May Raymond can produce hundreds of documents to illustrate a marriage gone wrong: the repeated calls to the police.
The first step, she was told, was to find her husband, who was no longer living with her, in order to serve him the divorce papers. But suddenly he was nowhere to be found. Raymond searched for more than two years, to no avail.
“I just don’t want to be attached to this man anymore,” Raymond said. “To me it feels kind of disgusting. I need this part of my life to close.” And yet, she remained a wife.
Escaping intimate violence can be harrowing, as recent revelations about Eric T. Schneiderman, the former New York state attorney general, suggest. And even for people who are not in violent relationships, divorces can be complicated and take years. But for people like Raymond, who are female, poor and have precarious immigration status (Raymond has a temporary work permit), obtaining a divorce can be extraordinarily difficult.
When a domestic violence survivor seeks a divorce, she will most likely be faced with at least three obstacles: the sometimes-prohibitive costs of a private lawyer; a legally complex Supreme Court that makes it nearly impossible to represent oneself; and the fact that the abused party must track down her spouse (barring a rare exception granted by a judge) to serve him divorce papers.
Nanny, 39, who asked to go by her nickname because she lives in a domestic violence shelter, made her own money. She worked in construction, painted nails, decorated for parties. When she first married her husband — after a whirlwind six-month romance — things were mostly fine. The only problem, she said, was that he was an extravagant liar.
They had two children together over 16 years of marriage, and the lies gradually deepened. As Nanny recalled, he told his family she slept all day and didn’t work; he cheated on her and vehemently denied it; he told their children their mother slept around.
Then, in spring 2016, Nanny’s 11-year-old daughter got into trouble at school, and Nanny said she returned home to find her husband in a rage. He was screaming, Nanny recalled, and then began smashing things from their daughter’s vanity: perfume, jewelry, a cup filled with pens. He grabbed their daughter and started hitting her until Nanny threw herself on top of her to protect her from the blows. “It was like he lost his mind,” she said.
Soon after the incident, Nanny said she found a suicide note written by her daughter on lined yellow legal paper. She first mistook it for homework.
“She was 11,” Nanny said. “Everything he used to tell her, she believed.”
Nanny said that she alerted her daughter’s principal and brought her to the hospital for counseling. Soon, she and her children moved into a shelter run by Safe Horizon, one of the city’s largest domestic violence services providers. She also made a decision she hoped would change both her and her daughter’s life: to file for divorce. But she quickly discovered she didn’t make enough money to hire a lawyer. Two years later, Nanny is still married.
It’s not that she didn’t try. First, Nanny turned to private lawyers, who estimated that representation would cost around $3,000 or more. New York guarantees lawyers for poor people who cannot afford them in a range of Family Court cases, including child custody and domestic violence proceedings. But divorce cases, even in the context of domestic violence, always occur in Supreme Court, not in Family Court, and litigants do not have a right to counsel for the full case.
So Nanny decided to represent herself.
She arrived at the courthouse in Brooklyn and was instantly daunted. “I was nervous,” Nanny said. “It was like throwing a piece of meat in a lion cage.” Supreme Court officials gave her piles of paperwork and told her she was on her own. After that, she said, “I just gave up.”
Domestic violence survivors seek divorces for reasons both emotional and logistical. They want to sever their legal and financial ties with their abusers, making sure their assets or earnings can’t go to their ex-partner, and want to prevent ex-spouses from finding them in the hospital or making medical decisions for them. Then there’s the issue of marrying again or having children with someone new. New York has a “presumption of legitimacy” law that assumes a child born to a married couple belongs to both spouses, even if the parents are separated or live in different countries.
But above all, the women just want to move on with their lives.
Marleny, 32, who asked that her last name not be used because she fears legal retribution from her former husband, was one of the luckier ones. It took her only two years to get divorced.
Marleny moved with her new husband from the Dominican Republic to the United States in 2005. She knew no one else. Soon, she recalled, he was drinking heavily and often coming home violent. Sometimes he would disappear for weeks at a time.
In 2015, her husband served Marleny with divorce papers, including a request for full custody of their child. She brought the papers to a lawyer — and then another, and then another. Each told her the starting fees for her case would be around $6,000. But she worked part time at a beauty salon. She, too, ended up at Supreme Court alone.
“They said, ‘You have to come back with an attorney,'” she recalled. “'You cannot see the judge without an attorney.'” Her case, which involved custody of her son and their shared home, was too complicated for her to navigate on her own. “I couldn’t do it without an attorney, and I couldn’t afford an attorney,” Marleny said. “I was at a point where I felt like everything was over.”
Then her husband kicked her out of their home, she said. When Marleny went to her local police precinct, someone there directed her to the Brooklyn Family Justice Center, a partnership between the Kings County District Attorney’s Office and the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence. There she found a pro bono lawyer who represented her in Supreme Court, and her divorce was completed in 2017. She won full custody of her child.
Raymond, too, ultimately found a pro bono lawyer at the New York Legal Assistance Group who tracked down her husband at his mother’s house, where he was avoiding being served. The court allowed them to serve his mother instead. On April 12, after two years and five months, she finally succeeded in divorcing him.
“I was so happy,” Raymond said. Her lawyer sent her the judgment in an email, and she printed it out, almost unbelieving. “I was shouting and giving thanks.”
Survivors of abuse trying to get divorced say these organizations have been vital to them — but there are simply not enough lawyers at nonprofit agencies or city-funded organizations to match the volume of need.
“There’s a strong desire among our clients to divorce their abusers, and a dearth of resources when it comes to representation in their divorces,” said Amanda Norejko, director of the Matrimonial/Economic Justice Project at Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit.
Even for those who obtain pro bono lawyers, cases can drag on for years. Some lawyers and experts say that abusers deliberately draw out the process, keeping their former partners tethered to them legally. As months turn into years, those seeking the divorce may be more willing to give in on issues of visitation or child support to put an end to the case.
Abusive partners can also prolong the process by simply disappearing.
Enedina, who asked that her last name not be used because she has a continuing legal case against her husband involving a child, experienced this problem firsthand when her husband moved to Mexico. Although a pro bono lawyer from the New York Legal Assistance Group is working with her, she still had to hire another agent to serve the papers to her husband. Her attempts to track him down and serve him have dragged on for years. Now 40, she is coming up on the third anniversary of seeking a divorce.
“I don’t feel free,” Enedina said one afternoon, sitting in a Starbucks as pop music played in the background. “I’ll probably be free in 20 years or so.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.