Fleeing the Nightmare

“I came down the stairs and I knew it was going to be bad. He was holding a knife behind his back. I’ll never forget how he looked at me.”

Sarah Miller* bolted out the door, got in her car and fled the marriage that had become a nightmare of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

The middle class life she left that day concealed a pattern of abuse. It escalated after Sarah developed kidney disease when her children, now adults, were preschoolers. Her transplant was failing and Sarah was struggling with dialysis treatments, osteoporosis and heart problems.

Her husband, “an extreme alcoholic”, would physically pin down the small, fragile woman in bed for hours at a time and threaten suicide. He told her that she was lazy, that there was nothing wrong with her. “The sicker I got, the harder it was.”

Sarah, who needed many hours of dialysis daily, was desperately ill and living in her car when she came to the Harriett Buhai Center for help with divorce proceedings.

“We didn’t have a lot assets and I figured it would be clear cut,” Sarah said. Instead, delays and objections from her husband’s side meant that paper work had to be repeatedly updated. “He didn’t want to pay me any alimony. He wanted to contest that I was disabled.”

As the process dragged on, Sarah was hospitalized several times. “My outcome didn’t look too good. My husband kept threatening me financially, trying to get me to sign paperwork when I was in the hospital. He was insistent that the courts would do nothing, so I’d better accept the $400 a month that he was offering and be happy with that.”

The Buhai Center volunteers and staff prepared to help Sarah go to court on her own. Due to her circumstances, it was clear that she would need representation in court. They referred Sarah to a volunteer attorney.

“It was a very compelling case,” said Buhai Center Pro Bono Manager Nina Combellack. “We needed someone who would effectively advocate for Sarah and get her the best possible results.” Combellack contacted experienced family law attorney Erin Grey, who has committed to making public service work part of her practice.

“It was imperative that Sarah was protected.” Grey said. “The thought of her living the last months of her life in a car and on dialysis was unthinkable to me.”

On the day of the trial, Sarah had to be helped to the stand. She collapsed in the hall after her testimony and spent the nine days in the hospital.

But Sarah finally had cause to celebrate. Her dissolution of marriage was granted and she had been awarded $1,500 a month in spousal support. “Sarah’s determination and hope were inspirational to me,” Grey said. “It was an honor to have worked with her. But without the Buhai Center’s help to begin with, where would she be today?”

Today, Sarah has hope. She is back on the transplant list and no longer living in her car.

If not for Erin and the Harriett Buhai Center, I would not have had a chance,” Sarah said. “My mind is clearer now. I have things to smile about, I can laugh again—and that’s probably what my family and my boys like the most.”

For information on volunteering to help clients like Sarah, contact Nicola Kennedy, Volunteer Coordinator at

*The client’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.