If you are in the process of leaving an abusive partner, you probably have lots of questions and
concerns. And some of the most difficult questions to get answered are often those involving your
rights and the legal system. This article is not intended as legal advice, but rather as a starting point to
help you recognize the legal issues you may need to consider. Before pursuing any legal action, please
consult with a licensed attorney in your area. (http://www.lsc.gov/what-legal-aid/find-legal-aid)
- Protective Orders: Your first priority is probably getting away safely. While a piece of paper –
even one signed by a judge – is never a guarantee, a protective order
can provide some legal safeguards. These orders, also referred to as protection from
abuse orders or Orders of Protection, can require the abuser to stay away from you, your home,
your school, and other locations the judge deems appropriate.
In many states, this order may also grant temporary custody, visitation, and child support, until
these issues can be decided in a family court. The judge may also order the abusive partner to
return belongings or documents to you, to relinquish weapons, or to attend drug or alcohol
counseling – though this will likely not stop someone from being abusive.
If you attain a protective order, be sure to keep a copy on you at all times, as well as having a
copy in your car, at work, at your children’s school, and anywhere else the abuser is prohibited
- Child Custody and Support: If the abuser is your child(ren)’s parent, you are also probably
concerned about custody, visitation, and support. Often, abusers threaten to pursue custody or
visitation rights as a way of punishing the victim. And unfortunately, many judges will allow the
abuser to have unsupervised time with the children, even if s/he has been abusive to you.
The important thing to remember is that child custody and visitation are not
determined based on what has happened between the parents. Most courts will determine
these issues based on the best interests of the child(ren). To determine this, the judge will likely
look at who has been the primary caretaker, who has been more involved in the raising of the
child(ren), who has a closer bond with them, who is a safer and more stable parent, and any
history of physical or sexual abuse or abuse of substances. It will be important to have
documentation of any abuse of you or the children, including physical, sexual, and emotional, as
well as any history of drug or alcohol use. Your attorney will want as much information as
possible to prepare.
Child support is based on a formula in most jurisdictions, taking into account the income of both
parties. Both parents are responsible for supporting the child(ren), so the non-custodial parent(the one the child does not live with) will usually have to provide some support to the parent with whom the children reside. Keep in mind that abusers often withhold child support payments as a way to hurt you, as well. So, if at all possible, secure another form of income, so that you are not dependent on the child support amount.
- Financial Considerations: One reason that people often have difficulty leaving an abusive partner is because of financial abuse and control. Your partner may have prevented you from working, or limited your access to family funds. S/he may also have financed things in your name, harming your credit. There are ways to reclaim your financial power after abuse, as well as programs available to help with these issues. The abuse you endured in your relationship may also have impacted your employment. In some states, employers are prohibited from discriminating against you as a victim of domestic violence or abuse. You may have a right to take limited time off of work to deal with legal hearings, medical appointments, or other issues related to the abuse. Be aware, though, that not all states have these protections. So, it is important to consult with an attorney or advocate before taking time off work, if at all possible.
Leaving an abuser can be scary and overwhelming. There are so many details to take care of, and so many issues to consider. But, please know that you are stronger than you think, and you do not have to face this alone. Advocates are available to help you with developing a plan to leave safely, as well as to connect you with attorneys and other resources. To find an advocate near you, call the National Hotline at 800-799-SAFE (7233). To locate an attorney near you, visit http://www.lsc.gov/what-legal-aid/find-legal-aid.