Domestic violence survivors face legal challenges

How survivors navigate the legal system after getting out of their abusive relationship

ROANOKE, Va. – For survivors of domestic violence, getting out of an abusive relationship is just the start.

If survivors need a protective order from their abuser, navigating the legal system can be daunting and re-traumatizing, but gaps in the system mean some survivors slip through the cracks.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Hannah Rich, a legal support advocate for Domestic Violence Services at the nonprofit Total Action for Progress.

Rich walks survivors through the process of getting a protective order and filing for custody or child support.

Domestic abuse can be civil or criminal depending on the severity. Judges look for physical evidence to approve a restraining order, which can be difficult to find when the abuse is emotional, verbal, financial, or psychological.

“They really want to see physical, tangible evidence. And sometimes that’s hard to put out because, you know, people are narcissistic and controlling and manipulative, but they’re not physical,” said Rich.

And survivors also have to face their abuser in court.

A judge will only grant protective orders if a survivor proves there’s probable danger of further acts of violence.

Rich said if the abuser doesn’t show up to court, the case could be continued or dropped altogether.

Protective orders only last for a maximum of two years. Then survivors have to go through the process all over again.

“You’re just retelling your story three or four times,” said Rich. “That’s just very traumatizing because instead of processing it and just kind of being done with it, it’s still lingering.”

Rich said TAP is desperately looking for lawyers to work pro bono or at a discounted rate to represent survivors in court.

In order to build a case, Rich said victims should document the abuse: take photos, save text messages, etc. But she said most importantly: get out.

“Taking that first step in leaving is the biggest thing. So if you can do that, my advice is just do it,” said Rich. “You’re going to, at the end of the day, save yourself.”

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