Victims of domestic violence are often quite similar in their need for information, respect, advocacy, and lawyers equipped to stand beside them with real understanding. Be that lawyer, and you can help a lot of people. Here’s how.
By Lynda L. Hinkle, Family Lawyer
“The moment I really knew it was over wasn’t when he pushed me down the stairs, or when he hit me in the face and I had to go to the hospital… it was when I found out he was cheating on me with a girl online. That’s when I knew I’d had enough.”
Perhaps, you may judge, the time was far sooner to have had enough. However, in the mind of many domestic violence victims, violence, harassment, verbal abuse, and excessive control of their movements, finances, and even basic actions and expressions becomes normalized. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that on average, 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States, not even addressing the many being verbally abused, threatened, and controlled. One in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced intimate partner violence. The damage is not limited to any one gender, ethnic group, socioeconomic status, sex identification or orientation. It touches everyone.
In “A Betrayal Trauma Perspective on Domestic Violence” (2009), researchers Melissa Platt, Jocelyn Barton, and Jennifer J. Freyd argue that: “The more people are able to set aside preconceived ideas about what makes victims stay, the better-equipped society will be to understand and help. Often people turn a deaf ear to issues of abuse, not because they don’t care but because it is emotionally challenging to be aware of intimate partner violence.” It is easy for lawyers, often logic-driven, to be uncomfortable with the emotional issues of abuse and the decision tree of moving from victim to survivor.
Tips for Being the Lawyer a Domestic Violence Victim Needs
Here are seven steps that lawyers can take to help their clients who are victims of domestic violence.
- Listen Without Judgment. Don’t judge the client who doesn’t want to leave yet. I will often say to clients or potential clients, “No one knows the abuser like their victim.” So if a client feels it is an unsafe time to go, trust their instincts. If a client feels they cannot handle the emotional toll or financial toll of leaving yet, or the toll on their children, believe them and encourage them to seek the support of qualified domestic violence counselors who can help them to prepare.
- Offer Support Service Information. When they are ready, it may be a split-second decision. They will immediately need resources such as shelters, how to file for a restraining order in your jurisdiction, how to get financial and emotional support, what to do about children and pets. Arm any client or potential client with all the information you can. If you give them materials, tell them to put it in a safe place, such as with a friend, where their abuser is unlikely to find it.
- Don’t Despair If They Return. Most people do not leave forever the first time that they leave. On average, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, a woman will leave an abusive situation seven times before she leaves for good. There are countless reasons why, many of which have to do with the lack of available resources for victims for longer-term housing, financial support, and emotional assistance. Additionally, individuals with children are in a uniquely vulnerable position because leaving the abuser may mean a custody battle in which they fear their child being alone with a violent person who wants to get back at them. In my personal experience as an attorney, I have had many clients return to their abuser only to show up in my office months or years later having finally reached the point where they are ready to go. I am never so happy as when I see them walk through the door!
- Don’t Be Controlling. Many clients come to me having talked to other attorneys who made them feel very uncomfortable, particularly male attorneys who unintentionally intimidated them by dictating what “should be done” and stepping over the emotional issues involved in the situation. It is important with all clients, but even more so with those with an abuse history, that we empower the client – make them feel that they are in control of the process and that if they need to change direction the lawyer will hear them and understand that there are more considerations than just the clear law here. Some of the clients will want and need a lot of help navigating the legal processes and will need a lot of advice and advocacy, but none of them will want and need another person controlling their destiny the way that it has been controlled in their intimate relationship. Be mindful of your approach which to you may seem assertive and helpful, but to a vulnerable client may feel condescending and overly controlling.
- Be a Physical Barrier if Necessary. Some courts do a wonderful job of separating victims and abusers in court settings, but some courts are not physically capable or sufficiently enlightened as to the need. Even though I am female, I have many times stood between my client and her abuser so that he cannot see her, deflected an approach of an abuser ( I inherited an excellent “I am warning you, back off” expression from both my parents), walked a client to her car after a proceeding (in some cases, when possible, with a Sheriff’s officer), and stood in between them during testimony so there can be no eye contact. The courts must be a place where our clients feel safe and protected or they will never seek the intervention of courts again.
- Protect YOURSELF. Part of your job is to antagonize an angry, violent person to show the court that they are, in fact, an angry and violent person that your client needs protection from. Most abusers, I have found, are actually pretty cowardly about people outside of one they have groomed to not react. However, there have been a few cases in my career where I assessed that the abuser was a dangerous person who would gladly come after me given the opportunity, or where I was directly threatened. I have always made sure during those cases and for a period afterwards to up the security at home and office and was continually aware of my surroundings and taking special precautions not to be in unsafe settings.
- Be Politic. An important practice tip is that except during actual hearings where I may need to be brutal, during any negotiation or normal interaction with an abuser, I will be extremely polite and listen to their story if they are unrepresented (often, they want to tell you how they are actually the victim). Many abusers are also used to appearing quite wonderful to the outside world so that their victim looks less credible, and they may want to win you over. Let them think that they charmed you if it gets you to a resolution that is more favorable to your client. There is no reason to be disrespectful to the individual unless and until they cross the line of being threatening in your presence.
The laws in every state are vastly different, but people struggling with the issue of domestic violence are often quite similar in their need for information, respect, advocacy, and attorneys equipped to stand beside them with real understanding. Be that lawyer, and you can help a lot of people.
Lynda Hinkle is a family law and domestic violence attorney based in Turnersville, New Jersey. The founder and first president of Working to Halt Online Abuse, Lynda is the author of Breaking Up: Finding and Working with a New Jersey Divorce Attorney (CreateSpace, 2013). www.lyndahinkle.com
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