Maisha Colter | Navigating Domestic Violence Family Law Cases

Today we are excited to welcome Maisha Colter to the show. Maisha is the Chief Executive Officer of the Non-Profit, AVDA (Aid to Victims of Domestic Abuse). AVDA’s mission is to end family violence by advocating for the safety and self-determination of victims, promoting accountability for abusers, and fostering a community response to abuse by providing family violence intervention and prevention in the Greater Houston Area. 

Maisha says, “Oftentimes the client doesn’t necessarily identify themself as a victim of domestic violence, even if in fact they are.”

We’re sitting down with her today to learn about some signs, signals, and statistics of domestic violence. Listen as she walks us through:

  • Key markers of domestic violence—the number one thing family law attorneys should look for—plus conversation starters to help you determine if your client is in danger
  • What triggers escalate domestic violence—when is the most dangerous time for the victim and how children can be impacted long term
  • The impact of COVID-19—how the pandemic changed domestic violence 
  • Advocating on behalf of your client—no matter which side they are on
  • And much more

Mentioned in this episode:


Maisha Colter: Get a good danger assessment for yourself and use that as a part of your practice. Because oftentimes, again, the client does not necessarily readily identify themselves as a victim of domestic abuse, but in fact they are based on behavior that we can recognize as that is what domestic violence really looks like.

Voiceover: You’re listening to the Texas Family Law Insiders podcast, your source for the latest news and trends in family law in the state of Texas. Now, here’s your host attorney Holly Draper.

Holly Draper: Today, we’re excited to welcome Maisha Colter as our guest on the Texas Family Law Insiders podcast. Maisha is the Chief Executive Officer of AVDA, a nonprofit organization in Houston, Texas. AVDA’s mission is to end family violence by advocating for the safety and self determination of victims, promoting accountability for abusers and fostering a community response to abuse. Maisha served AVDA for more than 13 years before becoming the CEO on August 1, 2019. She has dedicated her professional life to advocating for the needs of children and families in crisis. After attaining a dual bachelor’s degree in social work and public policy, as well as a master’s in social work from New York University, she became a licensed social worker in Brooklyn, New York. After a few years, she pursued her law degree from Rutgers University and graduated in 2001. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Maisha: Thank you for having me, Holly.

Holly: So why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about your background.

Maisha: Sure. As you already stated, I am a social worker and an attorney by training. And what drew me to both professions is a desire to help individuals, especially vulnerable populations, almost all of my work, since I’ve been practicing as an attorney, and even before that, when I was an attorney, as a social worker, I worked with either children who were in foster care, I worked with drug addicted mothers who were trying to resume custody of their children. And over the years have worked in spaces where I had the opportunity to help help prepare families who were experiencing trauma, navigate the legal system in various forms. So that’s what I wanted to do, and have been fortunate to be able to do that in various work situations over the past 20 years.

Holly: So what led you to AVDA?

Maisha: Actually, when I moved to Texas, I was deliberately trying to find an organization that would again, fulfill my professional desire to work with vulnerable populations. And so at the time, I think I might have Yahoo, did a Yahoo search for, like domestic violence, sexual assault organizations. And AVDA came up in that search, and I literally made a phone call, and basically said that I wanted to volunteer in whatever capacity they might need volunteers. I explained to them that I was a licensed attorney, that I am a licensed clinical social worker. And so I had skills that I thought thought might be helpful.

I immediately got asked to come in and meet with the executive director at that time. And she indicated to me that they weren’t necessarily on good footing with volunteers. But she asked me if I was interested in a job as a staff attorney at the time. And I said, yeah, I guess! But I had another job. So I wound up quitting my job and started working for AVDA at that time was 2003. And I was essentially the only staff attorney on on on staff. There were contract attorneys who worked on the cases for the people who are coming for our services. But they generally had their own private practices. And they worked the AVDA cases. I was dedicated here everyday working AVDA cases as they came in.

And then we changed the model because we thought that best practices were that we really didn’t need that level of attention to the clients that we were serving. And so at that time, they one of the contract attorneys came on as a manager. He’s actually a judge now, one of the practicing family court judges. Jim Cooper is name in the 245th. But he came on as the managing attorney, and it was him and me for maybe about a year and then we started to progress in finding resources to do the work that we do through grants and opportunities like that, and we just expand and we have been expanding ever since in many, many different ways.

Holly: Can you describe in general what does AVDA do?

Maisha: Sure. So we provide free legal representation to victims of domestic abuse in family court. We go in and we do anything that a family law practitioner would do. We represent in SAPCRs we represent in divorce, child support, visitation, access to possession, all of the things that we pursue on behalf of victims. We also represent individuals for protective order cases. Many of our clients, we pursue the protective orders first, especially in Harris County. And then we go on to represent them in what we call internally extended services cases with their most divorces and custody matters. In the instance, that there is a fatality as a result of domestic abuse. We also do our fair share of adoptions around that space. It’s sort of a unique niche that we’ve established over the years.

So we do that. But in addition to working in the legal space. We also work with people who have been identified as the batterer or perpetrator of domestic abuse. We provide the state’s largest BIPP program. And BIPP stands for battering intervention prevention program. And it is literally an opportunity for someone who has been convicted of a family violence crime, to take psycho education courses that would hopefully, retool and give them the equipment to change some of their behavior and their intimate partner relationships. Everybody who comes to our BIPP program is here for a minimum of 18 weeks with a facilitator. All of our facilitators are masters level mental health professionals. So we have LPCs, LMSWs, LCSWs, psychologists, who are the facilitators for the BIPP program.

Again, I say 18 weeks is the minimum. We have people who are with us for double that, and even 52 weeks, depending on the circumstances of their conviction and the terms and conditions of you know, probation or parole. So we set that out on an individual basis. In addition to BIPP and the legal program, we have what’s called a community awareness and prevention program. And the focus there is on education, and we are talking about education to the community at large. So adult populations. We, we certainly educate through training law enforcement, first responders, responders, we do extensive work in that space.

But we also have prevention as it relates to children, youth. We provide four different research and evidence based programs to youth in schools. We’re in HISD, Fort Bend ISD, some of the rural counties in Austin, Waller, and Grimes community. We work with the students through these programs to help them identify what healthy dating looks like. We talked to them about accountability from a peer standpoint, we work with them on consent, and understanding what that dynamic looks like. So there’s a lot to the different programs that we offer. Two of the programs that we provide are embedded with athleticism.

So we work with coaches through a program called Coaching Boys to Men, and they actually are trained by our staff to help train their athletes throughout the school year. We have a similar program for females called Athletes as Leaders, and it is similarly situated with their coaches. It has a self esteem component, self awareness component. But again, it’s the same dynamic, we are trying to introduce these young people to the idea of healthy relationships and being able to speak out and identify what might be something that’s inappropriate in a relationship situation.

Holly: That’s great. I had no idea there were those kinds of programs out there happening for students to try to stop this from happening to begin with.

Maisha: Absolutely, yeah, that that to me would be the priority is if we could get to a place where we were really embedded in schools and spaces where youth were, we would see the numbers and statistics around domestic violence start to reduce because people would have a different understanding and appreciation about relationships in a way that would give them pause to certain behavior that they see currently, and is modeled in homes, you know, all over.

Holly: Do you primarily work with high school students? Or is it younger than that?

Maisha: Yes, high school is our primary focus, we do have some ability to modify the programs that we provide to reach middle school, but that’s the the youngest that we attempt to serve.

Holly: So, our podcast targets primarily family lawyers, and as you know, family lawyers deal with domestic violence on a very regular basis. So what are some signs that family lawyers can look for to identify when somebody in their case may be either a victim or a perpetrator of domestic violence?

Maisha: Sure. So one of the things that I think all family lawyers need to be aware of is the effects of trauma on individuals because generally speaking, that’s when you start to get the best hint about what is happening in a person’s situation. So, client comes to you and they say I want a divorce. Um, you know, things are just not working. And you don’t necessarily have a real, the verbiage about domestic abuse. So one of the things that we try to do is to have an open dialogue. And we engage our clients in such a way that we might ask them about, has there been any type of physical incidents that have happened over the course of time, whether there was a slap or someone grabs you.

And then we start to, you know, evaluate that, and then we start to talk about what did that? What impact did that have on you? So was there sadness, depression? Were you able to function and cope in the same way after that that incident happened? What was the frequency of those incidents? And then you start to get an idea, as you have these types of conversations with your clients, that there might be something here, that’s more a pattern of behavior that they experienced in their relationship that pinpoints domestic violence. At the core of domestic violence is this need for power and control on the part of the person who’s perpetrating the abuse, and it may look different from person to person. Sometimes it is physical, sometimes it’s sexual, sometimes it’s economic.

It may be how someone is able to see, you know, friends and family. So if there’s isolation in the relationship. But learning to understand that someone may be coming to you and just say that they’re completely fed up with a relationship is an opportunity to explore why they are. And we, we oftentimes will rely on things like the power and control wheel as a way to engage a client. It’s a tool that we can use to basically define, when when there has been that assertion of power and control in a relationship, and how it has manifested in this particular person’s situation. So oftentimes, I’ll see things like, my partner’s extremely jealous. You know, I used to have friends, I don’t. I can’t see my parents, we used to have family, you know, get togethers, and now I’m completely isolated from them.

You know, everybody in my family hates him. You know, those kinds of communications are usually signals and signs. And again, a real thorough assessment of what that means for the individual, really learning the true definition of domestic violence, and being able to identify what trauma is and how it impacts individuals. Those are key things that all family practitioners should have in their toolbox, in order for them to be able to say, okay, I need to explore this more with this person. I may need to pursue certain relief on behalf of this client that wouldn’t necessarily have to do in another type of situation.

So whether that be a protective order, whether that be, you know, rights and duties looking different, because you can establish that there’s family violence, and that there’s a possibility that these people will not be able to effectively co parent, once, you know, separation has happened. And certainly once the divorce has been, you know, established for them. When there is domestic violence doesn’t change, because people are divorcing, it oftentimes continues. And that power dynamic just gets played out on, you know, sharing, you know, custody with children, and children become the new opportunity for a perpetrator of abuse to assert power and control over a victim parent.

Holly: So you mentioned the power and control wheel. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Maisha: Sure. So, a group of researchers in Minnesota years ago now basically started to work with a population of people who had been identified as victims of domestic abuse in shelter situations. And they started to basically evaluate and assess the relationships that those individuals had. And key markers of behavior, were identified by the victim as things happening to them by their abuser. And so what again, we look at the core of a power and control wheel, you see that that’s, that’s the motivation. But then you start to see the different ways that a person might assert power abd control. Sexual abuse, name calling, physical abuse, isolating a person from family, and friends, gaslighting. Different things are circled around the power and control wheel.

But all of those are just different tools that a person who has used this method of behaving in their relationship, again, with the motivation of controlling that person, that they say they love, and that they want to be, you know, in an intimate situation with, we know that all of those things are unhealthy and inappropriate, you know, for adult dynamics. And so what we tend to find is the person who is experiencing the abuse, whether that whatever that is, oftentimes will have a trauma response to that behavior. One in three women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, one in four will experience some type of extreme domestic violence. Meaning that they will sustain an injury as a result of abuse at the hand of their partner.

They may be sexually assaulted in some way at the hand of their abusive partner. And that’s a huge number of people within the population. Which ultimately means that we as family law practitioners are probably seeing clients who are victims, but don’t necessarily identify as such, because people’s general thoughts about domestic abuse is simply someone has been physically assaulted in a way by their partner. And that’s, that’s certainly a part of it. But it is much more expansive than that. And the idea of that pattern of behavior is something that needs to be really flushed out, because it really does have an impact, not only on the victim, but on the children that live in these homes where this type of dynamic exists.

Holly: Do you often see people who are victims of the emotional abuse, the financial abuse, the isolation, does that often, or how often does that tend to lead eventually to physical abuse?

Maisha: That is a great question, because that’s exactly what tends to happen is, it might surface initially as isolation and controlling so someone is extremely jealous initially. And sometimes that is looked at favorably for someone who’s in a relationship, you may say, oh, you know, he’s so concerned about me, and he loves me so much, he wants to be with me all the time. And that might initially be a good thing, and like, evoke really positive feelings. But then when you start to think about the fact that you can’t do anything that you normally could do, because you are, the relationship is all consuming. And you have to wonder, take a pause about that. And people don’t necessarily do that.

But what we find is, when control is is not there, then there’s an escalation. Well, let me try a new tactic. So again, jealousy is one thing, isolation is one thing, the gaslighting is another. But then when you know, I don’t, I don’t have, I still don’t have enough control, I may have to physically, you know, engage this person and and that really is up to the abuser. They pick and choose what is the most effective way to get this person to do what they want them to do. Highly complicated and nuanced way of thinking, and you and you, the victim don’t necessarily have any way to know when it’s going to escalate to that level.

So when it is more, less physical, and maybe emotional, or you know, isolation, or the jealousy or something like that, those are your opportunities to get out early, as opposed to letting it elevate. One thing that we know is when people are leaving relationships, it, it’s even more dangerous. Most of the fatality so TCFV, the Texas Council on Family Violence collects information about intimate partner homicides in our state. And one of the statistics that stood out to me about last year’s report is that 57% of those people who were killed by their intimate partner had left within a three to six month window before they were killed. So that’s something that lets you know that when an abuser is losing power, losing control over the situation, they just ratchet things up.

And leaving can be sort of the last, you know, opportunity to continue to control this person. So it’s a real tricky time. And it’s something that divorce attorneys should be very aware of and cognizant of, in their practice. And they really do need to establish protocols around safety. So for example, in our organization, when we’re representing a person who is seeking a divorce or custody or or those types of things, we have a safety plan for everybody. But we also warn against the reality that when you know someone is served with a divorce, you know, petition or custody petition, it may be triggering for someone who’s abusive, and that’s a dangerous time for them.

And we try to figure out ways to establish safety protocols so that they can be protected while that initial informed information is being provided to the responding, you know, party in a divorce, because we know there’s a high risk there for lethality. We do what’s called danger assessments with our clients. We actually go through a protocol, we use one that has been established by a nurse, PhD, Dr. Jackie Campbell, out of Maryland. And we’ve been using that for a number of years. I’ve had the opportunity to train under her and really delve into some of what are the characteristics of lethality? And there are things like, how many times have they separated, you know, is it three times, four times, seven times? Those are indicators of problems. Do they have access to guns? Because another statistic that stood out to me in last year’s TCFV report was that 67% of those who were killed by an intimate partner last year were killed with a firearm so they were shot.

That that is a marker of danger, they again, they had recently left. Loss of job on the part of the perpetrator. If the perpetrator had threatened to harm himself or her, I’ll kill you, I’ll kill myself. Verbalizing that is a problem. If there was patterns of stalking, meaning that they were tracking the person, going to where they were using social social media to always sort of be watching the individual. All of those are risk signs of risk in lethality, that, again, practitioners really should be aware of those things. So know the power and control wheel. Get a good danger assessment for yourself and use that as a part of your practice. Because oftentimes, again, the client does not necessarily readily identify themselves as a victim of domestic abuse. But in fact, they are based on behavior that we can recognize as that is what domestic violence really looks like.

Holly: One of the things we see a lot in family court is judges seeming to think that if we can remove, separate the parents, then the children are no longer impacted by domestic violence. And you see, there aren’t restrictions on access to children, because they have this thought in their head that the problem is gonna go away when we separate these parents. What are your thoughts on that?

Maisha: Yeah, unfortunately, that is very misguided. I will tell you, one of the things that we want judges to know and be themselves is trauma informed about the impact of domestic violence on children. So there is a phenomenon, again, one of those research established themes that would be helpful for family court judges to know, and that is a adverse childhood experience. And one of the big markers of adverse childhood experiences is domestic abuse. So children who grow up in homes where domestic violence is occurred, occurring, and there is a correlation of negative impact on children, whether that be a stunted brain development, acting out behavior that looks like the behavior of the perpetrator of abuse.

So there they are more violent, reticent, more difficult to, you know, engage in, you know, settings that they should be able to, you know, to be managed, like school situations, daycare and things like that. Of course, seeing those types of situations would be hopefully helped by a separation between the parents, but that is not always the case. And the truth of the matter is that although a parent might divorce a an abusive parent, those people are not excluded from having new relationships. I have had many cases where we get someone divorced, and then they call us back and say, hey, you know, my ex is abusing his current girlfriend, when the kids go over there, it’s all kinds of problems, I don’t want to send them back. And again, we’ve done nothing to change the behavior in that we’ve, you know, divorced these people.

And so there is a lack of acknowledgement of that in, on the part of the judiciary. And, again, not necessarily, because they don’t care, or that they don’t want to help families. But again, it’s sort of the same thing as well, domestic violence looks like, looks like this, you know, physical abuse. And that’s it. It’s a very limited view of what family dynamics really are. And we as practitioners need to do a better job of educating the judges and the courts about particular situations that these families are having. And certainly, bringing in evidence, maybe subject matter experts on what domestic violence does to children, if they are witness to it, are in homes where it is occurring.

Holly: So we’re recording this in early 2022. So we’re almost two years now in to the pandemic. What impact, if any has COVID had on families experiencing domestic violence?

Maisha: When COVID came on the scene, you know, we had the isolation, we had all of the concerns about you know, being anywhere we try to stay at home, you know, stay at home and stay safe. And that was probably one of the more dangerous things that you could do for a person who’s already in a home where domestic violence is occurring. So it reinforces the things that we talked about earlier, which is that isolation, that control dynamic. Certainly the out the outcomes for many people as it related to COVID in the beginning was you know, loss of job, you know, wages and and, and disruption of schools. And so the stressors around COVID definitely had an impact on families where there was no domestic violence, but certainly where there is domestic violence, it was probably more exaggerated in terms of what those families experienced.

We can talk anecdotally here at AVDA about some of the things that we noticed when the stay at home orders started to subside. When people came back into our care. We we saw more physical violence cases. So cases where weapons were used, where people sustained severe injuries as at the hand of their abusers. We saw more cases like that than we had seen in the year prior. So 2019, for example, you know, where we had protective orders, and we had, you know, elevated reason to pursue a longer length of protective orders, or we saw protective orders, where there were also arrest around like a felony. So there was a you know, assault to a family member use of a weapon, strangulation.

So those kinds of things we saw pretty readily in the months after the stay at home order started to lift. And, and over time, our numbers increased in terms of the level number of clients we were servicing. So those are the types of things that we saw that we can essentially point to COVID has as being an exacerbater. On the other thing that I will say that we noticed, go back to those TC, TCFV numbers. In 2019, there were 185 individuals killed at the hand of their intimate partner. In 2020, there were 227. And this year, we anticipate that that number is going to increase by about 30%. So the number of homicides has drastically increased. Domestic violence crimes went up 40%, when the since the pandemic began. There were more people killed by their intimate partners, then before, we saw things like people being let out on felony bonds and going and committing a homicide.

So it’s just been sort of treacherous. And, again, we can’t say with certainty that COVID caused this. But we can certainly say that COVID was a is a pandemic that has unique stressors that do nothing to subside, or de escalate some of the harmful behaviors of people who are already ready to be violent, to be aggressive, to do certain things. And, of course, attribute those things to, I lost my job, I’m not able to pay, you know, for what I need. My children are causing me a lot of stress, you know, they’re home. So those types of things were markers. And unfortunately, they haven’t quite gone away. Some things have leveled off, thank goodness, but they’re not gone.

Holly: So we’ve talked a little bit already about advice for people representing domestic violence victims, but what advice would you give to an attorney who finds himself representing the alleged perpetrator of domestic violence?

Maisha: So I would say, if you are representing someone who you know, has been charged with a crime, or who is just in a divorce, where domestic violence is alleged, I think you need to do your due diligence. Certainly, an accusation is not fact. And there needs to be some real assessment about someone. But I think being aware of again, patterns of behavior that typically indicate domestic violence is something that a person who is represented a perpetrator should be aware of, because they can help to eliminate the opportunity for a perpetrator to continue to perpetrate by using the litigation system as a means to do that. And they can say, hey, you know, we’re not going to file that, that doesn’t make any sense. This is what would be helpful for your kiddos at this point in time.

So having a awareness that one, perpetrators do use this as an opportunity to continue to be litigious and to be controlling, and be a mitigator for that. Still getting your clients what they may need or advocate for as it relates to relief within the family code, but recognizing that you may be a part of that dynamic in a way that doesn’t help anybody. Obviously, we’re all charged with advocating for the position of our clients. And I think that there is a an obligation to do that. But in all fairness, I think we all want to uphold, you know, an ethical practice. And we want to make sure that we are not a part of a problem or dynamic that ultimately could harm children, certainly continue to harm a true victim of domestic abuse. But also recognizing when to say, you know, this is not this is not adding up to, that this person is a batterer and here’s why.

And being able to assess that and be able to advocate on the part of their, their client who has been accused of being a victim. They can also learn about resources like BIPP so that if they want to mitigate behavior that their client has actually done, they can they can make referrals to their clients. Say, hey, recommendations to the client. Maybe you should do this program, it might help you in the long run. It might help you with the court because you know, you’ve done yourself some damage by you know, being charged with this with this assault, you may not be able to see your kids unsupervised until you take these affirmative steps to address what you know what’s going on with you mentally. So there’s that as it relates to be a strong advocate for someone who’s been identified as a batter.

Holly: So we’re just about out of time. But one of the questions I like to ask everyone who comes on the podcast, is if you could give one piece of advice to young family lawyers, what would it be.

Maisha: If you’re going to do this for the long haul, learn how to find balance in your personal life and your professional life. So you can be as healthy as you possibly can be. Because family law is full of drama. And there is such a thing as vicarious trauma. And I think that people who do this for a sustained period of time need to be cognizant of that.

Holly: I agree 100%. So where can our listeners go if they want to learn more about you and AVDA?

Maisha: Sure. We have a web page And all of our information related to the services that we provide is there. Our number is 713-224-9911. We represent clients in six counties. So we’re in Austin, Waller, Washington, Grimes, Fort Bend, and Harris County doing legal representation. So if they’re family lawyers out there who may not, can’t afford to do pro bono work, and they have clients who don’t have the financial wherewithal to get the legal representation that they they deserve. And they do think that their client is a victim of domestic abuse. AVDA might be a great referral partner for them to say, hey, I think you can still get legal representation at no cost to you or low cost to you depending on their economic situation.

Holly: Well thank you so much for joining us today. Hopefully, our listeners learned a good amount about domestic violence they can put to use in their family law practice. For our listeners, if you enjoyed this podcast take a second to leave us a review and subscribe so you can enjoy future episodes.

Voiceover: The Texas Family Law Insiders podcast is sponsored by the Draper Law Firm. We help people navigate divorce and child custody cases and handle family law appellate matters. For more information, visit our website at

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