|Fair Access to Family Court - One Year Later|
In June 2008, New York State passed landmark legislation providing for fair access to Family Court. In the culmination of a 20-year battle for ensuring access to justice for all victims of domestic violence, Sanctuary for Families joined forces in a groundbreaking coalition to achieve success in the passage of this legislation.
Until this legislation passed, many domestic violence victims seeking civil orders of protection were being turned away by New York State Family Courts. At the time, New York law dictated that only victims who were related to their abuser by blood, marriage, a former marriage, or who shared a child in common, were permitted to seek a civil order of protection in Family Court.
This strict definition excluded many victims of domestic violence, including teenagers, people in intimate or dating relationships (even if they had been dating for decades and/or lived together), and same-sex couples. These victims were forced to either do without protection, or seek protection through the criminal courts (with a higher burden of proof and often daunting practical obstacles).
Dating teenagers were among those excluded from Family Court and left in danger. The percentage of teens in abusive relationships is staggering, and the numbers continue to increase each year. A vast number of victims of teen dating violence are too fearful to involve the police, precluding criminal court as an alternative for seeking help. As Vivian Huelgo, Director of Sanctuary’s Community Law Project, explains, “Family Court is much more accessible. It is set up for people without legal representation, and it allows victims to obtain protection from their abusers without having to secure an arrest.”
Domestic violence victims in same-sex relationships faced similar obstacles. Because same-sex couples are unable to marry under New York law, lesbian and gay victims of domestic violence were unable to seek civil protection from their abusers in Family Court. Many victims who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender do not feel comfortable or safe going to the police or to criminal court, where they may also face anti-gay bias or a lack of sensitivity to their issues. As a consequence, many survivors remained in dangerous abusive relationships, without a route to safety.
Many staff members at Sanctuary for Families had been on the front lines of this 20-year battle to ensure access to justice for these excluded victims. In collaboration with several other organizations, coalitions, and law firms throughout New York, Sanctuary for Families employed a new strategy in the summer of 2007 and helped found the New York State Coalition for Fair Access to Family Court. Sanctuary, both as an individual organization and as part of this diverse Coalition, pressed the issue of access to family court through legislative advocacy, possible litigation, and the media.
Proponents of reform had historically framed the issue around an idea of “expanded access” or “universal access” to family court. Brett Figlewski, a staff attorney at Sanctuary for Families, helped to reframe the issue as one of “fair access” to family court. The idea of “fair access” quickly caught on and became the rallying cry for a revitalized movement. As Mr. Figlewski explains, in the past, the issue was viewed as an expansion of rights for same-sex couples, which was controversial. But with the new strategic framework that focused on fairness and due process with respect to access to civil orders of protection, state politicians were hard-pressed to find a reason not to pass the new legislation.
In the summer of 2008, the Fair Access bill passed unanimously in both houses and was signed into law by Governor David A. Paterson. The new law opened up New York Family Courts to unmarried couples, teens, and victims of violence in same-sex relationships.
Below are a few stories of Sanctuary clients who were impacted by the Fair Access laws.
Judith had been dating her partner for years before he became abusive and attacked her with a knife. Judith’s injuries were so severe that the doctors who treated her described her wounds as “fatal”. Fortunately, Judith survived. But even though her abuser was wanted for attempted murder, it was impossible to proceed in criminal because he was at large. Judith could not seek civil protection because she was never married to her abuser and they had no children together.
Sandra began dating her boyfriend at the age of twelve. At sixteen, she became pregnant with his child and he started abusing her. The abuse was so severe that Sandra went to the police and tried to secure an arrest of her abuser, but the police told her to go to Family Court. Because Sandra and her boyfriend were not married, Sandra was unable to obtain a civil order of protection. She had to wait until their child was born before she could return to Family Court and seek an order of protection as well as custody of the child.
David was in a long-term relationship with his boyfriend that eventually became abusive. David’s partner attacked him so aggressively one night that David feared for his life. He sought services at Sanctuary for Families and even testified against his abuser in criminal court; however, David’s batterer was found not guilty and the criminal order of protection was dismissed. Without access to family court, David was left with no other options.
Miriam was shocked to learn that, when her brother began to abuse both her and her long-term partner, she could only obtain a civil order of protection for herself, not her partner. To make matters worse, Miriam’s partner could not obtain a criminal order of protection because the abuse had occurred on government property.