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October is Domestic Violence (DV) Awareness Month. Many VIP family law cases involve domestic violence, whether it is the direct legal focus of the case, as in a Protection from Abuse (PFA) case, or a related and integral aspect of the case, as in some custody and support cases. Since so many of our neighbors living in poverty must live with it, it bears defining: what is domestic violence?
“It’s a dynamic that happens in a relationship where one partner is controlling the other partner by using violence that is either implicit or explicit,” said Anne Armistead, Senior Civil Legal Representation Attorney at Congreso. “It could be physical abuse, psychological or mental abuse, or financial abuse. There are all different ways one person can abuse another, but the goal is power, maintaining power and controlling the other person above all else.”
Domestic abuse can impact anyone, but it’s important to recognize that certain populations are more vulnerable, and that abusers are good at finding a partner they think they can control. “They can latch onto a person that has a disability, that doesn’t speak English, that may not have the documentation to be here. Anything that they can exploit and easily gain power from,” Anne said. “Having a low income also makes you more vulnerable, as it often takes away your options. You may rely on the abuser’s income, or may not have any other support system available to take you in safely.”
“Most of my clients are no longer in abusive relationships, but the abuse doesn’t just stop when you leave. You are still fighting for your own safety, and oftentimes the safety of your children.”
Clients may be able to leave their abuser and escape the immediate effects of abuse, but many of them share children with the person who hurt them and are unable to cut that person out of their life entirely. Survivors of abuse often do not want to resort to legal action of some sort, but may have to make the difficult decision to pursue a formal PFA or custody order.
“In family court, most litigants have very low incomes. Many clients don’t want to file for child support because it could potentially escalate the DV situation, but financially, they don’t have another choice,” Anne said. “In addition, by going to court, there is a third party involved and someone else makes the decision for you. The client needs to be able to talk all of their options over with a knowledgeable lawyer, so that they can assess which option is the safest for them.”
For many low-income individuals, involving the court in their family disputes, presents a host of other challenges, including: being able to take the time off from work, finding proper childcare, finding reliable transportation, and navigating a difficult legal system. However, for individuals with abuse cases, those concerns take a mental toll, as well. Many, if not all, have to decide if they want to face their abuser in court, and answer deeply personal questions without adequate support or legal representation.
There are numerous free services throughout Philadelphia that can provide a measure of relief for a number of these folks, including Women Against Abuse, Philadelphia Legal Assistance, VIP, and Congreso. These organizations can provide a safe haven to create a safety plan, and find a public interest/pro bono lawyer. Having free representation at court does not fix everything for survivors of domestic violence, but it gives the clients more options and can level the playing field.