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Calif. Law To Help Domestic Abuse Victims Escape Violence

In California, it's about to get easier for abuse survivors to break their leases.

The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, will allow domestic violence victims to give their landlords a simple form as proof that they have been abused.

Counselors say it will make abuse survivors safer because they'll more easily be able to move away.

Virginia's Story: 'An Extreme Hardship'

It took four years for Virginia to leave the man who abused her. (We're not using her full name because she's afraid he might still stalk her.) He went to prison for the abuse, and Virginia, aiming to get her life back on track, found an apartment with affordable rent where she thought he wouldn't find her.

"I was safe. I was in a confidential location," she says.

But then her abuser got out of prison, and a neighbor reported someone who looked like him had broken into her car. Virginia locked her door, "and I looked out my blinds and I remember seeing him. And I hadn't seen him for 2 1/2 years, and I don't know how he found me."

She decided to move out quickly, but there were two months left on her lease.

"I had to pay for a couple months and that was an extreme hardship on me, but I didn't want my credit ruined," she says.

Virginia and fellow advocates for abuse victims asked state Sen. Mark Leno (D) for help. The result is a new law making it easier for survivors of abuse to move quickly and without financial hardship. Leno says in the past, a court order or police report was required to break a lease.

I had to pay for a couple months, and that was an extreme hardship on me, but I didn't want my credit ruined.

"You can now talk to a medical professional or a health care provider or a counselor who deals with domestic violence, sexual assault or human trafficking, and they can write a statement, which will be legally respected under law and by the landlord, so that you can break your lease and move on," Leno says.

Karlo Ng of the National Housing Law Project says that in the process of trying to escape violence, a lot of survivors don't have the resources or the time to get a police or protective court order. She also says most states have no allowance for breaking leases in abusive circumstances, and most that do require police or court documentation, which aren't confidential and expose victims to retaliation.

Lowering the bar for documentation will also make it easier for immigrants who suffer abuse. Ng says many people whose native language is not English don't trust the police, and in court and other legal filings, language can be a barrier.

"There isn't enough ... translation and interpretation resources available for folks so that access is sort of equal, regardless of whether you speak English," Ng says.

Landlords Lend Support

The bill wasn't a sure thing. To get it passed, advocates needed to show support from landlord groups. Mike Nemeth of the California Apartment Association says his organization was initially concerned that the bill would make it too easy to scam landlords.

"We just wanted to make sure that qualified people can say, 'Yes, this renter has been abused and needs to be given a safe passage out of this lease,' " Nemeth says.

Once the bill limited who could provide documentation and required a specific form, it passed.

Virginia, who now works with a group called Next Door Solutions for Domestic Violence, says the new law means more options for other victims.

"They've already had their power and control taken away from them for so long. We don't want to be another force that comes in and does that to them," she says.

Virginia notes that elder abuse and human trafficking also involve violence in the home, and she's glad the new law provides the same protection for people escaping those situations.

Copyright 2013

J.D. Hillard