Imagine trying to leave an abusive relationship only to realize that legal systems will not necessarily be in your favor. According to a recent New York Times story, that's a daunting and scary reality for survivors who want to divorce their violent partners. Survivors face many obstacles in trying to get a divorce, chief among them the high costs of legal fees.
In many states, there are legal roadblocks too. As of July 1st, a newly passed Kentucky law will make it even harder for survivors and their children to stay safe. The law, which passed this week, will grant joint custody to separating parents. A judge can deny joint custody if one of the parents has filed a domestic violence protective order against the other at some point during the relationship. Critics of the law fear an abusive parent could be granted joint custody regardless of the caveat—for example, if a domestic violence order was never filed or granted at the time of the custody proceeding, or if a violent act was committed against someone who is not the spouse or child.
For more insight into the barriers facing abuse survivors, Pacific Standard spoke with Kara Bellew, a partner at the New York City-based matrimonial and family law firm Rower LLC. It should be noted that Bellew did not speak to issues outside of New York, as she's only licensed to practice law in that state.
What are the most common challenges for domestic violence survivors seeking a divorce from their abusers?
The financial [burden] is a big one. In New York, there is a right to counsel for any issue that you could also litigate, and you have a right to counsel in a family court. There should always be an inquiry about someone's income and about someone's ability to retain counsel. If a person said, "I can't retain counsel or don't have funds," the court is supposed to see if they qualify for an assigned counsel. Financial issues are significant not only with respect to being able to afford a lawyer, but even being able to contemplate leaving the relationship.
In addition, the emotional burden is another challenge to what survivor/victims must face. There are times when the abuser can be a great father or can be loving and kind. Obviously, that gets people trapped in that cycle of violence, which makes it difficult to leave. When you add children into the equation, it becomes even more difficult.
How can abusers manipulate the legal system?
The vast majority of people who are accused of being violent are smart enough to know that when they come into court they're going to look really well-dressed and they're going to present very well. It's harder for a court to reconcile allegations that it sees on paper with this seemingly lovely, soft-spoken person who's standing beside them.
What should a survivor do if they are looking to leave their abuser or get a divorce?
The first thing I would tell anyone is to do a consultation with an attorney if you have enough funds available to you. I think you really want to find someone who has a background in domestic violence. Ask any potential attorney you're going to work with, "Have you worked on domestic violence cases before?" You don't want to end up with someone who is very dismissive of the history. You don't want someone who makes you feel like it's your fault. Or someone who questions, "Why did you stay so long?"
What if finances are an impediment to hiring an attorney?
Survivor/victims can go to one of the legal services organizations in the city or town in which they live. There are a number of non-profit organizations, like the Sanctuary for Families in New York. If you go to WomensLaw.org, you can search by state to get legal help and resources.
What additional advice do you have for survivors once they secure legal representation?
If they're satisfied with their lawyer, then they should follow their lawyer's advice. But certainly, ask questions if things don't make sense. Is filing a motion in court going to really inflame the situation versus trying to settle it?
There's a lot of different iterations of how things can get resolved, but I think that victims and survivors should certainly not lose sight of the safety issues because only they are going to know what's going to set off their batterer. Their lawyer is not.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.