Helping Americans escape domestic violence abroad

PARIS, France — Richard Branson, Yoko Ono and Doris Buffet are among the supporters of an organization that helps rescue Americans from domestic abuse they suffer while abroad.

The group’s founder, Paula Lucas, knows personally the predicament of U.S. citizens in such situations. There were few resources available when she was trying to flee an abusive husband in the United Arab Emirates in the late 1990s.

Lucas says her husband terrorized and threatened her and their three boys during violent fits. He would make the children eat their own vomit if they dared throw up their food after being forced to finish their plates. But she says her pleas for help from the local embassy and even her family’s efforts back home, calling the U.S. State Department and elected officials, went unheeded.

Lucas finally escaped in April 1999 while her husband was delayed on a business trip. She forged his signature on documents required to allow her to travel outside of the country with the children, as well as on a check to cover travel expenses, since she didn’t have access to her money. Now, the organization she founded, the American Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center, might have provided those flights home.

At the lowest points of her ordeal, Lucas said she vowed, “if I ever get out of this situation, I’m going to do something to help” others in a similar situation.

“Maybe it was part of my bargaining power with God,” the Portland, Ore.,-based Lucas said by telephone about the non-profit she started in September 1999 while living in a shelter after her escape. The effort evolved from an online resource site into a hotline and eventually into the Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center. The organization, possibly the only one of its kind, provides everything from legal advice and counseling to discounted airline flights to repatriate families to the United States.

As the need for services grew, the organization moved from Lucas’ living room. The international toll free crisis number (866-USWOMEN) is accessible from 175 countries. The organization, which remains a small non-profit with a limited budget, focuses on services for the 4 million to 7 million Americans living abroad. When possible, it has provided legal referrals and other helpful information to non-Americans.

The organization, which estimates it has already helped more than 1,000 families, employs five paid staff and has a cadre of volunteers. It cobbles together funding from various charities to exist, including the foundations of Yoko Ono and Doris Buffet. Lucas also used money she won from national awards that came with cash prizes.

The free and discounted flights resulted from a chance meeting in 2005 at a luncheon in New York where Lucas “strategically” sat next to Richard Branson, the billionaire businessman and owner of Virgin Atlantic Airways. “He offered, I didn’t ask,” Lucas said. “It’s a huge resource for us.”

But escape is not the only obstacle for abuse victims abroad. Once Lucas was back on American soil, she encountered an unanticipated legal battle.

Even though the children did not have any other nationality, their father, an American citizen of Palestinian origin, claimed Lucas had kidnapped them, that their home was in the U.A.E. and that any custody battle should be waged there. “I had to fight for jurisdiction in Oregon,” Lucas said.

Tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees later, a judge awarded her custody of the children and she divorced, walking away from 14 years of marriage with nothing, “no alimony, no child support” for her then 10-, 7- and 5-year-old sons.

“I was 40 years old, homeless, with three kids,” she said. “But I was happy I had my kids.”

Lucas said the world needs a better system to handle cases like hers. For one, there are international treaties in place “so people don’t just flee with the kids” but these don't necessarily take a parent's domestic abuse into account. Embassies, a common first point of reference for Americans living abroad, can be an invaluable resource but can only do so much.

“We look at things through a child safety and domestic violence lens,” Lucas said, while embassies must take into account the diplomatic ramifications of getting involved in abuse situations.

Put another way: “Domestic violence is a police matter so we have to make sure [the victim] has at least begun the process of notifying the local authorities,” said Joan Patterson, a vice-consul at the U.S. Embassy in Paris in the American Citizens Services unit. She said an embassy can step in and assist abuse victims with arrangements for returning to the United States, for instance, but “if there are children involved, then we have to make sure [the parent] is not abducting the children.”

Being familiar with the laws and services available in a specific country is one of the ways Lucas’ organization tries to bolster its reach. In addition to the relationships Lucas has fostered through face-to-face contact with embassy officials abroad, she also has reached out to potential local volunteer “ambassadors.” She held meetings in Paris in late October — declared National Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the U.S. by President Barack Obama — as part of a multi-country European tour to let people know that the resource exists and to encourage them to spread the word within their circles.

One American woman said she attended the Paris meetings because the subject resonated with her. Jenny, who declined to give her last name, said she grew up in Florida watching her father verbally abuse and push around her mother. Her “first memory of seeing humiliation” was watching her father pour a bottle of red wine over her mother’s head in front of party guests because she had spilled a drop on the white tablecloth as she was pouring some into a glass. “Abuse comes in different forms,” Jenny said.

Now Jenny has begun volunteering for the Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center.