“He left you overnight again?” Though she phrased it like a question, her voice vibrated with worry and anger; she’d heard the answer before. Her mother sat across the table and her lips quivered as her head nodded. In that unsteady line of her mother’s lips, she read reluctance, embarrassment, and fear.
Again, her father had left her mother to wait inside the car while he went into a casino and didn’t come back until morning. Her mother couldn’t leave, grab a cab and go home, because her father controlled the money. And despite a parking lot attendant telling her mother that it simply wasn’t safe to be out there all night, her mother was scared, terrified, of what he would do if she was gone when he finally got back – even going into the casino to use the bathroom wasn’t an option because he would start screaming if he saw.
“Mom,” she felt the words tumble from her mouth in a rush, expecting an argument. “You need to leave him. Once could be an accident; twice is deliberate! You need to leave him soon.”
But the argument didn’t last long; even though her parents had been married for over 50 years, the financial and emotional abuse her father had put her mother through had gone on for too long. This was the last straw for both mother and daughter.
After some researching, she discovered that she needed to help her mother set up a legal separation document to end the continuing control he had over her mother’s life. She’d been told that she could get her mother legal help for free, but once she started looking all she got was the run-around.
“Oh no, we don’t do that, try this number instead.” The same words were repeated back to her over and over until she finally set the phone down and ran exhausted fingers through her hair. Her head dropped as she realized this couldn’t go on forever. If she wanted to get her mother the proper help quickly, she needed to find a lawyer, even if it cost them money.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t easy either. Not only were they pressed for time, but their location in a rural community made finding a lawyer within any reasonable distance extremely difficult. She worried about her mother’s health as the stress was more visible each day in the shaking of hands and quivering of lips.
Finally, she found a lawyer just over an hour away. It took some convincing, some hand holding, and more than a few tears, but in the end her mother agreed to go see the lawyer. While actually having legal support initially released much of her mother’s stress, the cost of it all replaced it. Because her mother never worked and her father had always controlled the money, her mother had no income. Not only were the lawyer’s fees a necessary expense but her mother also had to find the money to pay for travel.
Somehow, they made it work. Her mother is now legally separated and the quiver is gone from her lips. But she wants her mother’s story shared so people can understand how access to legal services – access to justice – is an issue, especially in small Alberta communities. Her mother was lucky in the end, but what if it had taken so long to access legal services that the abuse turned physical? What if the mother didn’t have a supportive daughter? What if the mother had lived farther away from that lawyer and couldn’t afford the gas to get to him? Not everyone is eligible for pro bono service. Would her mother have received legal protection? Where would their family be today?
Written by Melissa St. Dennis (based on a true story from Alberta)
ARDN is seeking stories about legal services in rural communities. If you’ve had experience with legal services or have had trouble accessing legal services in rural Alberta and would like to share your story, please contact Melissa. We want these stories to help inform our Regional and Rural Access to Justice project as well as the Joint Action Forum for the Alberta Government’s civil and family justice system that our Executive Director was invited to participate in by the Minister of Justice. These stories can have a real impact if we have the voice to share them.