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  • October 30, 2020

    Working with Domestic Abuse Survivors: What Advocates Want You to Know

    Domestic abuse is a serious societal problem, the ramifications of which are felt in every community. Megan Sprecher and Araceli Wence provide tips for working with survivors of domestic abuse.

    Megan Lorna Sprecher & Araceli Wence

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    October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the perfect time for attorneys and other legal professionals to commit to learning more about the issue and consider ways to make their practice more welcoming and less re-traumatizing to survivors.

    Megan Sprecher Megan Sprecher, St. Thomas 2007, is an immigration and poverty law attorney with End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin in Madison, where she assists domestic violence and sexual assault programs.

    Araceli Wence Araceli Wence, MSW, is a bilingual advocate for New Beginnings APFV a domestic abuse and sexual assault program that serves Walworth and Jefferson counties.

    Domestic abuse advocates at programs across the state work with survivors on a daily basis and have the following tips, observations, and information for attorneys and legal professionals working with survivors:

    Domestic Abuse Programs

    • Wisconsin has 75 local domestic abuse programs including several culturally specific programs and 12 tribal domestic abuse programs across the state. Many are dual domestic abuse/sexual assault programs. Get to know your local program. If you don’t know what services they provide, set up a time to meet/speak with them or visit the program.

    • Consider allowing your client to have advocate accompany them to meetings with you and hearings. The advocate can provide much needed emotional support to the client, freeing the attorney up to focus on the legal work. If the abuser isolates the survivor, advocates are often the only person in a survivor’s life who listens to them without judging and supports them.


    • Most of our clients have experienced other past trauma (ex: child sexual or physical abuse, witnessing domestic abuse as a child, poverty).

    • Survivors who grew up in abusive homes often see abuse as normal and do not see even serious incidents of physical or sexual abuse as “a big deal.”

    • Many survivors do not see themselves as “survivors” or “victims.”

    • Some survivors are meek and submissive while others are angry and express that anger.

    • Emotional abuse or coercive control is real and some survivors say they find it as harmful as any physical or sexual abuse they experience.

    • Even if a survivor discloses abuse to you, they may not be disclosing all the abuse. Sexual abuse is often particularly hard for survivors to disclose.

    • Children who witness domestic abuse experience trauma, even if they are not physically harmed themselves.

    • Survivors have restraining order, family law, and criminal cases but they also have other types of legal cases like public benefits, housing, and consumer cases. Regardless of your practice area, you have likely represented survivors even if they did not disclose the abuse to you.

    • Immigrant survivors often have other difficulties in their lives, including learning to live in another country, learning a second language, and learning how U.S. culture works.

    • Intersectionalities like race, sex, religion, class, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc. impact survivors.

    • Survivors do not always want to leave their abuser. The survivor is the expert on their own situation.

    • The pandemic has made life harder for survivors. They are financially impacted and have less opportunities to seek help because people are staying home more.

    • Survivors often get charged criminally for domestic violence-related things (self-defense, coerced into committing crimes by abuser).

    • Domestic abuse is underreported. There are many barriers to disclosing, including gossiping/stigma. This is especially true in close-knit communities and cultures.

    • Trauma impacts a survivor’s ability to comprehend and remember important things about their legal case.

    • Survivors often feel shame about their situation.

    • Survivors often feel victimized by various systems in addition to their abuser.

    • There are not enough mental health or substance use resources in Wisconsin. This hinders survivors and their children with mental health and/or substance use issues.

    • Clients sometimes don’t understand the basics of the legal system, including the difference between a criminal or civil case. Many clients don’t know that the respondent in a restraining order case won’t automatically be arrested if petitioner files for restraining order.

    Tips for Attorneys

    • Take time to explain things to clients, starting with the basics if they need it. Don’t assume that the survivor understands the process.

    • Explain confidentiality and privilege to your clients at the very beginning of the relationship.

    • The financial impact of domestic abuse is often devastating for a survivor. This can include hiring an attorney, relocating, losing belongings, buying new belongings, losing the abuser’s income, etc. Lack of money is a barrier to a survivor leaving or seeking help.

    • Make sure you get an appropriate/qualified interpreter- being bilingual doesn’t mean someone can interpret. Different vocabulary or dialects are used in different countries/areas. Make sure that the interpreter does not have a conflict of interest or personal relationship with one of the parties.

    • Maintain professionalism but be approachable.

    • Check in with client to make sure they understand and let them know they are welcome to ask questions.

    • Explain legalese.

    • Don’t lose patience if you must explain things multiple times.

    • Whatever happens in court has a huge impact on the family but especially for children.

    • It is helpful if the attorney speaks another language or has someone on staff who speaks another language.

    • Survivors are much less scared of the legal process when they are represented.

    Domestic abuse is a serious societal problem, the ramifications of which are felt in every community in Wisconsin throughout year, not just in October. Thank you for the work you do for survivors.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Public Interest Law Section Blog. The blog is a section benefit. Visit the State Bar sections or the Public Interest Law Section web pages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.

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