Sign In
    Wisconsin Lawyer
    January 01, 2018

    Representing Domestic Abuse Survivors

    Be ready to help clients who have experienced domestic abuse; they might have special needs during legal representation, whether or not the case involves the alleged abuser.

    Amanda R. Rabe & Megan Lorna Sprecher

    cozy winter blanket

    (Note: This article was updated on January 14, 2020.)

    Domestic abuse or domestic violence is a pervasive issue in society. The U.S. Department of Justice defines it as “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.”1 The Power and Control Wheel, often used to educate people about the dynamics of domestic abuse, lists nine categories of power and control often used or present in abusive relationships: physical and sexual violence; intimidation; emotional abuse; isolation; minimizing, denying, and blaming; children; privilege; economic abuse; and coercion and threats.2

    Wisconsin is not immune to domestic abuse. Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) data shows that 28,729 incidents of domestic abuse were reported to law enforcement agencies and then referred to district attorneys’ offices in the state in 2012.3 This statistic does not include the many incidents of domestic abuse that go unreported. Many domestic abuse victims are hesitant to report the crime due to obstacles such as shame, stigma, fear of the abuser, and community or family pressure. Thus, domestic abuse is an underreported crime.

    Recent data collected by the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) illustrates that the problem is not abating. NNEDV’s 2018 census of Wisconsin domestic abuse programs shows that on one day alone – the census collection day, Sept. 13, 2018 – the participating programs (50 out of 71 identified domestic abuse programs throughout Wisconsin) provided services to 1,723 victims.4 The most recent Wisconsin Domestic Violence Homicide Report shows the severity of the problem: in 2018, 47 people in Wisconsin lost their lives in domestic violence-related homicide cases, an increase from the previous year.5

    Lawyers must be prepared to work effectively with domestic abuse survivors in a variety of civil cases, not just family law-related cases. Domestic abuse survivors may seek representation for restraining order or divorce cases but they also need representation in many other types of cases in which the abusive power and control dynamic has a direct impact. Examples include a U.S. citizen refusing to petition for an immigrant spouse, a person coercing an intimate partner in the contents of a will, and one parent seeking primary custody and physical placement after the children witnessed or experienced domestic abuse.

    Tools to Effectively Work With a Client Experiencing Trauma

    Working with clients experiencing trauma can pose different challenges to working with clients in more secure situations. A client currently experiencing trauma might not have the same emotional, financial, or everyday resources as other clients. A client experiencing domestic abuse might lack a simple resource such as a physical address or the emotional energy to participate effectively in a legal case without additional assistance from the lawyer. Lawyers may want to use the local domestic violence program for resources and assistance with working effectively with clients experiencing trauma and facing domestic violence.

    Amanda RabeAmanda Rabe, Marquette 2012, works at Wisconsin Judicare in Wausau assisting clients on civil legal issues with a focus on assisting victims of domestic abuse. She also staffs an outreach program at her local women’s shelter providing brief advice to individuals receiving assistance through the Women’s Community. Amanda is the treasurer and secretary for the State Bar of Wisconsin Public Interest Law Section board.

    Megan SprecherMegan Sprecher, St. Thomas 2007, works at End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, as the immigration and poverty law attorney. She provides technical assistance to domestic abuse program advocates statewide on legal issues their clients face and provides substantive trainings to advocates, court interpreters, community groups, and attorneys. Megan is a pro bono attorney for Legal Action of Wisconsin, Kids in Need of Defense, and Wisconsin Legal Advice Online.

    Addressing Safety Concerns. One obstacle these clients face during representation is that there might not be a safe way to contact them, either by telephone or in writing. The lawyer and client should discuss the client’s communication preferences and any safety concerns at the outset of the relationship. When trying to reach a client in an unsafe situation, lawyers may want to call from a private number. If leaving a voicemail, the lawyer should state only her first name and ask for a return call so an abuser will not learn about the representation from a recorded message.

    Other clients may choose not to receive calls directly and instead set up a system with the lawyer to contact a safe third party, such as a friend, to whom to relay the message asking the client to call back. When creating a case file, either electronic or paper, the lawyer or staff should list a “safe” address, phone number, and email address to ensure that all staff working on the case communicate with the client in the manner the client deems best for his or her personal safety.

    When a client fears for his or her safety and does not want the abuser to find him or her through mail, or simply does not want mail from lawyers and others assisting in safety planning to go to the home address, the Wisconsin Safe at Home address-confidentiality program may help. (See Sidebar, Protecting Clients’ Safety With a Confidential Address.)

    Referrals to Local Domestic Abuse Program. Given the complexities that can arise in representing a domestic abuse survivor, an effective referral to your local domestic abuse program can benefit the client, the case, and the lawyer-client relationship. Successfully referring a client to a program may be as simple as providing the client with the program’s phone number, but lawyers should be aware of potential safety issues. Some abuse survivors, especially those still living with or in contact with their abuser, might not be safe possessing a brochure from a domestic abuse program or using their own phone to call the program to ask for help.

    To make an effective referral, a lawyer may need to think outside the box and offer to let the survivor call the program from the law office phone. Clients with safety and transportation issues may find it easier to follow through on the referral if the lawyer suggests a convenient, safe place for the client to meet with a program advocate, such as the lawyer’s office, a library, or even a fast-food restaurant.

    The services offered by domestic abuse programs differ from program to program but generally include safety planning, one-on-one consultations, court accompaniment for family law and criminal cases, support groups, and referrals to other relevant social service providers. Domestic abuse program services can also include mental health counseling, children’s programming, shelter, and transitional housing. A lawyer familiar with the services the local program provides can help paint a picture for the client about what help he or she can expect to receive there and increase the likelihood the client will follow through on the referral.

    The lawyer and client should discuss the client’s communication preferences and any safety concerns at the outset of the relationship.

    These services help create a safety net for the survivor and take some of the burden off the lawyer. Abusers commonly use isolation to control their victims. If an advocate can provide emotional support for a survivor lacking a support network, this also takes some pressure off the lawyer. A client who gains necessary services and support will be better equipped to actively participate in the legal case and feel more comfortable and better prepared emotionally to attend hearings.

    Some clients, especially if it is not a family law or restraining order case, might not clearly identify themselves as survivors of domestic abuse. Doing a brief assessment of the client’s safety can bring to light safety concerns that may otherwise have gone unnoticed by the lawyer. Lawyers in this position have the opportunity to become an active part of the “no-wrong-door” approach many human service agencies are adopting. The no-wrong-door model takes into account the barriers survivors face in disclosing abuse and focuses on ensuring that when survivors make a disclosure, they are connected to the wide variety of support services needed to obtain safety, regardless of where the initial contact is made. The no-wrong-door approach strives to cut through the bureaucratic red tape standing in the way of survivor access to services. Lawyers who make direct referrals to agencies – with client consent, of course – can help clarify which services are needed and help the client connect directly with the advocates.

    Having a good relationship with the local domestic abuse agency can offer other benefits. With the client’s informed consent to waive the statutory domestic violence or sexual assault advocate-victim privilege and other funding-based confidentiality provisions, the lawyer may be able to use the services received by the client from the domestic abuse program as evidence in the case. The Wisconsin DOJ also holds periodic expert witness trainings throughout the state for domestic abuse and sexual assault program staff, who can testify about things such as the dynamics of domestic abuse, marital rape, and parental alienation syndrome.

    Protecting Clients’ Safety with a Confidential Address

    The Wisconsin Safe at Home address-confidentiality program “provides victims of actual or threatened domestic abuse, child abuse, sexual abuse, stalking, and trafficking, or those who simply fear for their physical safety with a legal substitute address to be used for both public and private purposes.”7 The Wisconsin DOJ administers the program and provides information for clients and victim advocates on its website at Safe at Home began April 1, 2017, and is governed by Wis. Stat. section 165.68 regarding address confidentiality.

    To qualify for the Safe at Home program, the individual must assert all the following, as required by Wis. Stat. section 165.68(2)(a):

    • He or she is a Wisconsin resident.

    • The applicant either 1) is a victim of abuse, including threats of abuse, the guardian or parent of a person who is a victim of an act or threat of abuse, or a resident of a household in which a victim of an act or threat of abuse also resides; or 2) fears for his or her safety.

    • The residence or place the applicant will reside, in the state of Wisconsin, is not known by the person who committed the abuse or threat against the applicant or his or her child or ward.

    • The applicant will not disclose his or her actual address to the person who committed the abuse or threat against the applicant or his or her child or ward.

    To apply for the Safe at Home program, the applicant also must do safety planning with an advocate assistant designated by the Safe at Home program. A list of programs with designated Safe at Home application assistants on staff is at the Safe at Home website, along with applications in English, Spanish, and Hmong. Applicants are able to use the Safe at Home address for all purposes, including legal documents.

    Lawyers are permitted to provide the court with only a Safe at Home address and not disclose the participant’s actual physical address. To avoid potential issues with disclosure and discovery, lawyers may wish to not have the client’s actual physical address in the field at all.

    Communication. Communication is another area in which lawyers might encounter obstacles when working with clients who face domestic violence or other trauma. The stress of the trauma can make it difficult for the client to comprehend information initially or retain that information over a period of time. A lawyer representing a domestic abuse survivor must be prepared to repeat information and, if the client feels safe to have it, write the information down for the client to review as needed.

    Repeating advice can feel tedious to the lawyer, but it is important to keep in mind that the client’s life in general may affect his or her ability to remember information from day to day. If the client has an email account and is able to go online, emailing important pieces of information, such as court dates or terms of a court order, can be a useful tool to avoid issues that could arise from a client needing continued repetition of information when the lawyer might not be available.

    Court Preparation. It is also important for lawyers to remember that there are additional considerations when preparing to go to court with clients who are experiencing trauma. Lawyers should work with clients and, if applicable, the other advocates supporting the client, to put a safety plan in place for arriving at court. Some domestic abuse centers allow clients to park at the center or shelter and then be driven to court by an advocate so the abuser cannot track the car or get the client alone near the car after court. In other situations, a lawyer may want to meet the client at a nearby location and arrive at court together or have the client meet the lawyer earlier than the scheduled court time to avoid potential run-ins in the parking lot.

    Courthouse Safety. During the hearing there are also steps the lawyer can take to keep the client safe. If practicing in a county that does not routinely staff courtrooms with bailiffs, contact the clerk of courts or judicial assistant to find out the local process for requesting a bailiff. This will help give the client a sense of security, communicate to the adverse party that a law enforcement officer is keeping an eye on the proceedings, and make it less likely that violence occurs in the courthouse. If both parties require interpreters, request two interpreters or headsets so the client does not have to sit next to the abuser.

    The “no-wrong-door” model takes into account the barriers survivors face in disclosing abuse and focuses on ensuring that when survivors make a disclosure, they are connected to the wide variety of support services needed to obtain safety, regardless of where the initial contact is made.

    The level of precaution and additional steps the lawyer takes will vary depending on the severity of the abuse and the risk level for domestic violence homicide. To assess lethality factors, consider whether the abuser has threatened to kill the client or his or her children, whether a weapon has ever been used or threatened, and whether the client believes the abuser may kill him or her.

    Lawyers should also consider whether firearms are available to the abuser, if the abuser has ever tried to physically injure the client, and if the abuser is routinely or violently jealous or in control of the majority of the client’s day-to-day activities. The more of these factors that are true for a client, the higher the risk of domestic abuse homicide the client faces.

    For additional information on screening clients for this information, use the Danger Assessment screening tool (see Sidebar, Resources for Domestic Abuse Survivors and Their Lawyers) or the Domestic Abuse Guidebook for Wisconsin Guardians ad Litem: Addressing Custody, Placement, and Safety Issues created by the Governor’s Council on Domestic Abuse and End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin.6

    Trust. Trust, essential in all fruitful lawyer-client relationships, is especially imperative when representing a domestic abuse survivor. Many survivors are hesitant to disclose the extent of the abuse for fear that the information will not be kept confidential.

    At the outset of a representation, the lawyer should explain attorney-client privilege and confidentiality, and also make clear to the client the lawyer’s duties under the Wisconsin Supreme Court Rules regarding when or if a lawyer is required to disclose information provided by the client. The largely discretionary disclosure requirements require lawyers to avoid revealing information from the client unless certain circumstances exist as laid out in SCR 20:1.6. If a lawyer is not sure if such circumstances exist, he or she should call the State Bar of Wisconsin ethics hotline at (800) 254-9154.

    Resources for Domestic Abuse Survivors and Their Lawyers

    There are many helpful state and national resources for lawyers representing domestic abuse survivors. A few are listed below:

    Effect of Power and Control Dynamic

    Power and control in abusive relationships can affect a legal case well beyond the initial separation of the parties. The continuing dynamics can affect the way a case needs to be handled, as well as how a lawyer should work with the client.

    As clients learn to make their own decisions again or are trying to find a way to move forward, they may also change their minds about the goals of the case, as a result of ongoing fear of the abuser, either retaliation or further abuse. It is important for lawyers to present the legal remedies available as the case progresses to make sure the client still understands the options and still wishes to pursue the case.

    By assisting the client with accessing support and safety planning, lawyers can help clients take steps to protect themselves such as obtaining restraining orders and injunctions, reporting abuse to police, and following through with court action. When a client is worried about triggering the abuser and the potential for further abuse, he or she may be unable to think about the long-term case outcome possibilities, so putting in place supports can help the client feel an increased sense of safety and a better idea of what he or she would like as the case outcome.

    Taking Care of Oneself While Representing Traumatized Clients

    Representing a domestic abuse survivor, while rewarding, also can be emotionally taxing or stressful. Using stress-management techniques such as regular exercise and healthy eating is especially important when representing a client in crisis or with a particularly harrowing story.

    Lawyers should work with clients and, if applicable, the other advocates supporting the client, to put a safety plan in place for arriving at court.

    In addition to engaging in self-care and referring a survivor to a domestic abuse program, a lawyer might wish to seek support from colleagues familiar with representing domestic abuse survivors or from the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (WisLAP). WisLAP’s confidential services include an initial evaluation, referrals, peer assistance, and consultation. Seeking help from WisLAP may be especially beneficial to lawyers currently experiencing domestic abuse themselves or lawyers whose representation of survivors brings up memories of past abuse or traumatic childhood experiences. WisLAP’s 24-hour helpline is (800) 543-2625.


    Being attuned to the dynamics and signs of domestic abuse can change the course of a domestic abuse survivor’s

    life through effective trauma-informed representation. Lawyers who are aware of domestic-abuse dynamics and the resources available for advocates, lawyers, and survivors can provide meaningful representation that increases client safety and achieves positive results in the court system. The ability to identify domestic abuse is an important part of working with clients across all areas of law. By identifying domestic abuse, lawyers can better meet client needs and increase client safety.

    Given the large number of domestic abuse incidents, reported and unreported, lawyers should adopt the no-wrong-door approach to help survivors reach the appropriate services in the most efficient and effective manner possible. Lawyers who know about the available resources have the opportunity to become one of those doors for their clients and take a step toward lowering the number of domestic violence incidents and homicides in Wisconsin.

    Meet Our Contributors

    Who has most inspired you in your legal career? 

    Megan SprecherCareer legal services attorneys are a continuing source of inspiration for me in my legal career. My office neighbor at Legal Aid, Joe, is a perfect example. Joe started working for legal services in the late 1960s doing civil rights work in Alabama and continued doing a variety of civil legal work for low-income clients for the next 50-plus years.

    Joe’s methods for both his legal advocacy and advocacy for volunteer causes never cease to be passionate and unconventional. When his parish church was ordered closed, he somehow finagled borrowing a monster truck from someone and held his protest from atop the truck in front of the church! While I’ve yet to find an opportunity to use a monster truck in my legal work (my two-year-old son would be so impressed!!), I do strive to emulate Joe’s passion and creativity in my work.

    Megan Sprecher, End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, Madison.

    How do you recharge your batteries?

    Amanda RabeWorking with survivors of domestic abuse can be very draining without proper self-care, so I like to find ways to get some emotional distance from my practice by engaging in activities that are more focused on the moment than strategizing and helping others cope with difficulties. By making sure I find time to take my dog to the park or try a new recipe for my family, I am able to stay fresh and engaged when I return to my work.

    Amanda Rabe, Wisconsin Judicare, Wausau.

    Become a contributor! Are you working on an interesting case? Have a practice tip to share? There are several ways to contribute to Wisconsin Lawyer. To discuss a topic idea, contact Managing Editor Karlé Lester at (800) 444-9404, ext. 6127, or email Check out our writing and submission guidelines.


    1 U.S. Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women, Domestic Violence (2017).

    2 Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs, Power and Control Wheel.

    3 Wis. DOJ, Office of Crime Victim Services, Domestic Abuse Incident Report (DAIR) for the Period of January 1, 2012 – December 31, 2012 (2014).

    4 National Network to End Domestic Violence, Domestic Violence Counts: Wisconsin Summary (2018).

    5 S. Krall & L. Friedman, Wisconsin Domestic Violence Homicide Report 2018 (Madison, WI. End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, 2018).

    6 Governor’s Council on Domestic Abuse & End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin, Domestic Abuse Guidebook for Wisconsin Guardians Ad Litem: Addressing Custody, Placement, and Safety Issues (2017).

    7 Wis. DOJ, Safe at Home: Wisconsin’s Address Confidentiality Program, (last visited Dec. 16, 2017).

Join the conversation! Log in to comment.

News & Pubs Search

Format: MM/DD/YYYY