By Elizabeth Hadaway, J.D. ’15
In the Family and Domestic Violence Law Clinic, our work involves helping domestic violence victims, both men and women, escape abuse and regain control of their lives. We work with clients to obtain divorces, child custody, paternity, child support, and restraining orders. This semester, a restraining order matter arose that significantly shifted my understanding of both abuse and the law’s ability to support survivors trying to leave their abusers. Our client suffered severe physical injuries as a result of an attack by her husband, which forced her to undergo medical treatment and miss several weeks of work. During her recovery, she sought out an ex-parte restraining order, and we represented her in hearings related to an extension of the order. While our primary objective was to extend the restraining order, we also requested lost wages and medical expenses to address the financial consequences of her husband’s attack.
In conducting research prior to the extension hearing we discovered that Massachusetts law clearly permits a court to provide monetary compensation to abuse victims. In fact, the law explicitly provides that, once the court has determined that a person has suffered abuse, it may, in addition to ordering a restraining order extension, require “the defendant to pay the person abused monetary compensation for the losses suffered as a direct result of such abuse. Compensatory losses shall include, but not be limited to, loss of earnings or support, costs for restoring utilities, out-of-pocket losses for injuries sustained, replacement costs for locks or personal property removed or destroyed, medical and moving expenses and reasonable attorney’s fees.” M.G.L. c. 209, §3(f).
We had to return to court three times in order to obtain full relief for our client. During one hearing, one judge elected to pass us to a different judge to hear the compensation remedy, after she noted how unusual the request seemed to her. But in the end, the clear language and intent of the Massachusetts legislature to protect abuse victims from the further economic harms of abuse won out. Our client walked away with not only the standard year-long extension order but also with an order for lost wages and additional money for medical expenses.
To be sure, the victory in hand does not end the process, either for the client’s self-liberation from her abuser, or for her ability to collect on the judgment. Violations of restraining order provisions related to compensation can be tricky to enforce, especially when clients may still fear inciting their abuser’s wrath if they push too hard to collect a judgment. Likewise, the economic impact of abuse does not boil down so easily into a one-time snapshot of lost wages over a few weeks following abuse. Some clients become homeless upon leaving abusers (indeed, the National Network to End Domestic Violence found that 63% of homeless women have been victims of domestic violence as adults). Others have difficulty finding work because of lost income-earning years during the abusive relationship, or they lose their current job due to missed work, caused either by the abuse, or because of court dates related to the abuse. Immigration issues often arise as well, as many abusers use the threat of reporting a spouse as a form of control and intimidation.
Nevertheless, what is clear from our client’s victory in court and the language of the statute is that the purpose of 209A is to provide remedies for victims that encompass financial losses. In the words of one Massachusetts appellate court, “In terms of the relief available under the Abuse Prevention Act, the statute is sui generis. It incorporates elements of domestic relations relief, criminal relief, equitable relief and tort.” Mitchell v. Mitchell, 62 Mass. App. Ct. 769, 773 (2005) (quoting 3 Kindregan & Inker, Family Law and Practice § 57.8 (3d ed.2002)). Restraining orders under Massachusetts law have greater power than is currently recognized. Accordingly, I hope that our client’s victory and those like it inspire clients and their attorneys to make use of the full scope of relief authorized under chapter 209A, §3, and more broadly to push the conversation on remedying domestic violence to recognize the significant economic impact of abuse.