Domestic violence is at the root of a shocking number of the cases that we handle. Just yesterday, a friend from high school reached out to me about her situation – probably the fourth or fifth time she’s done so in the last eight years. This morning, I started off by chatting with another attorney in the office about a domestic violence case where she’s handling both a divorce and a protective order; a thirty plus year marriage that ended when a husband punched his wife in the face and choked her.
It’s so much more widespread than we realize, because we don’t talk about it. Or we do, but in general, sweeping, institutional terms; we’re not really talking about US and our lives and the abuse we’ve experienced. Women are afraid to reach out, not just because they’re afraid of their partners (although certainly that is a part of it), but also because they’re afraid of the reactions that they’ll get from their friends and family members.
Abused women usually try to leave several times before they’re successful. Ultimately, no one can really make them leave before they’re ready; it’s one of the frustrating things about loving someone who is in an abusive relationship. It’s also one of the things that make abused women extra secretive. While they still love and support their partners, they can’t face the judgment they’d receive from their friends and family members knowing and disapproving each time they go back. Which means that, by the time they leave, no one important to them knows the true extent of the abuse they’ve suffered. It’s a tragic cycle that can have unimaginable consequences.
So, what can be done?
I’m in the business of offering solutions, not in drawing out a discussion related to the problems. Domestic violence is no different. Let’s spend some time today talking about options, solutions, and suggestions for moving your family law case forward despite domestic violence.
I’ve been in an abusive relationship. What should I do now?
Safety is the #1 Concern!
First thing’s always first: make sure you’re safe.
That can look a lot of different ways, depending on your situation. Maybe you need to go stay in a hotel for a few days. Maybe you need to stay with friends or family. Maybe you need to reach out to a local shelter for women in crisis. (Incidentally, we have experience with the YWCA and the Samaritan House, both of which are excellent resources and can help you with far more than just shelter. Look into their resources!)
Maybe you need a protective order. Getting a protective order in place can give you exclusive possession of the home, which would mean that he’d need to stay away or else risk arrest and further criminal prosecution. The first step is to get a temporary protective order, which you can do at your local magistrate’s office.
To get a permanent protective order, you’ll have to have a full hearing. Since it’s a criminal offense which can affect your partner’s security clearance, if he has a job requiring it, his ability to have firearms in his possession, etc., it’s looked at fairly seriously. You aren’t required to have an attorney, but you probably should. Your attorney can work with you to gather evidence that you need (photos, hospital records, police statements, etc) and even interview witnesses (like police officers, neighbors, or others who may have been involved).
If you can’t afford to retain an attorney to represent you at your protective order hearing, you might want to call your local clerk’s office to see whether there’s any resources there that will help you. The Virginia Beach Bar Association, for example, sponsors the CLASS (Concerned Lawyers Advocating Spousal Safety) program, which provides counsel to victims of domestic violence seeking protective orders on the Friday morning docket in Virginia Beach Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. There may be some similar program in your locality, too.
Second: Don’t be afraid to get the permanent protective order in place.
After the temporary protective order, things may calm down. In a lot of cases, women decide NOT to move forward with the permanent protective order or any other pending criminal charges. This is an important turning point for you.
Even if he’s saying that he’s so sorry and it’ll never happen again and he just wants to save your marriage, you should tread very carefully. Domestic violence is dangerous! I don’t want to be alarmist, but it really is something to take seriously.
Third: Understand the impact of the abuse you’ve suffered.
Abuse alters your brain chemistry. A divorce and/or custody case is already extremely stressful, and can cause some serious physiological responses. Your fight or flight response is triggered, your body is flooded with cortisol and adrenalin, and physical symptoms (sweaty palms, sick stomach, flushing face, knocking knees, shaking voice) manifest themselves.
On top of all that, you’re dealing with coming out from under years – or maybe even decades – worth of abuse. You’re not able to think clearly.
It’s not a dig. It’s not your fault. But you can’t entirely trust yourself right now, either. You need to be working with professionals – likely at least a therapist and an attorney – who can help educate you about your rights and entitlements, encourage you to push for what you deserve, and help you get to a better, happier, healthier headspace.
Fourth: Get the information that you need about what you’ll be facing in your divorce and/or custody case.
Take a deep breath. Now’s – since you’re safe and calm and in a better place – to start to gather information about your case. We’ve worked hard to make sure that we can provide it to you in as “spouse-safe” a manner as possible.
Fifth: Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself.
These cases are difficult. Probably, because he’s gotten away with being abusive for so long, he’s going to fall back into old, familiar, comfortable patterns. He’s not going to appreciate you moving forward with a protective order. He’s not going to believe that you’re going to be able to move forward with this divorce, to advocate for yourself, to know your rights and entitlements – or to hold out until you’ve received them. He’s probably going to think that he’ll be able to apply a little (or a lot) of pressure, and you’ll cave.
In these cases, it’s necessary to be a little extra aggressive. Negotiating separation agreements, participating in mediation, and otherwise trying to negotiate out of court are often not the best fit for these types of cases. To show him that you’re serious, and to forestall the possibility that he’ll use his influence over you to drag the case out and dry up your trust account dollars.
In these cases, its often better to file early and act aggressively. Get a pendente lite hearing scheduled, so that you can have temporary child and spousal support determined. Show him that you won’t be intimidated by his tactics. Conduct discovery. Do everything you need to do to make sure that you – and your attorney – have the information you need to get yourself the best possible settlement.
Hang in there. It’s definitely tough. But if you work through these issues, you’ll put yourself in the best possible position to get out of your marriage and into a whole different future.
For more information, to schedule an initial consultation, or to register to attend an upcoming seminar, give us a call at 757-425-5200.