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Domestic violence survivors turn to legal aid for divorce, support

One night during the summer of 2018, Elizabeth* waited outside her home for her husband to let her back in to get her two young daughters. He had punched her and dragged her outside, barricading himself inside with the girls. (*Name and likeness have been changed to protect the privacy of actual client.)

Elizabeth and daughter walking on farm

Domestic violence survivor Elizabeth turned to Seminole County Bar Association Legal Aid Society when she needed to divorce her husband after years of abuse. She was able to secure child support and a custody arrangement, allowing her and her two young daughters to start over without the threat of violence in their lives any longer.

“That was my final straw. I’m never going to pick him over my kids,” Elizabeth says now. “When he did that in front of the kids, and the cops were involved, and I knew DCF was going to get involved, I knew it was time to walk away. I promised myself if it ever happened in front of the kids, I couldn’t stay.”

Two hours later, her husband released the children and was charged with domestic battery by strangulation and resisting an officer without violence. Police officers referred Elizabeth to an emergency domestic violence shelter, and she realized it was time to pursue a divorce.

During their relationship, Elizabeth had been subjected to being punched in the head while pregnant, having her finger broken and constant fights during which her husband would accuse her of cheating.

“Every single day was a challenge,”she says. “I stayed at home with the kids for almost six years, and there was constant badgering from him about what I was doing, how I was raising the kids. He had insecurities about our relationship. We had one car, so I was stranded all the time at home alone with the kids. No vehicle, no job, no extra money.”

“[Abusers] push you to this point where they control everything,” she says. “He’d been putting his hands on me since I was pregnant with our younger daughter. That was a daily thing. You cut your family off. You don’t want to keep telling everybody horrible things all the time.”

At the shelter, Elizabeth found resources, including a lawyer who referred her to Seminole County Bar Association Legal Aid Society (SCBALAS) for help with a divorce.
SCBALAS has received funding for civil legal assistance for survivors of domestic violence for the past two years through the Foundation’s Community Economic Development grant program.

“Our program needs consistent funding so we can always be here for people like Elizabeth,” Sue Selsky, a SCBALAS lawyer, says. “Unfortunately, I believe domestic violence will not be eradicated any time soon.”

Without legal aid, “tragically, I believe the victim will stay with the abuser because they believe they have nowhere else to go, there is no option for them to get out,” Selsky says. “This is a double tragedy because the children grow up in a violent home, and in turn may become abusers themselves.”

According to Legal Services Corporation, civil legal aid is more effective than access to shelters or counseling services in reducing domestic violence by as much as 21%.

As a condition of their grant, SCBALAS works with Brevard County Legal Aid (BCLA) to collaborate on best practices regarding identification and service of domestic violence clients, on identifying systemic problems and solutions affecting survivors and on utilizing technology and other tools to create efficient practices.

SCBALAS and BCLA share documents and brainstorm about best practices. By working together, the programs are able to fill gaps in knowledge and resources. After BCLA shared a letter it sends to all domestic violence clients about avoiding social media, SCBALAS began doing the same. In October, CABA Pro Bono, another Community Economic Development grant recipient, joined the collaboration, and shared a presentation addressing elimination of cultural bias in the courtroom and a recruitment video to encourage lawyers to take domestic violence pro bono cases.

“Our close relationship with SCBALAS has been instrumental in identifying best practices for providing services to survivors of domestic violence, helping us to improve our methods and techniques for recruiting and training volunteers, and leveraging our collaborative partnerships with other service providers sharing mission space,” Rob Johnson, BLCA’s executive director, says. “As local bar-sponsored programs established in the early 70s, our programs share similar histories and our client communities experience many of the same legal issues. Accordingly, we have found that we share long-established priorities for assisting our clients. For this reason, it is especially valuable to our organizations that we work together in identifying funding sources and coordinate our efforts on reporting and grant administration.”

For clients like Elizabeth, finding legal aid for a divorce was a great relief. Though she expected a lawyer would just hand her a pile of paperwork, she ended up with a support system.

“It was good to know that when you’re walking in a courtroom, you’re not alone,” Elizabeth says. “You have a team there supporting you. I had a genuine support system. I would not be here today without all of the support and help. A lot of times it’s scary, and you don’t want to go back, but having the support made it a safe place to go and made it easy for me to go.”

Elizabeth’s divorce was finalized at the end of December 2019.

One study reported that about 83% of survivors represented by a lawyer successfully obtained a protective order compared to only 32% without a lawyer.

“If I would have known [about legal aid], I probably would have had the courage to get out a long time ago,” she says.