergency and long term needs for clients. There are several programs from food stamps to health care. Each program has different criteria in order to qualify. For basic information about state programs and the standards, see: www.dhhs.nh.gov.
Community Action Programs and Homeless Outreach can assist with housing and other needs such as fuel assistance. Clients can find out more about these and other community resources by calling 2-1-1 NH by dialing 2-1-1 or 1-866-444-4211.
Low-income clients who run into legal difficulties accessing any of these programs can contact the Legal Advice and Referral Center (LARC) at 603-224-6067 or 1-800-639-5290 or online at www.nhlegalaid.org/LARC for legal advice and possible referral for a lawyer specializing in these areas.
For attorneys seeking information about legal resources available for victims of domestic violence, contact Pamela Dodge, the NHBA Pro Bono Program’s DOVE (Domestic Violence Emergency Project) coordinator at 603-715-3230 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Creating structure, stability and support for abuse victims goes a long way in helping clients achieve their long term goals in divorce and parenting. Employing strategies that remove economic barriers, increase safety, and reduce fear may be what helps your client to remain free and independent from further abuse.
Mary Krueger is the Domestic Violence Advocacy Project Coordinator for NH Legal Assistance (NHLA). She represents clients in civil cases including domestic violence restraining orders, divorce and parenting, housing, and public benefits.