Legal Aid Kicks Off Economic Security Project focused on Domestic Violence Survivors
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Legal Aid is excited to announce the launch of the Domestic Violence Economic Security Project, which focuses on increasing economic security for low-income survivors of domestic violence in the District of Columbia. The Project, made possible by the generosity of Latham & Watkins LLP through Equal Justice Works, will represent and educate survivors in the areas of public benefits, child support, and employment law. 

Changes in District law and the pressing needs of District residents who face domestic violence demonstrate the need for this Project, which will provide both individual and systemic advocacy. We will use comprehensive economic advocacy to help survivors obtain, and maintain, financial security in order to break the cycle of violence.

In 2014, Legal Aid attorneys assisted a client, Ms. E.C., in obtaining full unemployment benefits after she was fired from her job because of domestic violence. Ms. E.C.’s ex-boyfriend threatened to get her fired after she ended their relationship. He succeeded. She was terminated after he stalked her repeatedly at work. After an initial denial of unemployment benefits, Legal Aid assisted Ms. E.C. in appealing the decision. Ms. E.C. ultimately obtained full benefits in a landmark decision from the D.C. Court of Appeals, E.C. v. RCM of Washington, Inc.. The court held that a job loss “due to domestic violence” should be interpreted broadly under the D.C. Unemployment Compensation Act to protect victims when domestic violence was a “substantial factor” in their job loss. The Project builds on this victory to increase financial security for clients who find themselves in similar situations to Ms. E.C. Many survivors are held hostage by their abusers, preventing them from going to work and resulting in job loss.

Financial security is the primary predictor of whether a victim will be able to leave, and stay free from, an abusive situation. Economic abuse is a key component of domestic violence. Abusers often interfere with their partners’ employment by preventing them from leaving the house or stalking them at work. Survivors can risk their jobs by taking time from work to deal with the legal and health-related impacts of abuse. The process of applying for and maintaining benefits is time consuming and cumbersome for a survivor who loses his or her job. Additionally, pursuing child support from an abuser can be difficult and dangerous.

The Project recognizes the impact of legal services for survivors and will focus on providing survivors with advice and/or representation at the critical moment when survivors are attempting to free themselves of an abusive situation through pursuing a civil protection order.  This way, we can limit the burden on survivors who would otherwise have to go to multiple providers to address their safety and financial security needs.

The timing of the Project is critical. Without Council and Administration action, families who have received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (“TANF”) benefits for more than five years – an estimated 6,000 families and 13,000 children – will lose their TANF benefits.  Although DV survivors may be exempted from the time limit, they must be identified and screened in order to receive the exemption. Legal Aid has assisted clients like Ms. S., who was receiving reduced TANF. After she left her abuser, she could not comply with TANF program requirements because she had to attend multiple court dates, obtain new housing, and take her children to therapy. Legal Aid helped Ms. S. get restored to full benefits. Legal Aid is currently working with the District to develop and implement better screening mechanisms and policies to guide the process of identifying survivors like Ms. S. and other vulnerable families.

Legal Aid is grateful to Latham and Watkins and Equal Justice Works for supporting this work.  We look forward to taking some important steps towards increasing the economic stability of survivors in addition to protecting their physical safety.

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