Pandemic Court Closures Limit Protections For Domestic Violence Victims

The United Nations Secretary-General pleaded with nations around the world to make domestic violence a priority for coronavirus pandemic response last week. But for victims in New York, avenues for relief remain narrow, especially in the courts. Attorneys for domestic violence victims say their clients cannot get child support, and might struggle to get a hearing if an abusive partner won’t allow their kids to visit. 

“We have clients who are not receiving child support, the other parent is not paying. The clients I’ve spoken to with that issue have made ends meet so far, but it’s starting to percolate,” said Meredith Lee Price, senior supervising attorney for the Safe Horizon Domestic Violence Law Project. “A client who is unable to pay their bills and cannot get into court to enforce or request child support, that will be coming I imagine in the next several weeks, because courts don’t have the capacity.”

She added that, since late last week, “the number of people looking for court intervention is increasing every day.”

In late March, the state court administration issued an executive order shutting down all activity beyond “essential matters.” Orders of protection – which are stay-away orders often used by judges for abusive partners – were deemed essential, but other critical court supports for domestic violence victims were not.   

“We’ve had child visitation or access disputes where clients don’t feel safe, but courts are closed to them since they don’t need an order of protection. Maybe an abuser wants more access to children, or refuses to return them,” said Anna Maria Diamanti, the managing attorney at the firm Her Justice, a nonprofit that represents domestic violence victims. “Many of our clients are dealing with situations that feel very urgent to them. Maybe they have an order of protection already, but that isn’t always the only issue.”

The city family courts have not deemed violations of orders of child custody and visitation to be essential matters that must be heard virtually, but victims may be heard if they can convince judges their situation is truly an emergency.

“The courts already seem strained … We understand the number of clerks and judges who have the technology to facilitate this new remote process is low, so we expect wait times will only increase in the coming weeks,” Price said. 

Experts emphasize that now is the time when victims might need the most help.

“We see all of the ingredients for increased domestic violence under these circumstances,” said Dr. Carla Stover, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the Yale University School of Medicine Child Study Center, who developed an intervention program that is serving around 150 families virtually, for now.

 New York City’s comptroller, Scott Stringer, put out a call on his agency’s website earlier this month for the courts to do more to protect victims. 

“The systems in place to support those experiencing violence, including the courts, must adapt to meet survivors where they are so no one falls through the cracks,” he wrote, with a list of recommendations, including for a dedicated email for the courts to receive queries about protection orders.

Michael Fitzgerald can be reached at mfitzgerald@chronicleofsocialchange.org.

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