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This article was originally published on May 03, 2007.

Ivana* was exhausted by reliving the abuse each time she had to testify.

Her husband, Jack,* drank heavily three or four times a week. He raped, slapped, pushed, and yelled at Ivana. He left her waiting for hours in the cold to get her to and from work. Once, he kicked her out of the house and she hid in the basement for three days. On another occasion, he grabbed, slapped, and choked her when she asked him to fix the heating.

Finally, Jack threatened Ivana with a knife. She locked herself in a room until he left for work, then she called the police, who directed her to an area shelter. This was her final separation from Jack.

Ivana was seeking a protective order to keep her abusive husband away as she sought a divorce. However, her husband, who could afford an attorney, kept appealing it. She was particularly worried because the last time she testified, the judge became irritated because he couldn’t understand her accent. Ivana was so distraught that she was ready to drop the protective order altogether.

Many Tahirih clients, like Ivana, are told by their abusers that if they leave their relationship they will be deported. They are told they will be homeless and penniless. They are told that no one will believe them. They are told they are not entitled to monetary support. For those who have children, the choice to leave becomes even more difficult. Although many of our clients are entitled to legal relief and even monetary compensation, without proper guidance, they cannot navigate the laws and court systems.

In Virginia, a Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court has been developed to be “user-friendly” for litigants who want to represent themselves. However, due to the complexities involved, it is not advisable to represent oneself if there has been domestic violence within the relationship. Further complicating the situation, family law matters tend to take a considerable time to litigate and, as a result, finding attorneys to take these cases on a pro bono basis is extremely difficult.

Our clients, most of whom are unfamiliar with the American judicial system and cannot speak English, are particularly vulnerable when it comes to family law issues. As a result, they and their children continue to suffer even after their immigration case is resolved. Many of our current family law clients, for example, have been separated from their spouses for years. They simply have not filed for divorce because they have not known how to obtain a divorce on their own.

The acute needs of immigrant women for family law services were reinforced in a survey conducted by the Tahirih Justice Center in 2006. In a survey of immigration legal services providers in the Washington, DC area, conducted to guide Tahirih’s strategic planning process, family law services was identified as one of the most pressing needs. Based on these findings, Tahirih made a strategic decision to hire an in-house family law attorney to represent our clients.

Since fall 2006, with the addition of a family lawyer, Tahirih is now able to provide urgently needed, culturally competent family law services, including temporary and permanent orders of protection, divorce, custody, and visitation to immigrant women and children who are victims of or affected by sexual violence, domestic violence, stalking, and family abuse.

Ivana was the first client of Tahirih’s new family law attorney, who was able to help her negotiate an agreement with the abuser’s attorney for an order that still provided her protection but kept her from going to court. Ivana received a protective order and is weeks away from getting her divorce and being able to move forward with her new life.

*Names have been changed to protect client privacy and safety.

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