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Imagine being raped, stalked or beaten by a former intimate partner. Now imagine a court ordering you to have ongoing contact with your attacker. 

That’s what is at stake in civil child custody and placement cases involving domestic violence. Perhaps even more importantly, these court decisions have enormous consequences for the emotional and physical wellbeing of children. And in Wisconsin, most victims participate in these court proceedings without the help of an attorney. That means they are forced to face their attackers in court—with their safety and the safety of their children on the line—without the kind of assistance most of us would expect to have in a property dispute or personal injury case.


Without legal representation, victims are not able to assert their rights and utilize current statutory protections for victims and children. When victims face abusers alone in civil court, they are at an inherent disadvantage and just and safe outcomes are unlikely.


In Wisconsin, we fall dreadfully short in protecting victims and their children because Wisconsin provides no funding for civil legal services for victims of domestic violence, whereas at least 46 other states fund civil legal services for indigent clients. Our neighboring states, on average, spend approximately $7.6 million a year on civil legal services for litigants who are unable to afford an attorney


It’s hard to overstate the extent to which a lack of civil legal representation disrupts our entire state’s response to domestic violence. The criminal justice system devotes thousands of dollars to enforcing no-contact provisions, prosecuting, supervising and incarcerating offenders. Victim service providers work tirelessly to safety plan with victims, to offer crisis response and to help them heal from the physical and emotional wounds. But, when victims have children in common with offenders and when they don’t have representation to protect them or the children in family court, often the legal system puts victims and children right back into harm’s way. In pro se cases, many judges, commissioners and guardians ad litem have a tendency to push the disputing parties toward an “agreement.” Most pro se victims don’t have the knowledge or ability to forgo agreeing to their perpetrators’ terms and citing the laws that require courts to account for their safety and the safety of their children.

As a state, we should invest in protecting victims and their children by ensuring they have adequate representation in cases that have enormous consequences for their safety and futures.

  • Invest in justice for domestic violence victims and their children by funding civil legal services at a rate—at the very least—comparable with other Midwestern states. 


5. Address the Civil Legal Needs of Domestic Violence Victims and their Children

Partners working to address civil legal needs

In addition to domestic violence victim service providers, several agencies and entities are working to address the civil legal needs of domestic violence victims and other Wisconsinites.


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