Shared by Dovie

An ongoing series of informational entries

Shared by Dovie Yoana King

SOAR for Justice Founder & Director

When I decided to get married, I had every illusion of living a happy life. I was a young attorney at the peak of my career and thriving in my personal and professional life. I had a bright future ahead of me with the person I believed shared my core values, a fellow attorney. However, the illusion of happiness was quickly shattered. For the next 10 years, I endured escalating domestic violence in the form of emotional, verbal, physical, and financial abuse, as well as other coercive forms of control, at the hands of my spouse.

Unfortunately, like many other professional women, I did not think it could happen to me. After all, I am an educated, bright and talented woman. I have high self-esteem and I am successful in my career as a lawyer, fighting for social justice on behalf of my clients. Thus, I did not feel I fit the stereotype of an abused woman. However, behind closed doors, I was hiding a dark secret. I was constantly berated, belittled, humiliated and devalued by my abuser, afraid of his tirades and violent explosions. By the time I realized the seriousness of my situation, I was paralyzed with fear. My self-esteem had also been greatly eroded. I felt worthless, scared and alone.

I knew that leaving my abuser would have devastating financial implications on my ability to support myself. This is an extremely common dynamic in domestic violence cases. But the worst was yet to come in family court. Because I was forced to defend myself against meritless and unnecessary litigation driven by my abuser for years, including repeated ex-parte hearings, a custody evaluation, psychological testing, depositions, mediation, etc., I unnecessarily incurred tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and almost lost everything. This hijacking of the legal system, which stems from an abuser’s need to gain power and control over his victim, nearly bankrupted me both on a financial and emotional level. Unfortunately, many other victims face a similar pattern of behavior by their abusers.

But all was not lost. I read the groundbreaking book, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, and met its author, Lundy Bancroft. I credit this book with saving my life. I took the initial step of contacting a 24-hour domestic violence hotline and was connected with help. I obtained support, knowledge and tools I needed to develop a safety plan and secure a domestic violence restraining order. I also got sole legal and physical custody of my child and court-ordered supervision.

Thereafter, I made my personal healing and recovery a priority by regularly attending free support groups and therapy for abused women at the Family Justice Center. I attended yoga and retreats for women who have ended abusive relationships. I met survivors from all over the United States who helped me through the traumatic aftermath of my marriage. These courageous men and women continue to believe, support and trust in me.

I am currently making a strong comeback from the abuse, but it has not been an easy road. Along the way I have learned a few things that I hope will help others understand why women stay in abusive relationships.

First, survivors face a real threat of retaliation from abusers if they leave. Indeed, the most dangerous time for a woman is when she ends the relationship, sometimes tragically resulting in serious injuries or death.

Second, all abusers feign innocence, deny and minimize the violence to some extent, and ascribe equal blame to the victim. These distortions are insidious and destructive, serving to isolate and smear the victim. For example, though my abuser attended a batterer intervention program, he denies being abusive and claims it was mutual. This is an oxymoron, since abuse is all about power and control, not "bad" relationship dynamics.

Third, victims risk losing custody of the children to the abusive father in a shocking number of domestic violence cases due to a legal system biased in favor of men, wealth and privilege. Legal abuse poses a barrier to women and children’s safety. This is why we need family court justice.

Fourth, it is difficult or impossible for survivors to access legal help, as there is a dearth of free resources available. This necessitates that more lawyers choose careers in victims’ rights legal advocacy or perform pro bono work. There are many ways to get involved.

Despite the crippling impact domestic violence had on my life, I consider myself lucky because I got the opportunity to relocate to a new city, maintain custody of my child and start a new career. Further, I founded an organization, “Survivors of Abuse Rising for Justice” (SOAR for Justice), to give survivors a stronger voice for change. In its first few months of existence, SOAR for Justice has awarded 13 scholarships to law students- all of whom are survivors of domestic violence and/or committed to victims’ rights legal advocacy as a career. However, my story of redemption is not the norm and more must be done to expose the failings of the legal system. For that reason, I am committed to fighting for family court justice.

In a nutshell, atrocities against women and children are taking place in family court every day, but most Americans are unaware of this. For example, an abusive father who contests custody from a protective mother will win 70 percent of the time. Such cases are often classified as “high conflict,” yet they are really domestic violence cases. Moreover, the abuser is typically the one with the resources to fuel conflict while the victim is put on the defensive, facing re-traumatization and financial ruin as a result of constant litigation. This problem is well documented, but we must continue to educate judges, lawyers, legislators, law enforcement and the general public to change the gender-biased system. I encourage you to learn more and join this cause. 

On a final note, I would like to thank the following organizations that aided in my recovery from domestic violence:

San Diego Family Justice Center

National Domestic Violence Hotline

Center for Hope and Change

ARTS (A Reason to Survive)

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Kathy’s Legacy Foundation

Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence

San Diego Domestic Violence Council

Lundy Bancroft & The Life That Awaits You Retreats for Women

National City Police Department

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My Path to Pro Bono Work

by Dovie Yoana King

When I graduated from law school in 1999, I knew I would use my law degree to be a fierce advocate for disadvantaged people. As the daughter of immigrants from Mexico and Costa Rica, I grew up in poverty though both my parents were hard-working people. I saw injustice around me and as a lawyer my goal was to serve immigrant and low-income communities most in need of justice. Then in a twist of fate, I finally found the most important work of my life as a domestic violence pro bono attorney.

I am a survivor of domestic violence, and I decided to transform a deeply tragic chapter in my life into a positive one for social change. As a pro bono attorney, I have the opportunity to use my legal skills to assist other women facing similar circumstances at a restraining order legal clinic. At first it was tough, as I was re-living my traumatic experience through the stories victims shared with me. One memorable person I helped, for example, was a woman who survived a strangulation attempt by her husband. Her eye was noticeably blood-shot due to hemorrhaging. I drafted a declaration in support of her request for a restraining order, and she wept as I read her own words aloud describing the abusive incident. I could tell she felt supported and believed. This experience compelled me to stick it out and eventually I was given a new lease in life. I feel I make the difference between life and death in some cases, and this is a responsibility I take seriously and embrace openly.

Domestic violence legal advocacy has allowed me to turn my life around because it provides me with a mechanism to guide others facing crisis. I provide women with compassion and empathy during a horribly difficult situation. I am helping survivors achieve a stronger voice in the legal process, and this is very empowering.

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