By TeAndra Miller
TeAndra Miller is the head attorney of our
Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Project, which provides free civil legal services to victims in all 100 N.C. counties.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This year, as usual, the victims' advocates at Legal Aid of North Carolina are spending the month celebrating successes, mourning lives lost, connecting with fellow advocates and raising awareness of our services.
This year feels different, though. Throughout October, we have remained keenly aware of the victims of another source of violence: Mother Nature.
Legal Aid NC has a long history of addressing the legal needs of disaster victims. We know that survivors of Hurricane Florence and Tropical Storm Michael face a long road to a full recovery.
We know something else, too: Though it may not be obvious, the plights of domestic violence victims and storm survivors are surprisingly similar.
Let's begin with the anxiety people feel when they first hear that a hurricane is heading their way. Domestic violence victims also experience a high level of anxiety about their partner's unpredictable "stormy" behavior, which often leaves a path of destruction in the form of threats, severe harassment, and physical and sexual abuse.
Once violence seems imminent, both groups face a choice: Do I stay, or do I leave? While glued to the news coverage preceding the landfall of Hurricane Florence, I will admit to being baffled by those who didn't evacuate. How could they take that risk?
I changed my mind once I saw a report that focused on several families who faced a myriad of barriers to evacuating: lack of money, no access to vehicles, and the simple fear of the unknown.
Domestic violence victims can face the same challenges to leaving. When their abusers often control them to such an extent that they have no access to money or a car, their options for finding a new place to live – moving into a shelter with strangers, packing themselves and their kids into a family member's home – can seem grim at best or nonexistent at worst.
For domestic violence victims and storm survivors, the inability to escape or evacuate can be fatal. Since 2010, an average of more than 100 North Carolinians have been murdered in domestic violence incidents every year, according to statistics from the N.C. Department of Public Safety. That's more than double the combined death toll from Florence and Michael.
There's an economic toll, too. A 2014 study from UNC Charlotte found that domestic violence costs North Carolinians $307 million a year in lost productivity, health care costs, court and police costs, and more. That's less than the economic damage caused by Florence and Michael – most estimates are in the billions – but the costs from these storms will zero out over time. Not so with domestic violence.
Thankfully, critical short- and long-term services are available for domestic violence victims and storm survivors, and Legal Aid of North Carolina is a front-line service provider for both groups. You can find out more about our Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Project, and our Battered Immigrant Project, which offer free legal assistance to victims, by visiting legalaidnc.org/domestic-violence or calling our statewide helpline at 1-866-219-5262 (toll-free). Disaster survivors can get help by clicking legalaidnc.org/disasters, visiting a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center to meet our staff, or by calling N.C.'s toll-free Disaster Legal Services Hotline at 1-833-242-3549 or 1-866-219-5262.
For domestic violence victims, access to civil legal aid has been proven to be one of the most significant factors leading to a decline in violence. Last year, Legal Aid of North Carolina provided critical legal services to more than 6,500 victims.
We represent victims at court hearings for domestic violence protective orders, help them secure custody of their children, handle housing and immigration issues, and more. We know that domestic violence is a complex problem, and our goal is to provide whatever legal services are necessary to stop the violence.
Critical to the success of our advocacy for domestic violence victims is the support of our partners, including the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence, local domestic violence and sexual assault agencies, the Governor's Crime Commission and the North Carolina Council for Women and Youth Involvement.
During this Domestic Violence Awareness Month, as we continue to hold the victims of Hurricane Florence and Tropical Storm Michael in our thoughts, let's also take the time to generate the same level of compassion, urgency and resources for victims of domestic violence all across our state.