President Trump’s 2018 budget released Tuesday provides key insights into the new Administration’s policy priorities, which, if passed, would shift funding away from services that help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
The proposed budget cuts all federal funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), a program that helps low-income people access much needed legal aid. Domestic violence survivors disproportionally benefit from legal aid services. According to program data, 70 percent of LSC clients are women, and family cases—domestic abuse, divorce/separation/annulment, and child custody issues—are the largest number of cases supported by LSC attorneys.
Economic insecurity is often a key barrier for survivors trying to leave abusive relationships. Research finds that an estimated three in four survivors (74 percent) stay with an abuser for economic reasons, and one study of 103 domestic violence survivors found that nearly all (99 percent) experienced economic abuse—including tactics such as generating credit card debt or sabotaging employment—that limit their options and make them financially dependent on the abuser. On average, victims lose over 7 days of paid work per year. In addition to lost wages, many victims lose their jobs as a result of abuse. Results of small research studies done in Wisconsin, Chicago, and Maine find rates of job loss due to violence ranging from 30 to 60 percent. Survivors often face high costs for medical care and treatment — one regional study finds that health care costs for women who experience physical abuse are 42 percent higher than for other women. The many individual costs of violence create economic insecurity that compromises safety, independence, and access to justice.
For survivors who cannot afford legal fees, legal aid services may be one of the few resources to safely separate and protect their children from an abusive partner. Victims who work with an attorney are more likely to be granted an order of protection than those who represent themselves – 83 percent versus 32 percent, according to one study in Maryland. Orders of protection help ensure physical safety and can include protections that allow survivors to safely remain at work, school, or in their homes. Abusive partners often contest divorce cases, which can exacerbate violence and harm to children, and may seek custody of children to further coerce and control their partners. Experienced legal representation is essential for survivors’ safety, justice, and support. Unfortunately, survivors’ options for affordable and accessible legal help beyond LCS are also shrinking, making this resource even more essential. The National Network to End Domestic Violence 2016 Domestic Violence Counts census found that legal representation by an attorney was the second most sought-after—but unmet—request, and that only 12 percent of programs nationally were able to provide this service.
Policymakers can work to promote safety and justice for survivors by helping them cover costs faced when leaving an abuser and to support opportunities to build their long-term economic stability and independence. Research suggests that survivors need greater access to affordable or free legal services, not less. Cuts to legal services would limit the resources available to help survivors navigate the justice system to ensure their safety and promote greater economic security for themselves and their families. As it stands, the proposed budget from the Trump Administration would make it even more cost prohibitive to leave an abuser.