Family Law

An illustration of a lawyer ushering a Woman and her child into a courtroom.Trends in 2024 and why students are drawn to practice it.

Trends and new challenges paint a different picture than what it looked like just a few years ago. But the importance and appeal of family law remain consistent.

“Family law issues impact the entire lives of those we serve at the clinic: their physical safety, economic security and children’s welfare,” said Jennifer Binkley, director of the Family Court Clinic at University of Wisconsin Law School. “Although it involves incredibly emotional issues and high stakes, family law provides amazing opportunities to make a real difference and offers practical experience in civil litigation, including courtroom advocacy, that is applicable to many areas of law.”

Intimate Partner Violence

Though statutes often refer to domestic violence and abuse, the preferred terminology has shifted to intimate partner violence (IPV).

IPV involves physical violence, sexual violence, stalking or psychological harm by a current or former partner or spouse. It can occur among heterosexual or same-sex couples and does not require sexual intimacy.

“Increasingly, violence is being seen in relationships where partners do not live in the same household,” said Ryan Poe-Gavlinski, deputy director of the Economic Justice Institute (EJI), director of the Restraining Order and Survivor Advocacy Clinic (ROSA) and director of the Lawyering Skills program at UW Law.

The prevalence of firearms in IPV is a particular concern in Wisconsin: In 2022, 88.5% of all IPV homicides in the Badger State were committed with a gun.

The state is home to one in every six IPV deaths in the United States, and in November 2023, Wisconsin reached a 22-year high for such deaths. While some legislators are trying to change the law to prevent abusers from having guns, firearm enforcement and prohibition continue to be a challenge as these issues are weighed against the Second Amendment constitutional right, Poe-Gavlinski said.

It is also difficult for survivors to prove that the subject of a restraining injunction does not have access to a gun, she added. And in general, because resources are limited for aiding survivors, it makes it more difficult for them to leave their situation, Poe-Gavlinski said.

“Many survivors pursue restraining orders on their own without legal assistance,” she said. “Navigating the legal system is scary on its own, much less when you are a survivor having to confront your abuser. IPV is still taboo and can cause survivors shame and embarrassment.”

Another barrier to leaving is around pets, Poe-Gavlinski noted.

“Abuse toward a pet is a common act of intimate partner violence,” she said. “Many shelters do not take pets; hotels and apartments have restrictions. There are only few organizations now set up to foster pets for survivors. I have had clients refuse to leave a violent relationship because they cannot leave with their household pets, and they fear the abuser will harm their pet if they do leave.”


To increase control and decrease conflict, some couples are looking more at alternative dispute resolution in divorce, like mediation, arbitration and collaborative divorce.

In mediation, the two parties seek independent assistance to find consensus. In arbitration, disputed issues are submitted to an arbitrator, who makes a binding decision instead of a judge.

In collaborative divorce, the parties collectively assemble a team to resolve all issues. This goes beyond attorneys to include mental health professionals, child custody specialists, accountants and others. If the process succeeds, the agreement goes to a family court judge, and the legal process proceeds uncontested. If the process fails, each party must hire a new attorney to represent them in a contested divorce process in court.

While this can be more efficient, it can also be more expensive, said Cary Bloodworth, who directs the Family Legal Advocacy and Supports Clinic (FLASC) at UW Law.

Another effort in Wisconsin to make divorce easier is a bill that would allow “divorce by affidavit” in some circumstances, Bloodworth said. Currently, the court is required to hold a final hearing in all divorce proceedings, even if the parties agree on everything and the court is going to adopt their agreement.

The new proposal would allow the court to grant a divorce without a final hearing if both parties are represented by an attorney, submit a written agreement and submit an affidavit detailing a list of information.

“Generally, I think making the divorce process easier and less stressful is a good thing,” Bloodworth said.

Her concern involves the two-attorney requirement.

“The reasoning is there should be less concern about the agreement being unfair to one party,” she said. “However, this could create two paths to divorce — a more efficient, expedited path for those who can afford an attorney, and a more complicated and burdensome process for those who can’t.”

Kinship Care

Legislation in Wisconsin would expand the definition of “relative” and add a category of “like-kin” in child welfare and juvenile justice statutes.

Currently, a relative is “a parent, stepparent, brother, sister, stepbrother, stepsister, half-brother, half-sister, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, first cousin, second cousin, nephew, niece, uncle, aunt, step uncle, step aunt, or any person of a preceding generation as denoted by the prefix of grand, great, or great-great, whether by blood, marriage, legal adoption or the spouse of any person named in this subsection.”

The new legislation would add “first cousin once removed” as a relative and define “like kin.” This would be “an individual who has a significant emotional relationship with a child or the child’s family that is similar to a familial relationship and who is not and has not previously been the child’s licensed foster parent. For an Indian child, this includes individuals identified by the child’s tribe according to tribal tradition, custom or resolution, code or law.”

“You cannot work in this field and not have it af­fect you emotionally and physically.” – Poe-Gavlinski

“Removing a child from their home is a traumatic experience,” Bloodworth said. “When children can be placed with people they already know and are comfortable with, it reduces the negative impact. They are less likely to fail out of a placement, more likely to be placed with siblings and more likely to eventually be reunified with their parents.”

In addition to removing the barrier of having to be licensed as foster parents, the change would allow “like-kin” to receive kinship care, financial support to non-parents caring for a child.

Another trend in child support is toward not ordering incarcerated people to pay child support until after they are released.

Bloodworth said courts and county child support agencies are realizing the barriers: low wages for prisoners followed by high interest penalties on missed child support payments when they are trying to re-enter the workforce.

“This kind of debt can be impossible to get out from under, and it can have lifelong consequences, many of which ironically make it difficult to earn money to pay down the child support debt,” she said.


Technology can have both negative and positive impacts on clients.

“From the abuse end, we are seeing a major rise in tracking abilities by abusers that are often very hard for a survivor to detect/find,” Poe-Gavlinski said. “In addition, now that one can use many different numbers to call/text/message that may be unknown to the receiver, it is hard to prove legally that a certain person is causing unwanted contact.”

But from the divorce and co-parenting side, high-tech solutions are changing the way parents communicate, Bloodworth said.

“More and more parents resort to text and email so that everything is documented, and texts and emails are frequently used as evidence at contested hearings,” she said. “Additionally, companies have popped up to try to provide tech solutions for communication problems.”

For example, OurFamilyWizard is frequently ordered by judges in Wisconsin. Parents pay to sign up, and all messaging goes through the app. It has a tone-checker to prevent conflict, a shared calendar and payment functionality.

In Closing

Students are attracted to family law for a number of reasons, like wanting to help children and victims of crime.

But cases often are painful, which can have a secondary trauma effect on practitioners.

“You cannot work in this field and not have it af­fect you emotionally and physically,” Poe-Gavlinski said. “That’s why all of us, including students, must recognize it, address it, reflect upon it and find ways to heal ourselves through healthy habits. I partic­ularly talk with students about this weekly at our supervision meetings, if not more. Students need to learn healthy habits now because they are building their habits and professional identity.”

Teaching students how to question and work with victims of trauma helps students to be empa­thetic, she said.

Additionally, because of the complicated nature of family relationships, students have to consider more than just “winning,” Bloodworth added.

“They have to think about things like, ‘If I ques­tion this person hard and bring up all these terrible things, will that destroy this person’s relationship with my client? Is that what my client wants?’ Often, the answer to that question is no, and the way you present a case is informed by that.”

An assortment of charts that reads: "U.S. Statistics, at a Glance: The relevance of family law in Americans’ daily lives can be illustrated by how often they are affected. Intimate Partner Violence: About 41% of women and 26% of men have experienced sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner. Child Support: 30.7% of custodial parents who were due child support did not receive any payment from noncustodial parents. 25.8% received partial payments; 43.5% received full payments. Divorce: Divorce rates have been on the decline (as have marriage rates): Divorce rate per thousand women: 2011 – 9.7%; 2021 – 6.9%. Rates were higher for second or third marriages than first marriages: 1st – 48%; 2nd – 60%; 3rd – 73%."U.S. Statistics, At a Glance

The relevance of family law in Americans’ daily lives can be illustrated by how often they are affected.

Intimate Partner Violence

About 41% of women and 26% of men have experienced sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner.

Child Support

30.7% of custodial parents who were due child support did not receive any payment from noncustodial parents. 25.8% received partial payments, and 43.5% received full payments.


Divorce rates have been on the decline (as have marriage rates). Divorce rate per thousand women: 2011 – 9.7%, 2021 – 6.9%. Rates were higher for second or third marriages than first marriages: 1st – 48%, 2nd – 60%, 3rd – 73%.

UW Family Law Clinics, At a Glance

*Note: The Family Legal Advocacy and Supports Clinic (FLASC) is a new partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, the Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work, the Children’s Court Improvement Project and four county child welfare agencies. Its goal is to prevent deeper involvement in the child welfare systems by providing upstream, preventive legal services and social supports to families at risk of more formal child welfare involvement.




Headshot photo of Teresa Kulick, 3L.
Teresa Kulick, 3L

Student: Teresa Kulick, 3L

Q: Why did you choose the Restraining Order and Survivor Advocacy Clinic (ROSA)?

A: It offered a meaningful opportunity to work directly with clients who are often experiencing trauma. Through ROSA, I can provide survivors with the support and compassion they may otherwise be missing. By representing or advising survivors of harassment or domestic violence, I can help them regain their own voice and autonomy, which I believe facilitates recovery. I also appreciate that, since restraining orders require a quick turnaround, I am often able to see my clinic clients through the entire process.

Q: What do you want to do upon graduation?

A: I plan to join a law firm in Milwaukee, where I am from. I also plan to continue representing survivors of domestic violence who are seeking restraining orders through pro-bono work.

Q: What have you found most challenging? Most rewarding?

A: It can be really challenging to work with clients who are still actively experiencing domestic violence and are not truly ready to leave their relationship, which is entirely normal and not uncommon. We spend a lot of time discussing this in clinic, developing strategies to meet clients where they are and offer advice without applying any pressure.

On the other hand, it is so rewarding to be a part of someone’s story as they leave an abusive situation and advocate for themselves and their right to be safe and secure in their own life. I am so grateful for the opportunity to support survivors at any stage of the process and know that my efforts make a difference for them. After my first semester with ROSA, I got a Christmas card from a client thanking me for my work on her case. It was really moving, and I will treasure the card forever.


Headshot photo of Nicholas Bartschat, 3L.
Nicholas Bartschat, 3L

Student: Nicholas Bartschat, 3L

Q: Why did you choose the ROSA Clinic?

A: I had no idea what I was doing my 1L year; the closest thing I had to “legal experience” was an embarrassing driving record. Professor Poe-Gavlinski welcomed me with open arms and made me feel validated in the way that only she can. From our first meeting, I knew ROSA would provide a supportive environment to develop foundational skills.

Q: What do you want to do upon graduation?

A: Spend time with loved ones, become an assistant state public defender and finish reading “Cloud Atlas,” which has been collecting dust on my nightstand since Fall 2021.

Q: What is the most important thing you have learned during your time in the clinic and why?

A: Listen first. It can be tempting to fall into a problem-solving mindset and hyperfocus on the facts — or lack thereof. In class, we learn to read an organized summary, synthesize the law and provide an “answer.” In real life, a client might jump from moment to moment or get stuck on seemingly irrelevant details, and the correct response depends on being able to understand their unique position and goals. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, so we have to sit back and take in the full picture. Besides, everyone deserves to be heard.


Headshot photo of Queen Ayinesom Aboyah.
Queen Ayinesom Aboyah, Social Work Student

Student: Queen Ayinesom Aboyah

Queen Ayinesom Aboyah helps clients meet their basic needs ‘first and foremost.’ Aboyah, who is pursuing her master’s degree in social work, is doing field placement in the Family Legal Advocacy and Supports Clinic (FLASC). She shares her perspective about the collaborative multidisciplinary experience in this Q&A:

Q: Why did you choose the FLASC Clinic? What kind of work are you doing there?

A: I previously worked with a human trafficking organization in my home country, Ghana, so I wanted to learn about different family law issues in the American context. Additionally, I was also interested in being able to connect my goal of becoming a mental health therapist with how the inability of folks to meet their basic needs affects their mental health.

Q: What do you want to do upon graduation?

A: I intend to focus on the mental health track of the social work program and work in a mental health clinic, providing mental health services to individuals, especially people of color.

Q: What is the most important thing you have learned during your time in the clinic and why?

A: Meeting the basic needs of people is very important to be able to get them to actively participate in other activities, such as seeking legal assistance or support. Some clients come to the clinic to seek legal services but are unable to fully participate in the helping process because they are struggling with food, shelter, unemployment and the like. It has therefore taught me to always concentrate on how to help clients meet their basic needs first and foremost before moving on to the other aspects of their lives.

Q: What have you found most challenging? Most rewarding?

A: What I have found most challenging is the inability to provide concrete help or assistance to clients. The best service I can offer is to refer these clients to other organizations or agencies because FLASC does not have the financial capacity to help clients with their direct social service needs. Referring these clients and not having control over whether or not they would get the services that they need is usually frustrating and challenging.

One thing I have found rewarding is the genuine passion and commitment from the staff of the clinic especially the Law students and Cary in insuring that clients are assisted to the greatest extent possible.

Q: Why is family law important in 2024?

A: It is an integral part of maintaining the family structure if we are committed to helping keep families together and ensuring that vulnerable populations within families have their rights and privileges met.

FLASC is doing such a great and excellent job that I feel the state and other agencies should sponsor this amazing project to ensure that people from low socioeconomic status can have access to legal services without barriers.


Headshot photo of Kayleigh Cowan.
Kayleigh Cowan, ’23

Graduate: Kayleigh Cowan ’23

Kayleigh Cowan ’23 is a staff attorney at Disability Rights Wisconsin on the Victim Advocacy Team. She helps victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking with such legal issues as restraining orders, divorces and crime victim representation. Cowan shares how the Restraining Order and Survivor Advocacy shaped her career in this Q&A:

Q: What did you want to do for a career when you started at UW Law?

A: I originally came into law school wanting to prosecute again human trafficking.

Q: How was your clinic experience helpful in deciding what work you wanted to do and being successful after graduation?

A: I learned about trauma-informed lawyering and how it is applicable in all areas of law. I changed my goal from prosecuting perpetrators to representing victims. The support I experienced from fellow clinic students showed me that nobody is alone in their law practice and that it is OK to ask for help.

Q: Why is family law important in 2024?

A: Victims of domestic abuse who finally are able to leave their spouse and file for divorce often face a traumatizing and confusing court process. They may still experience abuse from their spouse throughout the process and simply agree to anything to make the divorce go as quick as possible, without thinking about the long-term implications.

Having a trauma-informed attorney in family law adds a degree of separation so victims do not have to negotiate directly with their abuser.

Q: Why do you do what you do? What is most rewarding? Most challenging?

A: People with disabilities experience abuse at a much higher rate and deserve proper representation. It is rewarding to ensure lasting safety for my clients and allow their voices to be heard in court. It is challenging to both overcome ableism and negotiate with someone who has caused such harm.


By Jennie Broecker | Illustrations by Charlotte Easterling