Domestic abuse victims have legal advocate

Jesse Hollett
Posted 11/8/17

ORANGE PARK – The first punch came while Jane stood in the doorway to her home.

Prior to the first assault, Jane, whose name is hidden to protect her identity, was skeptical that her …

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Domestic abuse victims have legal advocate

Posted

ORANGE PARK – The first punch came while Jane stood in the doorway to her home.

Prior to the first assault, Jane, whose name is hidden to protect her identity, was skeptical that her husband’s abusive tendencies would evolve into physical assault. But they did.

The assault arrived on the heels of years of emotional and sexual assaults that Jane was either unable or unwilling to recognize as warning signs of a narcissist and lifelong abuser.

“The signs were there but I could not fathom that a physical assault could occur, I don’t think I wanted to think that something like that would occur and I was believing the best,” Jane said.

When her doubts were realized, she knew something had to change. She began a three-year saga to divorce her husband, a gregarious business executive that, on all outward accounts, seemed a settled and loving family man.

This was 2009, and at the time, Jane had no clue where to proceed. She said picking a lawyer to help with her case was like picking a name out of a hat, or, in this case, a phone book.

Jane isn’t alone in her experience. The experience is shared among thousands of victims in Florida who struggle to find their first steps out of an abusive relationship.

In many counties, solace can come from the court system. But with often limited information, many victims don’t know where to turn to get restraining orders from their abusers while they work out divorces, a time consuming and costly endeavor.

For Clay County, Winnie Eilert is the go-to pro-bono lawyer for restraining orders in these cases. And a year after she arrived in the county, many appear to have taken notice.

“We have had a lot of success with this,” Eilert said. “I will say we’ve helped a lot of people get the help they need, the protection they need from the people they need it from.”

Quigley House hired Eilert in May as part of a federal grant through the 1984 Victims of Crime Act, which uses fines from federally-convicted offenders to pay for survivor services on a local level at no cost to victims.

Quigley House renewed the grant Oct. 1, so Eilert is here to stay for at least another year. Appropriately or coincidentally, the grant would be reauthorized in October, which is recognized as Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Peggy Payne, Quigley House executive director, said many organizations that received the grant across the country decided not to file for renewal after a year. She said the need in Clay County was just too great to avoid filing again.

“For me, it’s like with our domestic violence program, if somebody calls the domestic violence hotline for the first time and tells their deepest darkest secrets for the first time, I’d call that a success,” Payne said. “So the fact that we’re seeing 30 people a month take advantage of this tells me that it’s greatly needed and it is a success.”

There is an even distribution of the individuals taking advantage of her services among every economic background. Often, Payne said, while wealthy families may have money to hire a personal lawyer to litigate or file an injunction, often the abuser controls all of the family money.

Often, this means that even well-off abuse victims can’t sit down with an attorney for counsel.

“Winnie can be of value to anyone, whether they have money and means or they don’t,” Jane said.

For Jane, Eilert became indispensable in placing an injunction for her and her four children after her ex-husband turned his scorn on them, she said. Since 2009, she has gone through four attorneys, and her time through the court system has been marked by demonization.

Often, her abuser presented himself in court as an upstanding citizen, and defense attorneys framed Jane as a woman attempting to take her abuser’s children away. The defense exploited every loophole they could, including the second chance Jane gave her ex-husband after the first physical assault, as a way to frame her as a liar.

“I lived with him for almost a year after that – and it did not improve, it got worse,” Jane said while tears streamed down her face. “He had threatened to smother me.”

Gas lighting the abused in court is a common method for abusers and defense attorneys to frame the abused as incompetent, Payne said.

“We all wear masks when we’re out in public,” Payne said. “We all have those masks on and we put them up and talk about how great of a day it was…batterers are like that…abusers will often drop that mask for a moment in court and show their true selves.”

Payne said one way to counteract the way abusers can manipulate the court system to their advantage is to diligently record abuses.

Jane remarried last year, an action she said was an exercise in trust and forgiveness. He’s a genuine man, she said. Her experience with her abuser still sits raw, but she’s no longer wounded by it. She can’t be, she said, for the sake of her children.

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