Legal Aid Helps Mother Escape Abusive Relationship, Wins Sole Custody

This article was written by Sydney Rogers-Morrell, Development Coordinator.

Ensuring individuals have access to equal justice is at the forefront of the work of Legal Aid of Nebraska. Often times that means ensuring freedom from violence as well.  In 2021, nearly one in five of all cases closed by Legal Aid involved clients experiencing domestic violence or abuse.

In 2021, nearly one in five of all cases closed by Legal Aid involved clients experiencing domestic violence or abuse.

“Leaving an abuser is not only difficult, it is dangerous – a time when the victim is at increased risk of violence or murder, especially Black and Indigenous women who often experience domestic violence at a much higher rate. The stress surrounding leaving is accompanied with the fear of losing custody of their children, and not understanding their legal rights and how to navigate the legal system. Having an attorney to help them is vital as they are leaving an abusive situation, and helping them through the confusing, intimidating, and sometimes lengthy court process. It is our goal to empower clients to take the steps necessary to find long-term safety and stability,” states Pat Carraher, Managing Attorney for Legal Aid’s Children and Family Unit, which oversees Legal Aid’s statewide freedom from violence work.

Because of the lack of resources and assistance available when escaping a violent situation in more rural areas of Nebraska, Legal Aid of Nebraska started The REACH Initiative which stands for (Raising Effective Advocacy for Crime Victims Health and Safety) in 2017. REACH provides crucial civil legal assistance to survivors to keep them and their families safe including protection orders, divorce, and custody matters. Focused on serving individuals in 45 rural Nebraska Counties, Legal Aid attorneys work with community partners to provide necessary and essential legal guidance to individuals seeking safety for themselves and often times their children.

“REACH is able to assist clients in a variety of ways. From full-scale representation in divorce and child custody cases to providing advice to clients who just need to know what their options are. Time and time again though, I’m humbled by the gratitude clients show for what we often perceive as the smallest of things – a return phone call, a text to check in, or just the fact they don’t have to walk into a courtroom and face their abuser alone,” stated Danielle Fliam, REACH Attorney.

“I couldn’t wait for my baby to be here. Little did I know that with the birth of my baby, my then-boyfriend Dave* would begin to take his anger out on me.  First, it was him breaking things around the house to him eventually breaking my jaw. I knew I deserved better and I know my baby deserved to grow up in a safe place full of love, not anger.”

For Monica*, a Legal Aid of Nebraska client, having access to free legal services played a key role in her ability to escape a violent situation. Monica was represented by managing attorney, Jeff Eastman. “I couldn’t wait for my baby to be here. Little did I know that with the birth of my baby, my then-boyfriend Dave* would begin to take his anger out on me.  First, it was him breaking things around the house to him eventually breaking my jaw. I knew I deserved better and I know my baby deserved to grow up in a safe place full of love, not anger.” The final straw was when Dave kept abusing her despite trying to recover from reconstructive surgery on her broken jaw. “He even threatened me with taking my child if I was honest about how I broke my jaw. I knew I had to leave for me and Logan*.”

Monica took the brave step to reach out to one of Legal Aid’s partners Sandhills Crisis Intervention Center (SCIP) for help. SCIP is a local organization that offers services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence. With SCIP’s assistance, Monica was able to file for a protection order and work with local law enforcement to file criminal charges against her abuser. Additionally, they helped her find financial stability and ways to survive as a single mother. Through SCIP, Monica was referred to Legal Aid of Nebraska to help her obtain sole custody of her child.

Monica began what would become a long custody battle in September of 2020. Dave also filed for custody but the court denied his request after Monica received a protection order against him. “As an attorney who has handled several cases similar to Monica’s I realize the bravery it took to leave a bad situation in hopes of a safer, more stable environment for her and Logan. I am proud of her and grateful we could provide the legal services she needed.” Eastman said.

“As an attorney who has handled several cases similar to Monica’s I realize the bravery it took to leave a bad situation in hopes of a safer, more stable environment for her and Logan. I am proud of her and grateful we could provide the legal services she needed.”

The custody battle was far from easy – emotionally or mentally – for Monica, but her Legal Aid Attorney was there for her every step of the way. “I’m thankful for lawyers like Jeff, it feels good to have someone defend you,” Monica said.

Despite wanting Dave to be in Logan’s life, Monica worried that he couldn’t provide a safe environment so she filed for full custody. “The most important thing for me was to make sure Logan was safe. Dave’s demands showed me that he couldn’t provide that.”

The case drug out for nearly two years, settling in April 2022, despite Attorney Eastman’s best efforts, the stress of the case caused a lot of emotional turmoil for Monica. “I was constantly worried. I was exhausted by Dave’s demands. I just wanted to move forward for not just both of us but for Logan.”

“I was constantly worried. I was exhausted by Dave’s demands. I just wanted to move forward for not just both of us but for Logan.”

It was a threat of a trial that finally made Dave agree to Monica having full custody but allowing him visitation.  “It was nice, like a relief. I felt like I didn’t need to look over my shoulder in fear any longer. I look back at the whole situation and realize it was all about control. Even now, despite me agreeing to visitation Dave doesn’t always hold up his end. Regardless of that, I am thankful to Jeff and Legal Aid. ” Monica said.

While navigating the new world of co-parenting, Monica is enjoying the summer with her son. Whether it is a quick trip to the park or a dip in the pool, she is able to feel safe again. She feels empowered to be independent and set necessary boundaries with Dave. Monica wants survivors to know they are not alone. “When you leave, you don’t think you have anyone to help and then you realize there is a whole network of people supporting you. I think it is important for people to realize that”

“When you leave, you don’t think you have anyone to help and then you realize there is a whole network of people supporting you. I think it is important for people to realize that”

A report by the National Coalition of Domestic Violence states that an estimated 58,000 Nebraska women experience intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence, and/or intimate partner stalking annually. There is no statistically reliable data available for Nebraska men, the report does not indicate rates of intimate partner violence for other gender identities.

Please join Legal Aid of Nebraska for its 2022 Friends of Legal Aid Luncheon on September 29 from 11:30am-1pm which will feature author Rachel Louise Snyder. Snyder is a leading voice on domestic violence. To learn more, visit our registration page.

 

*The name has been changed to protect privacy

The REACH project was supported by Subgrant No. 139-2022-VA1013 awarded by the Crime Commission through funding provided by the Office for Victims of Crime, Department of Justice, and points of view or opinions contained in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the Commission or the Department of Justice.

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