Jewish Journal

Advocates Offer Support for Facing Family Court

by Rachel Heller

Posted on Aug. 11, 2009 at 6:39 pm

After a while, Rachel (who didn’t want her last name printed) stopped calling the police. They never believed her when she told them her husband was physically abusing her — no one could see the bruises because he would hit her around her head. Afraid for her two young sons, she went to court in November 2005 and filed for divorce.

“It’s bad enough that he was doing it to me,” she said by phone from a Los Angeles transitional housing facility where she and her children were living. “But to do it to our kids, that I couldn’t take anymore.”

As far as domestic violence cases go, Rachel considers hers a success. She was granted sole custody of her sons last January after proving to the family court judge that their father was abusive. But many women, she said, are not so lucky.

In fact, a large number of domestic violence victims don’t know what to say in court to prove their cases, according to data gathered from focus groups organized by the Family Court Advocacy Project (FCAP). Created by the Westside Domestic Violence Network in 2006, FCAP is run by a coalition of victims’ advocates, attorneys and social service agencies — including the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles (NCJW/LA) — hoping to strengthen support services for victims and their families as they navigate the family court system.

“We really felt like we wanted to do something in our community to address what’s happening in the family court system, when women who have been in domestic violence relationships are trying to get divorced and get child custody,” said Ava Rose, coordinator of NCJW/LA’s work with FCAP.

Getting out of an abusive relationship is crucial for victims and their children, Rose said. But often, the next chapter of their lives is marked by the “secondary trauma” of a lengthy custody battle, which can be another source of fear and intimidation for the battered victim.

“What a lot of us were hearing from our clients is that women were continuing to be abused through the court system,” she said, as perpetrators would draw their ex-spouses back to court again and again, costing them legal fees and the stress of fearing for their children’s safety. “We always try to support women who leave their relationships, but what we’ve realized is that leaving is often just the beginning.”

FCAP partner agencies — which also include the California Women’s Law Center, the Legal Aid Foundation-Los Angeles and Sojourn Services for Battered Women in Santa Monica — held a series of focus groups last year in which they invited victims of domestic violence to discuss their court experiences. Based on their recommendations and complaints, the agencies created a “toolkit” of legal information that therapists and shelter staffers could use to teach clients about things like safety planning and how to obtain a restraining order.

But FCAP organizers also wanted first-hand knowledge of how victims were faring in family court. So NCJW/LA launched COURTWATCH, a program that trains volunteers to sit in on civil proceedings and take notes on how cases are ruled.

“We decided we needed to go into the family courts and actually observe what was happening so we could gather data that we would then use to advocate for change,” Rose said.

Legislation already exists to protect domestic violence victims in court, but Rose said many women are simply not aware of it. While parties in criminal cases have the right to free legal aid, parties in family court do not. If a battered woman is not prepared to represent herself in court, she could overlook critical talking points during her trial.

The first 15 COURTWATCH volunteers received training in basic legal proceedings early last year and were dispersed in pairs to courtrooms in downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Van Nuys. What they found is that most victims of domestic violence end up representing themselves in custody hearings, and many women don’t tell the court they were abused.

“Sometimes women are ashamed, or they’ve been threatened or intimidated,” said Rose, who also directs NCJW/LA’s Women Helping Women counseling services. “It also could be that they just have no idea bringing it up could help.”

Rachel, like many women, couldn’t afford an attorney when she took her ex-husband to court. She relied on her therapist for basic coaching. “I wasn’t really aware of what to expect in court or how the judge was going to react if I said this or that,” she said. “Representation is so important.”

That’s what Rachel told FCAP organizers when she took part in their focus groups last year, and since then she has kept in touch with NCJW/LA as they analyze the notes of the first group of COURTWATCH volunteers. She wants to see FCAP push for free legal aid for domestic violence victims in family court. But even knowing that a COURTWATCH volunteer is present would help, she said — moral support is a boon to victims faced with the intimidating task of fighting for their own safety.

“If we know that someone is there to watch everything we go through, that would give us added confidence, because it can be very nerve-wracking,” she said. “Women — especially if they’re doing it for their kids — will go through with it no matter how hard it is, so long as we know that we have support.”

Extra support might take the form of a campaign to educate court employees to be more sensitive to victims, said Jennifer Chen Speckman, director of the Westside Domestic Violence Network. Rachel said she was made to wait at the courthouse until closing time when she first sought a restraining order against her ex-husband. She was in tears when she finally begged a bailiff not to send her home without one.

“Domestic violence is not talked about enough in the family courts,” Speckman said. “If we can start with having judges appreciate the safety risk, that would be something.”

But while repeated court visits can be “annoying, even horrifying” for abuse victims, the courts must be wary of impinging on the rights of their batterers, said Van Nuys-based attorney Constance Bessada.

“Our constitutional system gives people the right to appeal,” said Bessada, who has dealt with family court cases for 25 years. “Sometimes that gets abused. But that’s part of the price we pay for having a justice system that tries to mete out justice evenly.”

Bessada said she has seen cases where victims of domestic violence are not able to prove abuse in court. Much of the time, however, she sees victims successfully representing themselves to the judge.

“Judges try very hard to hear them out and find out what they need to, to rule in the child’s best interest,” she said, but added that providing free legal counsel to people in family court would be “a terrific idea.”

Anyone can volunteer for COURTWATCH, Rose said, regardless of legal background — the only requirement is English language proficiency.

Eventually, FCAP agencies hope to use COURTWATCH feedback to craft recommendations — both locally and statewide — to improve protection and access to helpful information for domestic violence victims.

By then, Rachel hopes to be in law school.

“There needs to be more awareness of the realities of domestic violence in this society,” said the full-time mother, who was studying to take the Law School Admission Test in February. “We’re not asking for pity. Just dignity and compassion.”

For more information, call NCJW/LA at (323) 852-8521.

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