Domestic Violence, Mental Health and Family Court: An Advocate’s Guide (Part 2)
In part two of this article, BFL’s Secret Garden program, looks at ways advocates working with victims of interpersonal violence can maneuver the sometimes stressful family court system.
As Discussed in part one of this article, going to Family Court can be part of the healing journey for victims of domestic violence, but court proceedings can also be very stressful. Victims of domestic violence who have a mental health diagnoses face even more hurdles when navigating this daunting system. Following are suggestions for advocates supporting victims of interpersonal violence who are currently involved in or may become involved with family court.
A Family Court Order of Protection Minimizes But Does Not Eliminate Police Contact.
Orders of protection in family court may be sought:
When no criminal arrest was made.
In an effort to avoid any involvement with the police.
While a family court order of protection allows a victim to avoid police contact initially the only way to enforce an order of protection when violated is by calling the police department. Some survivors of violence do not wish to contact police for a variety of reasons, including prior negative experiences with the police department or threats of increased violence by the perpetrator if they contact the police. This should not discourage a victim from applying for an order of protection if it is necessary for his/her safety. However when deciding whether or not to pursue an order of protection, if threats have been made by a perpetrator regarding a victim’s contact with the police, the victim should weigh the validity of this threat carefully and consult a professional in the field of domestic violence.
Education Helps Combat Stereotypes
One of the best ways to assist a victim of domestic violence who has mental illness is to work together with the victim to educate his/her attorney about his/her mental illness. Educating the victim’s attorney about his/her strengths and limitations enables the attorney to accurately educate the judge who will be making the determination regarding the victim’ case.
For example, a social worker assisting an attorney and a victim diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder may assist the attorney by providing him/her with literature on the diagnosis. The social worker and victim (keeping in mind the victim is the expert on his/her illness) may also work together to educate the attorney on how this diagnosis does/does not impact his/her daily functioning. This information will enable the attorney to better prepare for court and to portray an accurate representation of the victim’s abilities.
Send Advocacy Letters with Discretion
Victims of domestic violence are frequently asked to supply letters from their domestic violence service providers regarding their domestic violence and/or mental illness history. When a victim has an ongoing family court case, it is always in the best interest of the victim to consult with his/her attorney about the content of these advocacy letters. Well meaning advocates have inadvertently revealed information about a victim or his/her court proceedings that is not in the best interest of the victim. Such errors can be avoided by contacting the victim’s attorney (with the victim’s permission) and notifying them of plans to send advocacy letters. This is important when an advocacy letter will contain details about a victim’s mental illness history and treatment.
Develop Coping Strategies/Identify Triggers in Advance
Family court proceedings can last for months and involve numerous mandatory court dates. Understandably, many victims experience increased levels of stress and anxiety over court, and victims who have mental illness can experience heightened levels of their pre-existing symptoms.
Advocates can assist victims through the use of coping techniques such as deep breathing or muscle relaxation. These can be utilized in court to manage anxiety. It can also be helpful to speak with the victim prior to a court appearance to identify any specific topics or events which may be a trigger. Identifying triggers prior to a court appearance is helpful.
Many cities across the country have court waiting rooms for victims of domestic violence which are separate from the waiting areas for perpetrators. It is a good idea to contact family court in your area to see if such a waiting room exists; these waiting area both enhance victim safety and provide a calm environment prior to court hearings.
If your area does not provide separate waiting areas, identify a section of the court house where the victim feels more safe. If possible and if he/she is interested, attend court with her to practice coping techniques.
While this is probably not feasible for every court appearance, attending an initial court hearing can be instrumental in empowering victims to confidently navigate the system. It is also helpful to identify friends or family members that could accompany the victim to court for added emotional support.
Safety planning is important in preparing a victim for court. If there is any risk that an abuser will attempt contact or follow the victim before or after court proceedings, the victims should consider changing his/her route to the court, identify locations near the court where she can seek emergency assistance if necessary, and consider varying her routine after leaving court (i.e. varying amount of time you stay in court after the hearing concludes).
Help Manage Victim Expectations
Assisting victims to understand the limitations of family court is perhaps the most crucial role an advocate can play. Atossa Movahedi, staff attorney for the Urban Justice Center’s Domestic Violence Project in Queens, New York, states:
“Setting a client’s expectations can be very challenging. I have found that working in collaboration with a DV advocate is extremely useful to get the client to understand the difference between what is ‘fair’ and what may be the reality in family court.”