When Emma Fitzgerald walked away from a controlling, coercive and financially abusive marriage and then suddenly lost her job at the discretion of a powerful and conniving boss, she and her one-year-old son, Henry, found themselves without a place to call home.
They were effectively homeless.
At the age of 28, with her son in tow, Ms Fitzgerald was an invisible statistic forced to climb back up into a purpose-filled life after being left with nothing.
But climb, she did, despite the deck being stacked against her. All the way to the bar table.
A voice for tomorrow
Ms Fitzgerald wanted to be a lawyer for as long as she could remember. She recalled fondly the debates she would engage in with her dad growing up.
“I always had a voice and the ability to use it,” Ms Fitzgerald laughed. “The fact that I am now a barrister is proof in the pudding. No matter what side of the bar table I am on, my voice and the battles I have fought through give me purpose and passion. I am proud to be supporting a better justice system for tomorrow.”
Ms Fitzgerald’s road to the bar was long and she was met with barriers along her journey that – at certain times – seemed insurmountable.
But Ms Fitzgerald never gave up.
Walking away from her marriage
Ms Fitzgerald had been a victim of domestic violence in the form of financial abuse and coercive control for 10 years. She was not allowed to make any decisions or spend money without permission from her ex-husband.
“It got to the point where my mother had to slip me $50 notes so I could go out to coffee with another mum,” Ms Fitzgerald recalled.
When Ms Fitzgerald’s son was one-year-old, she made the courageous decision to leave her ex-husband. But, despite having an asset in her name and her ex-husband owning another property, she and her son were unable to live there.
They were left homeless.
Grief, reality, and an invisible statistic
Ms Fitzgerald had believed she would be able to build a beautiful and secure life for her son when she left her ex-husband.
“I had just returned from maternity leave to my job as an associate in a mid-tier firm in Brisbane when my boss fired me,” Ms Fitzgerald recounted. “While I technically had assets, I had no access to our finances, which made me ‘upper-middle class’ on paper but homeless in reality.”
That is when the grief set in.
“An extraordinary amount of grief comes with being in a position like that. The grief for the life you believed you and your child would have, not necessarily the one you left”, Ms Fitzgerald said.
Fortunately, Ms Fitzgerald and her son were one of the privileged and fortunate statistics as they had somewhere to go. Ms Fitzgerald’s parents helped their daughter pick up the pieces of her life as her mental health spiralled. It was not only Ms Fitzgerald’s marriage that had broken her. It was the loss of her career, her autonomy, and the future she had planned for her son.
“My parents really looked after me and my little one”, Ms Fitzgerald told Lawyers Weekly. “They offered warm meals, love, and a roof over our heads. Many victims of domestic violence who are strong enough to walk away are not so fortunate.”
But this did not change the fact that Ms Fitzgerald still had a battle ahead of her.
The uphill climb
After Ms Fitzgerald lost her job as a lawyer, simply existing in the world felt like an insurmountable hurdle. Loss, guilt (despite it being hugely unwarranted) and grief weighed on her heavily, and it was only with time, seeking help through therapy and baby steps day by day that she found herself in a position to hope once again.
Ms Fitzgerald began applying for legal jobs only to discover that the same boss who fired her was blocking her attempt to find new employment.
“I would reach out to a firm, and they would refuse to interview me”, recalled Ms Fitzgerald. “My old boss was then seen having lunch with partners of that firm.” Ms Fitzgerald felt as though everything she had achieved in her life and career over the years was being dragged over the coals. She was being judged for one single moment in her life. A moment she saw as fiercely courageous and strong was being viewed by the legal world through the lens of “flawed” and “unhireable”.
But Ms Fitzgerald knew the truth. With help and a great deal of time and resilience, Ms Fitzgerald stopped feeling sorry for herself and began to remember who she was. She began to embrace everything she had to give.
In order to get a job, Ms Fitzgerald admitted that she omitted her struggle from her recruitment story. “Instead, I shared my successful trials and focused on my career wins”, said Ms Fitzgerald. “I spoke about who I really was rather than dwelling on a moment in time that I would not let define me.”
Fast forward a few years and Ms Fitzgerald proudly established the Financial Abuse Prevention team at the Women’s Legal Service Queensland prior to coming to the bar. The Financial Prevention team aims to help women who are victims of financial abuse obtain control and find freedom from financial debt arising out of financial abuse and coercive control.
Ms Fitzgerald was able to negotiate a property settlement, which was something that many domestic violence survivors are too frightened to attempt. She was able to own a home and begin building the life she and her son deserved.
The misunderstanding of homelessness
According to the 2016 census, women aged 55 and over were the fastest growing cohort of homeless Australians between 2011 and 2016, increasing by 31 per cent.
But, in reality, Ms Fitzgerald told Lawyers Weekly that there is a disturbingly large number of homeless women in Australia that are not counted in the statistics because they are not always on the streets. “Some have assets but cannot access them due to domestic violence. Others have children to take care of and next to no support network or financial resources to assist them”, Ms Fitzgerald explained.
Ms Fitzgerald said that being homeless should not be simplified to not having a dry roof over your head.
“It’s about not having a space of your own, any control over your environment or having a community around you”, Ms Fitzgerald said. “It is about not being able to secure stable rent or an income even by way of Centrelink.”
Ms Fitzgerald has now sold her home, and she and her son have moved back to her mother’s house so that Ms Fitzgerald could become a barrister at the private bar. Although they are now “homeless” again, in a sense, this time, it is within Emma’s control, and it is her choice. And that is hugely powerful.
Lessons from the battlefield
Ms Fitzgerald now practises as a barrister in the areas which she likes to call “human” law. “I am deeply invested in areas surrounding historical abuse, elder abuse, and domestic violence and abuse but also practise in personal injury, consumer law, guardianship, wills and probate, discrimination and employment”, Ms Fitzgerald noted.
She also offered “low bono” domestic violence legal support for a minimal fee, which allows her to assist others that have found themselves in the same frightening position she was in years ago. “In the future, I hope that I will be taken up on my offer to provide pro bono services for community legal centres that lack any formal pro bono programs,” explained Ms Fitzgerald.
Ultimately, Ms Fitzgerald’s challenges and the obstacles she faced led her to embrace a more deeply connected, more purpose-filled life. She shared that she learned “empathy, self-care, and to see the world in a new way”. Ms Fitzgerald also hopes that as her son grows, he will grow into an empathetic, strong and kind-hearted young man and that her experiences might help inform a bright future of possibility for him.
When asked what Ms Fitzgerald hopes her story will impact readers of Lawyers Weekly, Ms Fitzgerald said that she would love it to inspire those that are struggling. “Your readers are so much more than their careers and the titles they carry”, Ms Fitzgerald said. “They can live full and rich lives outside of their careers. They just need to do everything that they can to find balance.”
In other words, find your purpose. Embrace compassion. Discover your grace. And, remember that your struggles and past do not define you or your future.
Stefanie Costi is a junior lawyer and director of Costi Copywriting.