Domestic violence transcends racial, cultural, and socioeconomic boundaries and occurs in all types of families. Yet it is frequently unaddressed. According to the 2013 Domestic Violence First Quarter Fact Sheet published by the New York City Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, 69 family-related homicides took place in New York City during 2012. 72% of the families involved in those homicides had no prior police contact.
Most incidents of domestic violence remain unreported, and although it is often difficult to do so, the need to screen clients for domestic violence cannot be overstated. Victims of domestic violence may want to rush through the divorce process as quickly as possible and waive their rights to support and division of assets. A lawyer who is aware of and sensitive to domestic violence concerns can better understand and effectively help his/her client.
How does one screen for domestic violence without hurting or offending the person who is being screened?
The key to effective screenings is making them routine.
One way to do this is to use a neutral written screening questionnaire as part of the initial written intake with a client prior to the beginning of the first consultation. The other is to seamlessly weave non-threatening domestic violence screening questions into the fabric of the conversation during the actual consultation.
For example, one may start by saying, “Every family fights now and then” or “Every family has its own way of managing money and /or disciplining the children” or “How often do you and your partner fight and what are those fights like?” “Who disciplines the children in the family?”
Once the client has become comfortable with the process, then, and only then, should the practitioner ask more pointed questions such as, “What happened between you and your partner (and/or your children) during the worst fight you two have had?”
Asking questions in this way will create a more genuine, open, and honest dialogue between the lawyer and the client and enable the practitioner to fully understand the client’s family situation, provide advice on the most effective process options and develop the best strategy to successfully resolve the dispute.