In July of 2015, the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project (PULP) launched an initiative to serve survivors of domestic violence and the agencies that serve them by providing utility-related legal assistance. Funding for the initiative is generously provided by the Pennsylvania Interest On Lawyer’s Trust Account Board (IOLTA).
As described by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence (PCADV), utility-related issues such as service terminations or inflexible payment agreements can cause disproportionate harm to women facing domestic violence. If a utility service such as heat or electricity is under a perpetrator’s name, the perpetrator can elect to shut off service to a home as a form of control or abuse even after a survivor has obtained an order of protection. In one such case, PULP attorneys were able to intervene.
Michonne* contacted PULP for assistance after an incident of serious physical abuse that occurred in front of her young children. With the assistance of The Women’s Resource Center of Scranton, one of PULP’s partner organizations in this initiative, Michonne was granted physical protection from the abuser and exclusive possession of their shared home.
Unfortunately, as the home’s gas service was in her abuser’s name, and the perpetrator disconnected service to the home after being served with the Protection From Abuse Order. When Michonne tried to restore service and put the bill in her name, the gas company refused, citing arrears accrued on the account by her abuser. At the same time, Michonne faced imminent termination of her electric service as she struggled to pay an existing balance with her electric provider.
Without heat, the ability to cook, hot water, or electricity, Michonne and her young children may have been forced to make an impossible decision between living in an inhabitable home, allowing the abuser to return, and homelessness.
Michonne and her children were able to avoid further physical harm and homelessness, however, due to the swift action of PULP attorneys. PULP was able to have the utility provider restore gas service in Michonne’s home within 24 hours of the shut off, and were able to transfer service into her name to protect her from the possibility of future abuse through utilities services. PULP also began the process of enrolling her in a Customer Assistance Program in order to assist in paying debts from an account in a previous address in her name. PULP also successfully stayed the termination of her electric service and assisted her with the enrollment in a customer assistance program for that provider.
PULP attorneys have assisted survivors of domestic violence with similar stories to Michonne’s since the initiative began in July. During the second quarter of the year, PULP attorneys:
- Restored utility services to survivors of domestic violence in 4 cases.
- Prevented 2 actively pending terminations of water-related service, which is not subject to winter-time protections against termination.
- Prevented future termination for 17 survivors by clearing or deferring nearly $15,000 in collective debt from survivors’ accounts.
- Obtained waivers for connections fees and security deposits for 5 clients.
- Assisted two clients with reapplications for LIHEAP assistance after an initial denial of their application.
We look forward to providing further updates on PULP’s work on this amazing initiative.
*Client’s name and identifying information has been changed to preserve their anonymity.