In order to slow the spread of COVID-19, people across the nation have been forced to stay home for months. Many have small homes. Many face job loss, furloughs and financial distress. Many children have been attending school from home. The Stay at Home Orders have led to an uptick in violence at the same place envisioned to keep people safe from COVID-19: home. More specifically, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the risk of potentially life-threatening situations for vulnerable populations, including women and children, who have been forced into quarantine with their abusers.
Well before the pandemic began, former New Jersey Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg woke up in a hospital bed as a result of domestic abuse. That was not the first time her former partner subjected her to domestic abuse. And it probably would not be the last, she realized, if she did not take action right away.
Ms. Rodriguez-Gregg ultimately obtained a Final Restraining Order (“FRO”) against her ex-partner, who pled guilty to simple assault. However, in a phone interview with Ms. Rodriguez-Gregg, she highlighted the FRO’s key flaws. In doing so, Ms. Rodriguez-Gregg said that “[an FRO] is just a piece of paper” which an abuser can ignore. Although the FRO process is flawed, an FRO is an important, and often necessary, legal document when bringing a domestic violence action against an abuser.
To close this loophole in safety, it is paramount that domestic abuse survivors feel safe and secure in their homes or temporary housing. For example, Forever Your Overwatch, a nonprofit organization based in New Jersey, visits homes of domestic abuse survivors and secures them with security systems, intrusion alarms, doorbell cameras, motion sensors, and also provides survivors with self-defense training. Their website is as follows: https://fyofoundation.org/.
Just like many domestic abusers, Ms. Rodriguez-Gregg’s ex-partner was not always abusive toward her. She described her ex-partner as a person who was “well-liked by all and trustworthy.” Accordingly, Ms. Rodriguez-Gregg did not immediately leave or report her ex-partner, although there were red flags in the relationship. When asked if she would do anything differently, Ms. Rodriguez-Gregg responded immediately that she would have reported her ex-partner the first time the abuse happened and left the relationship sooner than she did, “at the end of the day, the goal is to get out of the situation with safety and security. But the longer you stay, the harder it is for you to leave.”
With Ms. Rodriguez-Gregg’s approval, we offer the following advice to domestic abuse survivors who may be looking to leave an abusive relationship and/or pursue a legal action against their abuser.
One, domestic abuse survivors should document their abuse if they would like to pursue legal action against their abusers. For example, a journal, text messages, videos, or photos evidencing a domestic abuse survivors’ abuse is helpful. According to Mike Farhi, a partner at Kates Nussman, “the reality is, like in most cases of violence against women, ‘she said, he said’ is the standard used by the police and by judges. Get your evidence together!”
Two, “secret” bank accounts are recommended for those who are financially dependent on their abuser.
Three, a bag of clothes for you and your child should always be packed and ready in the event a domestic abuse survivor needs to leave in an emergency situation. And of course, call 911.
Elissa Frank, who wrote this blog, is a law clerk at Kates Nussman and is in her 3rd and final year at Rutgers Law School, where she is Editor-in-Chief of the Rutgers Law Record.