Overcoming: The story of a middle-aged divorcee


The entrance to the Community Legal Center, the location of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake.

The entrance to the Community Legal Center, the location of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake.

She always thought she would have a good marriage. She thought he was a good husband, a good father and a good provider. They had four children and nine grandchildren. But, 32 years after their blissful wedding day, it was over.

Monica was in her 50s and had only lived in the United States for six years after emigrating from South America. She hadn’t held a job, or planned to hold a job, since her midwife training when she was first married. Suddenly she was left alone and had to take care of herself.

Monica requested that her real name not be used due to concerns for her safety and well-being.

“We had some goals,” Monica said. “To have a life together like normal. For me, that is a normal thing and I always thought that, that was his normal thing too. There wasn’t any reason to think something different. The idea was to be together as a family, as a couple.”

She began to feel alienated as things began to go wrong at his work. As she asked about it, he grew more distant. He said he was trying to protect her, but she felt hurt.

“Communication in a marriage is the most important part. This is a sad story but it could have been better. He just never wanted to talk about it,” Monica said.

When she asked him what he was trying to cover up, he told her he wanted a divorce. That was it. They separated.

He moved out immediately.

Monica was bewildered. “I think he lost his mind,” she said, “because he always had good principles.”

During the three-year separation, he informed her he would take the necessary steps to start divorce proceedings. Time passed and nothing happened.

Neither one had taken further steps toward a divorce when she found out she needed an operation. He agreed to pay for part of her medical bills. He also assisted her with a small amount of money and kept her on his medical insurance.

The operation was successful, but the attempts at obtaining monetary support weren’t. The money Monica received from him became more and more infrequent.

She started to work, taking care of children for extended family, but this only covered a small portion of her living expenses. She knew she had to officially file for divorce.

Monica heard about Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake from a friend. The Legal Aid Society is a nonprofit legal assistance organization that assists almost 3,000 low-income individuals with domestic violence and family law issues annually.

She was introduced to Stewart Ralphs, an attorney and the executive director of the Legal Aid Society. “Ralphs was a great help,” Monica said. “He helped me through the whole thing.”

Filing for divorce includes divorce papers being served to the spouse by law enforcement. “I didn’t know the procedure or how it worked really,” Monica said. “When he was served, he was really mad about it. He thought I was sending the police to him.”

Then, on a snowy Christmas Eve just a couple years after he moved out, she learned he had found someone else. It was a painful surprise. They were separated but not legally divorced and he had already remarried.

“Even though it’s technically bigamy, it’s hardly ever enforced,” Ralphs said.

The money stopped coming. No help with medical bills was ever received.

A judge finally issued a temporary order at the initial hearing for Monica to receive alimony. But for months Monica didn’t receive any support. After another hearing, her estranged husband agreed to mediation.

Through mediation, she found out he was making wages similar to hers. They agreed that he wouldn’t have to offer her any support now, but as he began to make more, he would pay her alimony. They were officially divorced.

Monica continued working, but still struggled to earn a decent income. When she asked her ex-husband for pay stubs, he refused, telling her to have a judge ask him instead.

Frustrated, Monica called Ralphs. He advised presenting her ex-husband with a 10-day time frame to send over the pay stubs before she would make a motion to find him in contempt of court. He didn’t respond to any of her phone calls or e-mail.

Ralphs sent an e-mail on her behalf. The response was immediate. She had the pay stubs right away.

Now, she sends Ralphs a copy of every e-mail she writes to her ex-husband to ensure compliance. The alimony comes steadily. He’s reluctant, but “as my attorney got into the middle of it, he knew I wasn’t messing around,” she said.

Monica’s current situation isn’t her ideal, but she does it with dignity. She continues to tend children for extended family members, and also does housekeeping. “I would like to only be the grandma, not the nanny,” she said. “It is not pleasant, when you are more capable than that.”

Monica’s daughter, Jill, echoes those thoughts. “My mom having to start from zero, that was hard to see,” she said.

But, Monica isn’t giving up. “I will do whatever I need to, to be financially independent, I don’t want Social Security…. It’s not pride it’s self-reliance,” she said.

She is currently waiting for results on her written certified nursing assistant test. She has already passed her skills test and is looking for various CNA positions. As for her ex-husband, she said, “I wish for him the best. It was all his decision. You can’t make anyone love you. They have to want to do it.”

One-stop shop for domestic violence victims


Traumatic experiences, such as domestic violence, can leave people feeling alone, lost and confused. Victims live in fear while grasping for a lifeline. When they figure out where to turn, they are forced to recount the horrors of their situation over and over again.

Utah’s first, and only, Family Justice Center provides a haven for victims of domestic violence to gain shelter while meeting with representatives of various organizations that can help their plight. This minimizes time, travel and emotional heartache for the victim as he or she relays his or her story to the organizations that can provide an escape from the fears confronted on a daily basis.

Stewart Ralphs is the executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, one of the organizations represented at the FJC. “It is important to provide services so victims of domestic violence have someone who knows the processes, so they get the protection that the law affords them,” Ralphs said.

Ralphs describes most victims as coming in as “basket cases” because of the combination of harrowing abuse situations and unfamiliarity with what to do next. Most victims are referred to the FJC by other organizations, so victims arrive without much expectation. The average victim is a 23-year-old female with several children, Ralphs said.

The staff at the FJC is trained to be empathetic and culturally sensitive. When victims arrive, they are assisted with obtaining a protective order, filing for criminal charges, obtaining proper protection for children, getting shelter and finding a job. Initial services at the FJC take between four and five hours to complete.

One of the first actions a victim goes through upon arriving at the FJC is meeting with the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake. A Legal Aid Society paralegal checks for conflicts of interest before the victim summarizes his or her situation. This allows the LAS to provide the client with specific help that best serves his or her individual needs.

Once that process is complete, the victim will meet with an LAS paralegal to prepare the protective order. When the protective order is ready, it will be filed with the sheriff and subsequently served to the individual the complaint was filed against.

The protective order is effective from the time it is served through the court hearing, which is typically two weeks later. The order stays in place for the rest of the involved parties’ lives, unless the petitioner withdraws the order.

Aside from preparing protective orders, the Legal Aid Society helps the victim devise a plan to keep him or her safe. These plans typically include notifying neighbors of the situation, keeping weapons out of the house, maintaining a packed suitcase and getting locks for all doors and windows.

“We want to make people think of steps to take to protect themselves … what is the worst case scenario and how would you respond to it?” Ralphs said.

He said the Legal Aid Society’s Domestic Violence Victim Assistance Program helps almost 3,000 people in the Salt Lake valley per year. “Domestic violence never decreases. Either society addresses the problem professionally and corrects it or the problem escalates and becomes more and more serious over time,” he said.

The Legal Aid Society has been instrumental in addressing the problem of domestic violence. It is the oldest legal aid nonprofit organization in Utah. The more recent addition of the Family Justice Center in 2007 signaled another dimension to helping victims of these horrific experiences.

Marlene Gonzalez, the executive director of the Multi-Cultural Legal Center, another organization represented at the FJC, said the Family Justice Center allows for good collaboration and it is a great tool for serving the needs of the victim.

The Family Justice Center provides representatives from the Department of Workforce Services, Division of Child & Family Services, Salt Lake Police Department, YWCA, Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, Salt Lake City Prosecutors Office and Multi-Cultural Legal Center.

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence or abuse, you can call the YWCA at (801) 537-8600 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-SAFE (7233).

Organization tackles legal issues for underprivileged


More than 92,000 low-income households in Utah are affected by civil legal problems each year, including University of Utah students. One particular organization is working to help get voices heard.

“…And Justice For All” is an organization encompassing three groups of civil legal services: Disability Law Center, Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, and Utah Legal Services.

Together, these organizations assist low-income and disabled individuals who often have nowhere else to turn.

One University of Utah student who uses a wheelchair ran into a dilemma last year when road construction on campus blocked the entry at his regular bus stop. This oversight forced the student to find a new route that took an additional 30 to 45 minuets every day. It also prohibited him from ever making it to class on time.

After calling the Disability Law Center, the problem was solved within a week and the student was able to return to his regular route.

“What may seem like a minor inconvenience to some became a major obstacle to my education,” said the student in an interview with “…And Justice For All.” “I am so glad there was someone at the DLC who could help me and that the University was eager to find a realistic, workable solution,” he said.

Most of the problems brought to the organization are very basic legal issues that impact everyday life. Certain individuals facing these problems are invited to utilize the organization’s services free of charge. The eligible individuals include those in poverty conditions, those with physical or mental disabilities, as well as those who are victims of domestic violence.

Kai Wilson, executive director of “…And Justice For All,” describes their typical caseload as issues “that impact what we all do every day, from the relationships we have … to how our houses are built and what landlords have to do to make sure we are in safe and stable housing.”

Since 1998, “…And Justice For All” has been striving to equalize the playing field for those in need. The services offered at “…And Justice For All” provide aid that Wilson estimates can improve the quality of nearly 20 percent of low-income households in Utah.

The United States legal system can seem complex and confusing. Wilson said only 13 percent of the households that are considered very poor are receiving help with their civil legal problems.

Wilson describes one of the goals of the program as self-advocacy. “…And Justice For All” emphasizes teaching people to fight for their own rights and showing them the necessary steps to take.

Often “…And Justice For All” partners serve by giving simple legal advice to those who need it. If necessary, however, the organization also has the capacity to represent clients in trials.

Of the individuals who contacted ULS last year, Wilson said only about 8,000 were represented at trial. In taking cases, needs are prioritized and those with the most pressing issues are assisted first. Domestic violence is one example of a pressing issue that is prioritized.

“…And Justice For All” acts as an umbrella organization to its affiliates. The combination of three of Utah’s existing legal aid services allowed all of the organizations to save money through shared logistics and staff support. This situation also benefits individual clients who need to utilize more than one of the three affiliate organization’s services.

“…And Justice For All” has an official mission to create and sustain resources to provide effective civil legal services while strengthening individual agencies in its distinct roles. Wilson estimates that together these organizations assisted around 36,000 people in 2008.

The government subsidizes 80 percent of funding for Utah Legal Services and Disability Law Center. Other sources of income include donations from members of the Utah State Bar in the form of monetary gifts and pro bono work. Fundraisers are held throughout the year to raise money for the program.

Assistance is also available to immigrants, refugees and American Indians in Utah through further affiliated organizations, such as Navajo Nation Legal Services (DNA), Catholic Community Services and the Multi-Cultural Legal Center.

%d bloggers like this: