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March 18, 2024 Podcast

Empowering Domestic Violence Survivors and Navigating Divorce

Empowering Domestic Violence Survivors and Navigating Divorce
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To honor Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Jaime and fellow family law attorney Meredith Cross are delving into the sensitive yet critical issue of domestic violence within the context of divorce. Domestic violence can complicate divorce proceedings, exacerbating an already complex situation. Hear more about the legal aspects, challenges, and potential solutions when domestic violence intersects with divorce. Learn about warning signs, protective orders, child custody considerations, and how to support survivors. If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, this episode offers valuable insights and resources to empower survivors.

If you or someone you know is in need of help or support, please don’t hesitate to reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Your safety matters, and there are people ready to listen to and assist you.

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Note: Our Podcast, “A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction”, was created to be heard, but we provide text transcripts to make this information accessible to everyone. All transcripts on our website are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and could contain errors.

Jaime: Welcome to A Year and a Day. I’m Jamie Davis, Board Certified Family Law Attorney at Gailor Hunt. On this show, I talk with lawyers, psychologists, and other experts with the goal of helping you navigate divorce without destruction. In this episode, I’m talking with Meredith Cross, my colleague at Gailor Hunt. In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Meredith and I are addressing a topic that’s both sensitive and critical in family law, domestic violence in the context of divorce. Domestic violence is a distressing issue that affects countless families, and its presence during divorce proceedings can exacerbate an already complex situation. In this episode, we’ll be exploring the legal aspects, challenges, and potential solutions when domestic violence intersects with the divorce process. Thanks for joining me, Meredith.

Meredith: Thanks for having me.

Jaime: So we have a lot to cover today, so I am going to jump right in. At a very basic level, what is domestic violence?

Meredith: Domestic violence is a pattern of behavior and relationships that one individual is using to either gain control over or maintain control over the other party. And that can look different in all kinds of different respects. It can be your traditional thought of domestic violence, which is the punching, the hitting, the slapping, where you actually might have physical evidence of it. But there’s also others where it’s economic or there’s stalking or there’s threats or harassment. Or it may be sexual in nature. And a lot of times it’s not just one specific one of those, but it may be a combination of them.

Jaime: Are there any warning signs of domestic violence that people should be aware of?

Meredith: Isolation, that’s one. Typically in domestic violence situations, you have one party essentially isolating the other party from any of their resources or their support systems. Um, suddenly, you know, before you got together in this relationship, you had. A huge array of friends. And now you don’t have anybody. You’re not allowed to go out. You’re not allowed to do anything without the other party’s approval. So that would be a big one in my opinion. Another would be if they’re constantly putting you down or telling you, you can’t do things without them, without them, you’re nothing. Um, those are other things to look for. If somebody is extremely controlling of money and making it so you don’t have any way to, to purchase anything without their approval, like you can’t just go to the gas station and fill up your car. You have to have them take you to the gas station and fill up their car. Or you have to ask or beg for money to go get groceries. You’re not allowed to manage your own money. That you’re earning while working. The other party is. Saying that they have to manage it. That might be an issue.

Jaime: Yeah, it seems like a lot of these just boil down to control whatever the other person can do to try and take control over you, whether it be the clothes you wear, the people you talk to, where you go, how you spend your money, where you’re allowed to spend your money. It seems like all of those things are big warning signs that domestic violence may become an issue.

Meredith: Yes, I completely agree with that.

Jaime: I mean, what about some of these smaller things? So sometimes we have clients come in and we ask them if there has been domestic violence in their relationship and they say no, because there has not been any hitting, punching, et cetera. But then they start to say things like, well, he took my cell phone or he blocked my car in and I couldn’t leave the house. What do you think about those sorts of things?

Meredith: I actually get that a lot. Surprisingly, domestic violence, I’ll ask them and they’ll say, no, nothing’s there. We haven’t had anything. And then we start getting into the details and it’ll come out that the other person choked them. At one point in time. And for whatever reason, people don’t understand that that is also domestic violence. Somebody grabbing you by the throat, which is an extremely vulnerable area. And squeezing and making you afraid, that’s domestic violence. And As you said, the taking of the cell phone, preventing them from leaving, taking car keys is another one that we see a lot, where they take it. And in the midst of an argument, they remove the keys and won’t let them go. Um, I’ve had other people tell me. You know, in order to keep them there, the other party let all the air out of their tires, like. All of these things, those… Those add up in the domestic violence column.

Jaime: In your experience, does domestic violence tend to affect certain segments of the population more than others?

Meredith: In my experience, the answer to that is no. That it is not a problem that discriminates. Anyone can be a victim of domestic violence. Anyone can be a perpetrator or a victim of it. It transcends all socioeconomic. Boundaries and education levels. I think COVID showed that a lot. A lot of people. When they were forced to live together for an extended period of time. Um. A lot of those issues that may not have been there before started coming to a forefront. And things reached a boiling point, I think, with a lot of people.

Jaime: Yeah, it seems that during COVID also, that was the one courtroom that was still open at the courthouse when we couldn’t try any other cases. The domestic violence courtroom stayed open and it seemed like it was full the whole time.

Meredith: Yes, in my experience, it was absolutely full. I was in there. I was a pre-pandemic. I was in there maybe once or twice a month. And then when the pandemic started, I was in there multiple times a week on multiple different cases. It’s just… We went from one courtroom to multiple courtrooms. Just to the sheer volume of cases that were coming in. Especially during the initial stages of the pandemic. And I would say that still there’s still an increase. Prior to what it was before, I don’t think it’s as bad as it was during the pandemic itself, but. Yeah. It definitely seemed to affect it.

Jaime: Can you provide an overview of how domestic violence can impact divorce proceedings, both legally and emotionally?

Meredith: Starting from a legal standpoint, it’s another piece of the litigation. If you file, at least in North Carolina, if you file the domestic violence part first. You do have the ability if you have children. To ask the court to fashion a custodial schedule that is going to protect those children. So you would be able to get in. And get something handled with respect to custody faster under that aspect because the court’s primary purpose there is to protect. Is to protect the victim and protect the children. And then, that only will stay in place for at most a year. The temporary schedule and at that point in time parties have to proceed with a regular domestic action. For custody. So there’s that aspect emotionally. I have seen a lot of times with individuals coming out of a domestic violence situation. That. How they think and make decisions is colored by that experience. And that means they are very, I have seen individuals be very deferential to what the other side wants, not really what they need. But in an order to pacify the other person because they don’t wanna set them off. They don’t want them angry because they don’t know what they’re going to do. And so sometimes individuals. Coming out of that may make decisions that are detrimental to themselves because they don’t want to. Escalate the situation. And so sometimes it takes a lot of… Self-work and talking to other individuals to kind of realign your way of thinking. And make those decisions that are best for you. And your children versus protective and reactive decisions. To that other party.

Jaime: Yeah, it can be really hard in these cases, you know, when we’re still attempting to mediate the underlying domestic claims, you know, maybe there’s a domestic violence protective order in place, but we’re trying to deal with the property distribution and the custody schedule and all of those things. And the good thing about mediation is that you don’t have to be in the room with the person. So if they’ve been ordered to stay away from each other, we can still make that happen. We can do virtual mediations, we can make sure folks are far enough away from each other in the building. But practically speaking, it can be really tough for a victim of domestic violence to make the good decision about, you know, what they’re willing to accept for a custody schedule or what they’re willing to accept from a property or support standpoint, because you’re right, they’re stuck in that pattern and they just don’t want to escalate the conflict with the other spouse. And, you know, sometimes they just feel like they’re not worthy of having those things and that’s where having a good lawyer can come in really handy in my opinion, that the lawyer can help. Educate the client about these matters and what they would be entitled to if they went to court.

Meredith: Yes, and the attorney can be the one. They’re the forefront. They’re at the forefront and they’re the one. Making the offers and going back and forth where the client can stand behind them and they’re not the face. That’s being seen. And sometimes that can help.

Jaime: That’s a great point. I mean, I say all the time, hey, let me be the bad guy. I’m happy to be that guy here. Let me say the tough things that need to be said. Blame it on me.

Meredith: Yes.

Jaime: What legal mechanisms and protections are in place to support survivors of domestic violence during divorce proceedings?

Meredith: We kind of mentioned it before. It’s a domestic violence protective order. That is a civil order that a party can go down to the courthouse and get. Various states handle it different ways. Here in North Carolina, it’s done first by an ex party. That means the other side is not there. It is just the individual asking for protection and they fill out their complaint. File it and then they go before the court. And explained to the court. Why they’re either in fear of serious bodily injury? Or they have been hurt by the other side. Or there has been some sort of sexual misconduct. Or harassment. And then the judge, after hearing that, determines whether or not cause exists to. Issue a domestic violence protective order. The ex parte part of it is unique in as much as it is. It is heard within 10 days. The return hearing is within 10 days. So the other party, the defendant who was not present at this initial hearing. Once they get noticed. There’s a short turnaround time for them to be able to come back in and then. An evidentiary hearing is held before the court. And that’s where both sides present their evidence. And based on that, then the court determines whether or not. Domestic violence orders should be issued. To protect this individual or if somebody has brought that in bad faith, just to get somebody kicked out of a house or gain an advantage.

Jaime: So practically speaking, let’s say the ex parte domestic violence protective order is entered. What happens? How does the other person receive notice of it? Like how are they removed from the home? Can you talk to us a little bit about how those things happen? 

Meredith: Yes. Okay. So after the order is granted. Then a copy of it is given to the sheriff and the sheriff then serves this individual. That individual If they are still in the house, the order may require that they be removed from the house. And if that is the case, the police will help them gather their clothing and tools of the trade to be in leave with that. And at that point in time, the plaintiff would be able to come back into the house. It may be that the other side is already out of the house or they don’t live together. They would receive, the defendant would receive a copy of that complaint. And just ordered to have no contact with the other side. And no contact means nothing, no flowers, no calls, no text messages, nothing. No contact. And then. The face of the notice of hearing along with a copy of that ex parte order will tell the defendant when and where to appear for a return hearing. And typically what will happen is that defendant will take. The paperwork they received from the sheriff and take it to an attorney. And have the attorney appear at the return hearing with them. Or they’ll appear at the return hearing themselves, the defendant, and represent themselves at that hearing.

Jaime: So if the plaintiff is successful in getting the domestic violence protective order at the return hearing, can you tell our listeners some of the provisions that might be included in that order?

Meredith: Mm-hmm. A lot of times it will have your typical no contact language, not allowed to text or email, call. There are boxes on the forms that you can ask the court to check about the individual, the defendant not coming to the plaintiff’s place of work, where they live. If they’re seeking refuge somewhere else, like at their sister’s house or a family member’s house, you may put that on there. If there’s children involved, the school will get a copy of the domestic violence protective order and there may be provisions within there. That the defendant is to have no contact with the children or limited contact with the children. And those provisions may also be included. Um the court can award an individual possession of a house. And the court can order possession of a vehicle. And possession if there are. Is an animal. A lot of times the domestic violence does not extend it extends not only to the individuals in the household, but to the animals in the household, because that’s another way of controlling. Do what I say. Or I’m going to hurt the dog. And so the court has recognized that and there are specific provisions that can be made by the court to protect that animal.

Jaime: What if the defendant has firearms? What happens to those during this process?

Meredith: The firearms are not, they’re not allowed federal law and state law. If there is a domestic violence order in place, the sheriff is to remove those firearms and that is actually they’re removed initially. When the defendant is served with a copy of that. Complaint in motion and ex parte order. And then, and so long as that order. Either the ex parte or the full year. Order are in place. The sheriff maintains those guns. And the individual is not allowed to have them. And they’re not allowed to purchase them and they have to give up their conceal and carry license if they have one.

Jaime: Are they ever able to get them back?

Meredith: Yes, after a period of time, it is not automatic that they get them back. They would have to file. Paperwork, their specific paperwork, at least here in North Carolina, to request the return of those firearms. The only exception to the firearms. Are. Antique ones that like have their Civil War relic type. Where you have like the ball and powder. It’s not your typical gun, if you’re anything recent. You can’t keep it. But if it’s like an antique, that doesn’t work. Yes.

Jaime: So in cases where domestic violence is alleged, how does the court determine child custody arrangements? Like, what factors are considered?

Meredith: The best interest of the child is going to be the main factor. That’s what the court’s going to look at. But it is going to be the job of the court to fashion a custodial schedule to ensure the safety of the children. And the parents. That it mainly has custody of them. So if the plaintiff has custody of the children, and the primary Aggressions have been against the plaintiff. The court is going to try to fashion some sort of custodial schedule that limits any interaction between those two parties. Um, The court may say that all. Exchanges have to take place at police station. Or if there’s an agreed upon third place to do it. It may include restrictions that one party is not to get out of the vehicle. They’re made there to stay in their vehicle at all times. Especially if the kids are older and able to facilitate, you know, grabbing their bags and jumping in the other car. In some cases, the court may say, you know, what has been said or alleged here and what we find is so… So bad that we don’t believe. There should be unsupervised visitation. And so the court may order that the visitation of the defendant be supervised. And that means that a third party would come in and observe the visitation. That can either take place at. A specific facility that handles these type of visitations. Or the parties may agree or the court may appoint a third party. To observe. Those visitations and there’s different. There’s different places. And people around here that handle that. And It’s on a case by case basis. There’s no set standard for every single one.

Jaime: I’ve heard some clients say that they’re hesitant to get a domestic violence protective order because they have children with the person and they’re not sure how that’s going to work in terms of communicating with that party if there is an order in place that prohibits them from contact. In your experience, how often do you see carve-outs for parents to be able to communicate with one another solely about the kids?

Meredith: Well it really depends on. The case, but I do see carve outs a lot of time. That there will be. Limited communications just to, Um. Communications about the children. Or things that have to do with the children and nothing else. Judges will sometimes put in there that the parties have to communicate by our family wizard. That is a program. That logs all of the communications between the parties. They’ll get notifications of when someone reads. A communication. And it maintains a history of all those communications so that there’s no deleting them. Courts sometimes will also put in there. That they must. Communicate only via cell phone, via text or only via email. Because in domestic violence cases, a lot of times you want to limit it. Those loopholes. You want to close them up so that there is no question about what is permissible and what is not permissible. And individuals. In domestic violence cases. I have found that when a defendant is able to communicate with a plaintiff via text. Sometimes that. Creates additional anxiety. Because it’s a constant ping, ping, ping. And you’re wanting every time your phone buzzes is that. Is that them? Are they contacting you? So you. You may want to articulate or your attorney. That you don’t want it. Via a text message or by phone. You want it. Done through like our family wizard or by email. So that you’re not getting that constant notification.

Jaime: What does a person do if they have a domestic violence protective order in place and the other person is not respecting it and they are violating the terms of that order? What happens?

Meredith: In North Carolina, if you violate the terms of domestic violence protective order, it is a class A-1 misdemeanor and you will be arrested. So it is a. Though the domestic violence protective order itself is civil in nature. If you violate it. It becomes criminal and you end up having to go through the criminal side of the legal system to handle that. If a party, if a defendant is violating it, the plaintiff absolutely has the right. To contact the police and say, this is happening. My protective order says they are not to contact me and this is what they’re doing. And then the police will follow up with that and arrest the individual as necessary.

Jaime: What advice do you have for individuals who are currently experiencing domestic violence and contemplating divorce?

Meredith: I think my biggest piece of advice would be to make a plan. Have a plan. That involves, you know, A, B, and C, you know, this, if this happens. I want to go. To this person’s house. And get help there. Or keep a bag at another person’s house so that if something happens last minute. You’re not. You already have all of your belongings that you would need to leave. At a split second. I would contact local organizations such as Interact. They handle situations with this all the time. They handle sexual assault, they handle domestic violence. They provide shelter, if needed sometimes. And they can also help handle the domestic violence protective order aspect. They are able to allow individuals to apply for a protective order remotely. Which is That is something new and different. And a lot of times that is very helpful because sometimes it is hard to get away. From the situation itself. And so. The more an individual can do. To plan. And know what they’re gonna do in scenario A, scenario B, scenario C. The less. The less chance there is because the scariest time and the most dangerous time for an individual. In a domestic violence relationship. Is when they plan to leave. Because that’s when the perpetrator loses control over a situation and has the tendency to lash out. And so that is… I think it’s paramount to. Make plans. And have different scenarios in place. To. To know. What to do in these situations.

Jaime: Yeah, having the ability to get the initial domestic violence protective order remotely is huge. I mean, part of what the abuser does, as we’ve discussed, is to isolate the victim from their support network. And so if you have kids and it’s your responsibility to care for the children and you don’t have a support network, it’s going to be really hard to go to the courthouse to do this initial step. But if you’re able to go to Interact, which is an amazing organization that we have here in Wake County, and do that step remotely, that can be such a great help for these folks.

Meredith: There is also the National Domestic Abuse Hotline. That is available anywhere you can call it and it will provide you with resources and then Typically your local legal aid will also help with domestic violence cases. So if you can’t afford a private attorney. There are some attorneys with legal aid that handle these types of situations.

Jaime: And I think too, you know, when domestic violence is intersecting with the divorce process, it is very, very important that you address that piece of it first, in my opinion. You know, if you think about the hierarchy of needs, you need to feel safe. And if you’re gonna be in a position where you are being asked to make these big decisions about the rest of your life, when it comes to your children and your money and where you’re gonna live and all of those things, emotionally, you need to be in a position where you are comfortable doing that. And so taking care of the domestic violence piece of it first, getting a protective order if you need one, so that you can feel safe and move forward with the rest of your case.

Meredith: I agree. I think it’s very important.

Jaime: If you think a friend or family member is experiencing abuse, what can you do to help?

Meredith: I would say offer them support. Typically, it takes a victim of domestic violence at least three tries to leave. So it may be. To a person on the outside, you may think. Well, why aren’t they leaving? It’s so easy. Just get up and go. But in reality, there are a lot of different reasons why someone may stay in that relationship. They may be afraid of… If they leave, they’re not going to be there to protect the children. So they may stay in that relationship because of that. They may stay because they don’t have financial resources. To get out, hire an attorney, go get another place to live. There’s a lot of different things that come into play. And I would say support. That’s the main thing is the individual. Is going to need some support, whether it’s financial. Or just somebody that they know that they can lean on that can help them in those situations.

Jaime: I think it’s really important too, that you’re providing that support without judging because you’ve not lived in that household and you don’t know what your friend or family member has experienced. And, you know, they’re in a situation where they really need you. And so I think it’s really important that you not impart your own judgment on them as to why they haven’t left yet or why they’re doing what they’re doing, but just be there to help. 

Meredith: Yes. 

Jaime: Can you share any notable cases or success stories where survivors of domestic violence were able to secure their rights and safety during the divorce process?

Meredith: Um, yeah, I had a case where we had to try it and, um, It was an individual, she had a young child with her and there were several incidents of domestic violence. Threats to kill her. Threats to run them off the road when they were driving. I’m trying to take the baby things like that. We ended up having to play a call that included 911 in it. And the court was able to hear the fear and terror. And my client’s voice. When this individual who would just threaten to kill them and. Destroyed like the console of a car. The court was able to hear that. And immediately issued a protective order and she was able to leave with her child.

Jaime: That’s great. You’re doing really good work, Meredith.

Meredith: Thank you.

Jaime: And as legal professionals, Meredith, what steps do you think that we lawyers and judges can take to raise awareness about domestic violence and advocate for an improved legal framework to address it in the divorce context?

Meredith: I think there’s a couple different things. One, I think we can be open with friends and family about this. A lot of people. Uh. Aren’t really aware of how prevalent it is because it happens behind closed doors. It happens when nobody else is around. And so I think. Bringing it up and having it in open conversations is one way. I think another way is volunteering. At the various Organizations around here Wake County has a new legal support center. That offers advice to individuals going through this or any other domestic thing right now. And offering our services there free of charge to these individuals that would otherwise not be able to access that information. I think that’s important. And I think. Doing continuing an education and getting out there and talking about. This type of situation, not just in October when it’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month. But in other situations and other organizations. You know, bring it up, talk about it, make it so it’s not such a taboo subject to be a victim of it. That it’s okay to come out. And say I was a victim of domestic violence and I need help or. Because I think part of that is people are afraid to reach out for help. Because they’re afraid of being judged.

Jaime: Right. It’s so important that we as lawyers take our responsibility to do pro bono work seriously because we can do such good work for the folks that need it most. And I agree with you, volunteering at these organizations and, you know, volunteering our time is something we need to do. Well, before we wrap up today, Meredith, is there anything else that you would like to add that we haven’t covered?

Meredith: I would say that if somebody feels that they’re in this type of situation. To if they’re afraid for their safety in that. Immediate place and time to call 911. To document it, to reach out, to resources. You know, if you go to your gynecologist office, they’re going to have stuff on the back of the doors in the bathroom about who to contact. Um. Or your pediatrician’s office. They will ask those questions. Do you feel safe at home? And you can reach out and good. Access to resources that way.

Jaime: Well, Meredith, thank you for joining us and thank you for listening. If you liked this episode, be sure to follow the show wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss the next one. While the information presented is intended to provide you with general information to navigate divorce without destruction, this podcast is not legal advice. This information is specific to the law in North Carolina. If you have any questions before taking action, consult an attorney who is licensed in your state. If you are in need of assistance in North Carolina, contact us at Gailor Hunt by visiting divorcestop.com. I’m Jamie Davis and I’ll talk with you next time on A Year and a Day.

 

gailor hunt attorney
A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction' is a law podcast produced by Gailor Hunt Davis Taylor & Gibbs, PLLC partner Jaime Davis. You can learn more about Jaime's experience and expertise on her bio page. If you have a question about the podcast, you can email Jaime at jdavis@divorceistough.com. Please note, the purpose of this podcast is not to give legal advice. This podcast is for general, informational purposes only and should not be used as legal advice. The information discussed in this podcast is specific to the laws in North Carolina. Before you take any legal action you should consult with a lawyer who is licensed in your state.
Meredith DPI
Meredith Laughridge Cross is a Board-Certified Family Law Specialist and a Parenting Coordinator. She joined Gailor Hunt Davis Taylor and Gibbs in 2009 and became a partner in 2017. Meredith’s practice primarily focuses on prosecuting and defending family law claims such as child custody, child support, spousal support, equitable distribution, and domestic violence. Meredith represents her client’s interests in litigation as well as through the negotiation and preparation of family law contracts, such as Premarital Agreements, Postnuptial Agreements, and Separation and Property Settlement Agreements. In her role as a parenting coordinator, Meredith helps parents resolve disputes, improve communication, and navigate difficult co-parenting decisions.

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