His was the sort of abuse that didn’t leave bruises. He’d been violent earlier in their marriage, but these days he favored threats. He told his wife he’d kick her out of the house, tell the police she was crazy, take the children away. The pandemic provided even more ammunition. He took few health precautions when leaving their Brooklyn home, threatening to spit on her if he caught COVID-19.
All this, and she still might have been able to endure the abuse. But there was another problem – he wouldn’t let her have a credit card. A full-time caregiver to their two children, she depended on him entirely for money.
“If she wanted something, even grocery money or clothes for the kids, she would literally have to beg,” said Anna Maria Diamanti, director of family and matrimonial practice at Her Justice, where the woman sought counsel. The client wanted a divorce, but that would take time, and she needed help immediately. The obvious solution was to file for child support – but that wasn’t possible.
On March 22, with the coronavirus pandemic raging, New York courts stopped hearing new petitions for all but the most “essential” matters. For family court, this meant attending only to orders of protection and some child protective and juvenile delinquency cases.
Though the trial courts resumed full operation in May, family court hasn’t added new filings for support, custody or visitation to its calendar in almost seven months, leaving New Yorkers like the Brooklyn woman trapped in painful, often dangerous situations.
“What we’re seeing during the pandemic is a perfect storm for domestic violence survivors,” said Mindy Lupo, director of social work at the Queens office of Legal Services NYC. She emphasized that women in abusive relationships often feel they can’t leave without financial support; without a court order, even those who have managed to separate from their abusers have resumed contact just to avoid dire poverty.
“We’ve had clients risk safety for support,” agreed Ione Curva, supervising attorney of the domestic violence law unit at the New York Legal Assistance Group. She described one woman whose abuser promised her money if she allowed him to see their child. The woman had lost her job during the pandemic, and as an undocumented immigrant, she wasn’t eligible for stimulus funds, so she agreed to meet. When she did, she was attacked. “Letting people just figure things out for themselves is very problematic when you have this type of relationship,” said Curva. “It’s important for the court to allow these types of applications.”
A courts spokesperson, Lucian Chalfen, suggested in an email that people in distress could file emergency applications. But attorneys say that process is fraught with uncertainty. “Some of these cases have gone through,” said Brian Dworkin, director of the domestic violence, family law and advocacy project at the Queens office of Legal Services NYC. At other times, advocates “tried filing emergency orders to show cause, and were told they would not be signed.”
Just one reliable alternative remains for people currently seeking support or custody – divorce. In New York, divorces come before the Supreme Court, which resumed accepting non-essential filings on May 25, and where custody and support orders are often part of the proceedings.
“We have seen an increase in clients seeking divorces because they know they can access these avenues of relief,” said Laura Russell, director of the family/domestic violence unit of the Legal Aid Society. “They might not want the divorce or be ready for it, but they want to be safe and have some support coming.”
However, divorce represents an option only for people who are married. Even then, getting divorced can be extremely complex, advocates say, and attorneys willing to handle them pro bono are hard to find. Her Justice, which supervises pro bono attorneys, maintains a waiting list of about 10 women needing a divorce lawyer, but Diamanti calls that number “artificially low.” “It would be in the hundreds if we took every person who wanted a divorce,” she said. Her agency eventually found the woman in Brooklyn a divorce attorney, Diamanti said, but until then, “she was in an awful situation.”
The family court restrictions have highlighted a larger problem of unequal access to the justice system. “What you’re saying is, ‘If you have the money to hire a lawyer, you can get the justice you need,” Russell said.
Family court has not announced when it will again accept new custody, support or visitation cases, and when it does, experts predict a deluge. “Before COVID, the backlog was bad in New York City,” said Diamanti. “I can’t even wrap my brain around what it might look like when they have to both get those old cases moving again and start hearing new cases as well.”
Chalfen, the courts spokesperson, did not expect the number of new cases to be unmanageable. “Family court has never ceased operations, and we currently have 30 virtual parts operating, so while we expect a volume of cases, family court is always busy,” he said in an email.
But advocates are worried, predicting long waits that will leave victims in legal limbo well into next year. “Even if they were to open up the court tomorrow, these cases aren’t going to get calendared until 2021,” said Dworkin. “I don’t know how to keep looking at this and not say that these cases should be an emergency.”
(Photo of New York County Family Court in lower Manhattan by Clare Amari)