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I stood there looking at my reflection in the mirror, not recognizing the face that was staring back at me; a face so lost, so drained of hope, completely void of any emotion but pain.
“Who was that girl looking back at me? Surely that cannot be me,” I thought to myself as my gaze settled on the bruise around my eye. “I had hopes, I had dreams. I had plans for my life, for the lives of my children.”
The person staring back at me was nothing more than the shell of a woman I used to be; the woman that I could have been.
I walked around, day after day in the shell that was me and I pretended to be OK. I put on my fake smile and I went through the motions of living but deep down inside of my soul, inside of my home, things were not fine.
I wanted nothing more than to be living a life like the ones going on around me; lives with a future.
I would have given almost anything for that future; my current circumstances were not the result of a failed effort, they were the result of a failed legal system.
The law wouldn’t let me leave my abuser.
I mean I could leave, but it would most likely be without my children, my finances, a long term place to live, or any hope for a stable future.
Nearly every county in our nation has a domestic abuse shelter in it, a place where women can go to stay safe. But what most don’t have is a legal department. Sure, a shelter can get you an order of protection, but then what?
The sad and yet staggering truth is that 70% of the time a woman will lose her children to her abuser once she leaves the relationship. 70% of the time!
This is due to the fact that many women have been so controlled and dehumanized by their abuser that they walk away from the relationship with no job, no money, and no way to hire an attorney. Unable to navigate a complex legal system on her own, a system where domestic abuse is NOT always a consideration in custody matters, she will most often lose custody of her children due to the skill and experience of her husband’s attorney.
Even if I managed to escape the relationship and keep my children, then where would I be? Without a legal divorce I would still be married to him; still legally tied to his finances. Because of that I wouldn’t qualify for daycare assistance so that I could work or food stamps so that we could eat. Still tied to the joint accounts we had where he was burying me in debt, I wouldn’t even qualify for an apartment because of my ruined credit.
If I left the relationship, not only would I be leaving with nothing, but I would be leaving with nothing to build upon. Are you really free if you are legally trapped?
Without the finances or the skill to go through the divorce and custody process, I was left facing a future where I would be unable to financially support myself and most importantly, the possibility of a life without my children.
So I stayed.
I stayed because the law did not recognize how badly I needed to leave.
Every nine seconds in the US a woman is injured by domestic abuse. That is more than car accidents, rapes, and muggings combined.
Every nine seconds a woman is injured and I guarantee you that at least every eighteen seconds a woman thinks of leaving her abuser.
More than half want to leave, but without the finances to back her up, the law won’t let her.
We, as a society, spend a lot of time asking “why did she stay?” I think we have gotten better at understanding many of the reason’s women choose to stay, but we often overlook the most obvious one.
She stayed because the law would not recognize that the relationship was over.
She stayed because our legal system has set her up for failure. She stayed because what mother would abandon her children to her abuser?
We provide public defenders to criminals, but not to our most vulnerable victims.
Shelters are amazing and compassionate places that want nothing more than to save a women from a dangerous situation, but they are underfunded, overworked, and simply do not have the resources that are needed to sever the legal ties that are binding her to her abuser.
That is absolutely unacceptable. We as a nation put men on the moon, send millions of dollars to defend the less fortunate overseas, and yet right here in our own communities, we are failing our women.
If a woman is fighting for her life, she shouldn’t have to fight alone.
When we wonder why she stayed, maybe it’s because the law wouldn’t let her leave.
I wanted to leave, but the legal system wouldn’t let me.
The Author is the founder of the nonprofit Rise From The Ashes, an organization that provides pro bono legal representation to women leaving abusive relationships. She would like to give special thanks to her amazing board members; Michael Biederstadt and Erika Rahden of Abear Law, Dr. Greg Oswald of Plainfield Counseling Center, and Lee Springer of GoGoNgo for making this project possible. "At RFTA we believe that if a woman is fighting for her life, she shouldn't have to fight alone." www.RFTA.co