According to research, one in four women and one in 10 men can experience domestic violence at least once in their lifetime. Trying to leave an abuser can be a dangerous and terrifying experience and extremely difficult, especially during the pandemic. Domestic violence victims often lack the financial resources and social support to be able to escape an abusive relationship. Fortunately, there are many community programs available that can help provide assistance. Here is everything you need to know about free legal services for victims of domestic violence.
The Rise in Domestic Violence
The COVID-19 pandemic combined with the holidays has been described by domestic violence experts as a shadow pandemic within a pandemic. Many cities have reported a rise in domestic violence cases while calls to domestic violence hotlines have decreased. The pressures of the holiday season and the financial stress of stay-at-home lockdowns have increased stress in many households across the country. Conflicts escalate as couples are forced to coexist in a confined space with limited income and resources. In a domestic violence situation, the aggressor is constantly at home and the victim may not be able to reach out for help.
It can be tough enough for a victim to leave during normal times, but the pandemic has made things worse. Victims have to worry about the risk of infection, and many shelters are overwhelmed by public health regulations. These victims also may need to seek legal counsel to protect their rights to marital property and child custody. These survivors also make up a large portion of the estimated 31 million injuries that require medical assistance each year. They may need an experienced law firm with free legal services for victims of domestic violence to help them recover compensation for expensive medical bills as a result of the abuse.
Georgia Legal Services Program
In Georgia, domestic violence hotline calls have risen by 15% since the pandemic began. A nonprofit organization called the Georgia Legal Services Program is stepping up to provide free legal representation for domestic violence victims in low-income families. According to their statistics, over 35% of females in the state become domestic violence victims. African American women are 35% more likely than other women to experience partner violence. The program currently serves over 2 million people at the poverty level who aren’t guaranteed to be represented by a domestic violence lawyer.
The Atlanta Police Department has reported a 58% increase in domestic violence calls when the pandemic began. Since then, there has been a 79% increase in these cases within the state. According to a Georgia Commission on Family Violence report, the state is ranked 25 in the nation for incidents of men killing women. Survivors are far more likely to get killed when they try to leave an abusive situation as the aggressor tries to keep a grip on their control. Lax gun laws in the state combined with limited access to free legal services for victims of domestic violence contribute to this overwhelming problem.
Federal law only prohibits those convicted of felony domestic violence charges from being able to purchase a firearm. However, many abusers in Georgia are convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence charges. Cases with protective orders are considered civil disputes and can therefore be immune to felony convictions. Many police officers state that domestic violence situations are one of the most dreaded and dangerous calls they respond to. According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, 25% of their responses to officer-involved shootings are from domestic violence situations.
Some hospitals in Georgia have seen a 15% rise in domestic violence cases since the pandemic started. With less opportunity to call domestic violence hotlines because the abuser is constantly around, they may not be able to seek help until they are physically injured. Abusers can also manipulate coronavirus as a way to maintain contact with their victims regardless of any protective order by falsely claiming they have symptoms. Contact tracing can reveal the location of a victim who is trying to hide from their abuser. Open doors of communication with their abusers can lead to dangerous situations for victims.
Victims may also struggle with collecting federal stimulus money. Stipulations around receiving these government checks include filing a tax return. Victims may not have access to bank account information or previous tax returns. Survivors may be put in a situation to remain in contact with their abusers over joint stimulus checks. Without the help of free legal services for victims of domestic violence, abusers may end up collecting these federal stimulus checks instead.
Legal Services Corp in Missouri
Many victims in Missouri struggle to find paid or free legal services for victims of domestic violence. Approximately 31,000 domestic violence cases in 2018 were unable to be represented by a family law attorney. Many of these free legal programs simply don’t have enough volunteer lawyers in certain areas of the state. Some attorneys are willing to take on highly contentious cases. Domestic violence victims are unable to represent themselves because of their lack of legal expertise and the trauma they have endured.
Many victims seek assistance for free legal services for victims of domestic violence through an organization known as Mid-Missouri Legal Services. The nonprofit is one of four legal aid providers for domestic violence victims in the state that is funded through Legal Services Corp., which is a nonprofit funded by Congress. The other three free legal services for victims of domestic violence are Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, Legal Aid of Western Missouri, and Legal Services of Southern Missouri. These offices pay private attorneys for supplemental casework and recruit lawyers for their legal team.
Only people that meet certain income guidelines are able to receive free legal services for victims of domestic violence. The family law cases accepted by the four Missouri legal aid providers is less than 50% of all received requests for each of the organizations. The vast majority of cases that request help with getting orders of protection get accepted because these documents are considered the first line of defense against abusers. The number of people that can apply for free legal aid for divorces through Mid-Missouri Legal Services is limited to 20 people per week, and only a handful of these are actually accepted.
Women Aware in New Jersey
In New Jersey, the nonprofit organization Women Aware has been providing comprehensive programs and free legal services for victims of domestic violence for 40 years. During the pandemic, the organization adapted to offer 24/7 uninterrupted services to those in need. A 24-hour hotline and emergency shelter are available for victims to escape the abusive situation they’re in. The organization currently supports around 2,000 of the 18,000 Middlesex County women and children who are victims of domestic violence. Some of the services provided by the organization include family law advocacy, housing, community education and outreach, child protective services liaisons, and counseling.
During the pandemic, the organization has noticed an alarming rise in the number of domestic violence cases. In August of this year alone, they received a record-breaking 800 calls for free legal services for victims of domestic violence and other additional support. To comply with public health regulations, Women Aware has been offering remote support for nonresidential clients, a telehealth program, and therapy sessions by phone. The nonprofit has partnered with another organization called Elijah’s Promise that has been providing hot meals for Women Aware clients. The Women Aware Legal Advocacy team led the way in their state with obtaining restraining orders by using the online web conferencing platform Zoom when family court closed.
When a survivor leaves, abusers often file for divorce knowing that the victim will have a hard time finding legal representation. This allows them to try to manipulate control of marital assets and custody of the children, which keeps their grip and ties of communication open with the victim. It also creates a situation where abuse victims can appear to the court as not being credible and money motivated. The trauma of the abuse can make it difficult for victims to represent themselves in court. Survivors may leave out critical details or be unable to tell events in their story chronologically, which can hurt their credibility in the courtroom.
Domestic violence victims can also hurt their case in court by appearing overprotective of the children or demanding that they be kept away from the abuser. This can create misperceptions. Finding an experienced attorney in domestic violence is crucial for these victims to get the support they need from the court. By using free legal services for victims of domestic violence, they can significantly reduce the disadvantage that their abuser has created.
Non-Profit Provides Support and Safety to Victims
In Reno, nonprofit organization Safe Embrace provides rehabilitation support and safety to hundreds of domestic violence victims each year. During the pandemic, the domestic violence center has experienced an 80% spike in abuse and crisis calls. Many victims often call from a closet around 2 a.m. because that’s the only time they feel safe to seek help. When the pandemic began, the number of calls was at the highest. The number of domestic violence calls leveled out over the next few months but are now beginning to spike again.
During normal times, victims usually can get a break from abuse through going to work or running errands. This can give them some safe space to be able to breathe that they don’t get at home. With the pandemic, survivors are forced to be at home all the time with their abusers. The domestic violence center has noticed that financial abuse is increasing during the pandemic as abusers seek control of limited financial resources. When victims try to leave, the situation can become more volatile and dangerous.
The state of Nevada has been consistently ranked in the top 10 states across the nation for women who have been killed by an intimate male partner for nearly two decades. Love often causes victims from fully understanding the dynamics of the situation until it is too late. Many will close the blinds so others can’t see what is happening in their homes, as victims often experience judgment and isolation from the rest of society that can make it hard for them to leave. The pandemic has also caused complications for women to escape. Survivors must be quarantined in a hotel room before they are allowed in the Safe Embrace domestic violence center.
The effects of domestic violence on children have been made worse because of the pandemic. Abusers would often be able to hide their behavior because the children went away to school or daycare during the day. With stay-at-home orders and virtual schooling, children are more likely to witness these events or become victims themselves. This can create severe psychological and physical damage that can last the rest of their lives.
The domestic violence center itself has lost a significant amount of funding from marriage license fees. Marriage licenses in Nevada include a surcharge to aid domestic violence victims, but the number of marriages has decreased during the pandemic. While the organization’s operational budget has been cut in half, Safe Embrace has not cut back its services. The domestic violence shelter provides 32 beds in its group home shelter as well as sexual assault and counseling services. The organization also provides free legal services for victims of domestic violence, health care, and job placement.
Access to free legal services for victims of domestic violence is critical during these unprecedented times. Many cities across the nation are still struggling to keep up with the demands that the pandemic and the holiday season has created. Public health regulations and lockdowns have created a more volatile situation for these types of situations. It is critical for victims to create a safety plan with emergency domestic violence centers. If you are experiencing abuse from an abuser, seek help immediately through the various programs in your community that can advocate and support you every step of the way.