Local organization helps abuse victims safely file for divorce
After a local paralegal's sister was killed by her estranged husband, a group of Jacksonville legal professionals wanted to form an organization to help other victims avoid the same path.
"The night she was murdered, she met with a victim's advocate and got to talking on how there's no way to get free of their abuser," said Dana Welcker, president of The Missing Link of Jacksonville.
The need for a safe place for survivors to file for divorce and free themselves from the chains of their abuser is what The Missing Link hopes to fix. Since 2005, The Missing Link has helped Duval County domestic violence victims file for divorce in a safe, confidential manner.
The group relies on local attorneys and paralegals to donate their time once a month for a workshop. The volunteers and survivors meet at a secret location, and the legal professionals assist survivors with the paperwork needed to properly file for divorce.
The group has been incorporated since 2008 and hopes to expand to other cities. However, its greatest goal is to attract more volunteer attorneys so it can continue to help survivors.
According to an Attorney General's report on domestic violence, in 2011 nearly 200 people were killed in Florida as a result of domestic violence. The study also found those in abusive relationships who file for divorce are at a heightened risk of escalating violence. Many also say those who file are not familiar with the importance of providing the court with all incidents of violence to ensure their protection.
The group typically works with four to eight survivors during the workshop. The group also helps survivors file for indigent status, if they qualify. If they are considered for that category, the filing fee is waived. In Duval County, the fee is about $500 and is often accompanied by a $1,500 to $2,000 attorney retainer fee, Welcker said.
The organization receives referrals from various victims' advocates, including from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, as well as Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.
Jacksonville's Hubbard House, which provides emergency shelter and outreach services for those in abusive relationships, refers many clients to use The Missing Link so they can safely end their marriages.
"Before this program, we found it difficult to get attorneys to take on pro bono cases because they never knew how difficult the case would be or how much of their time the case would take," said Ellen Siler, chief executive officer of Hubbard House. "Missing Link is an important program for domestic violence victims who often cannot afford an attorney."
Marcellina Spigner, a family law attorney with Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, has volunteered since 2006.
"When a survivor chooses to leave a relationship, that's the most dangerous time for them and the most likely time they could be killed," Spigner said. "Just knowing a few hours per month can help a survivor to begin the process of breaking that bond is extremely rewarding."
For information on how to help, contact Welker at Dana.Welcker@pacer.com or (904) 742-7390 or Spigner at Marcellina.email@example.com or (904) 356-8371.