The Missing Piece in the Search for Justice

We’ve seen it time and time again.  A victim/survivor of domestic violence or sexual assault decides to take the incredibly brave step of coming forward to report the crime to law enforcement, only to face humiliation and an ultimate lack of justice. Here’s an example of how the story too often goes:

Jane and her husband Bill get into a fight late one night.  Bill begins to become aggressive, as he often does, screaming and throwing things.  The upstairs neighbor is awakened by the commotion and calls the police.  By the time they arrive, Bill has physically attacked Jane, but in a way that leaves no marks. The police ask Jane some questions, and she tells them what has happened.  Based on Jane’s report, and the broken dishes and picture frames strewn around the apartment, they determine that Bill has in fact been violent and arrest him.  

The next day, after a night of only a couple hours of fitful sleep, she gets a call from a detective who asks her detailed questions about what happened last night.  Her memories are fuzzy. She tries to make sense of them and tell him what happened, but she ends up giving a report that is different in several key details than the report that police took the night before at the apartment.  

Later, the prosecutor who has been assigned to her criminal case interviews her.  Jane’s memory has cleared up a little since talking with the detective, but there are still some parts of the night that are missing.  She wants to help with the investigation, so she answers the questions to the best of her ability.  But, because her memories aren’t clear, her story comes out slightly different from the two prior reports. The prosecutor, who has reviewed the previous reports, decides that since the story is inconsistent, the victim is not credible and therefore declines to prosecute.      

While this scenario is fictional, what we see in Jane’s story is very common.  If a sexual assault or incident of domestic violence is reported to law enforcement, the process requires the victim/survivor to tell their story multiple times- often, at the very least, to a law enforcement officer, a detective, and if the case goes to court, a judge and maybe even a jury. Many times, as the story is repeated over the months, there may be some slight or even significant changes to that story. Because of those discrepancies, which are usually quickly pointed out and belabored by the defense attorney, the victim is thought to be lying and therefore does not get the justice they deserve.

Advocates and survivors know that there are many common psychological reasons why victims’ stories may change.  A survivor may fear retaliation from the offender- the person who attacked them may be pressuring them to change their story by threatening to hurt them even worse if they continue going forward with the case.  Sometimes survivors feel shamed or humiliated by the reporting process, or by having to tell intimate details of an event.  Survivors may feel pressure from friends or family members to drop the case or change their story.

And while these and the many other reasons for discrepancies are completely valid, the piece that’s missing is a basic understanding of the brain. Inconsistencies in the retelling of traumatic events can easily be explained using the neurobiology of trauma.

When we feel overly stressed, under attack or in danger our body is designed to react to keep us safe.  Dramatic changes occur in the brain during a traumatic event, such as a sexual assault or incident of domestic violence. Some of us flee, some of us fight and others freeze.

There are three parts of the brain that are especially associated with crisis response.  The frontal lobe (often called the “thinking brain”) is the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and executive thinking- it allows you to plan, analyze situations, solve problems and make choices.

The midbrain, often referred to as the “emotional brain,” is the region where the fight or flight response is generated. The emotional brain is responsible for emotion, short-term memory, and the body’s response to danger.  

And finally, the brain stem (often referred to as the “reptilian brain”) maintains vital body functions like breathing and heart rate.  It acts out of instinct, responding to stimuli with survival as its focus.

In the case of a sexual assault or physical attack, the midbrain registers danger and signals various parts of the brain to prepare for the attack. This sparks many changes in the body that are important for survival, including an increase in heart rate and blood flow, the releasing of energy stores, and more focused attention.   But it also has a detrimental effect on normal brain function, specifically on the “thinking brain”, whose ability to operate properly quickly degrades.  When the midbrain is signaling danger, the frontal lobes of the brain nearly shut down. This is not to say that a person can’t make good decisions while in a crisis, it’s just more challenging.

Many of us can recognize this effect when we look back on how we acted during a time when we were in crisis.  We might think “Why did I do that?” or “Why didn’t I do the thing that seems really logical to me now?”  Well, now you know: because your “thinking brain” wasn’t functioning properly.  You couldn’t access the part of your brain that normally makes decisions and guides your actions in a logical way.

Not only do these brain changes negatively impact executive thinking, they also severely impact the memory encoding process.  New memories are encoded in a part of the brain called the hippocampus and then eventually transferred to the frontal lobes for long-term storage. But since the frontal lobes have been significantly degraded, those memories don’t get stored properly. Memories are fragmented and are almost always sensory fragments.  This means that instead of sequential or chronological memories of an event, the brain can only remember sensory details such as sights, sounds, smells.

Therefore, it’s only natural that trauma victims have a hard time retelling the event.  There is no sequence or details to the memories that are stored in their brains.  But, that’s what our criminal justice system asks victims to do- remember the event and tell exactly what happened and in what order.  It’s understandable that law enforcement is asking these questions because they are trying to get information and figure out what happened. It just isn’t possible for most victims, given the state that their brain was in.

What generally happens is that many survivors will try to answer the questions because they want to be a good witness- they want to try to help the officer with the investigation.  So they try to make sense of the memory fragments they have and put them into what seems like the most likely order.  But that leaves a lot of room for getting things wrong.  And then, when they are asked the same questions a few days, weeks or months later- either by the same investigator, or an attorney, or a judge- they may not retell it in quite the same way, because that never actually was the way the memories were stored.  And now they’ve given statements with different information, or information that’s in a different order- an inconsistent statement.  Defense attorneys will jump all over this inconsistency to make the case that the victim is lying or making it up. When all that really happened was that the interview process was inappropriate for someone whose brain has been impacted by trauma.

How dramatically our criminal justice system would be changed if all involved parties received as little as 20 minutes of training on how trauma impacts our brains.  If those who respond to victims (law enforcement officers who take victims’ initial reports, detectives and prosecutors who later interview them, juries and judges who hear victims’ testimonies in court) knew that the brain isn’t functioning properly during crisis- that the parts of the brain that allow for chronological memory storage are impaired.  If they knew what trauma victims can and can’t recall effectively.

On top of that, think of the positive change that could come from training the criminal justice system to ask the kinds of questions that don’t set victims up to be perceived as liars in the courtroom.  Rather than asking questions like “tell me what happened and start at the beginning”, what if they asked sensory based questions like “tell me everything you can remember about what you smelled or heard.”  These questions not only demonstrate a sensitivity to the effects of trauma, but they also allow law enforcement to get solid information that they can rely on. Which brings them much closer to the ultimate goal: justice.  

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The Verdict Is In: Mandate Domestic Violence Training for Judges

Mandatory Domestic Violence Training for Judges

Law enforcement officers, social workers, health care professionals, teachers, and other state employees have been pushed to learn about the dynamics of domestic violence, but one crucial group of people is sometimes overlooked—our judges.

It is not uncommon for a victim to change his or her story or to feel uncertain while in court. It is the judge’s role and responsibility to not only rule fairly but also to understand the position of the victim—a position often driven by fear and confusion.

Kentucky judges recently decided that the previously mandatory domestic violence training for judges should now be optional. This is concerning not only because every individual in law enforcement and court should go through DV training, but also because it is not enough to allow judges to attend trainings as they see fit.

On my own college campus there are many “Step Up” trainings held to foster bystander intervention and promote a greater knowledge of sexual assault and rape on campus. While the training is informative and extremely well done, the people who need to hear the training the most (people who have the potential to intervene or act as future perpetrators) often do not think or take the initiative to attend a training. In other words, the trainings are mostly “preaching to the choir” or in this case a room full of college student who are already passionate and informed about domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape prevention.

The “preaching to the choir” phenomenon can extend to judicial education. If judges are able to elect whether or not they think domestic violence training would be beneficial for them, odds are the judges that most need the training will not receive the relevant information.

Judges need training because many may be unaware of the effects of domestic violence as well barriers in the legal system that impede victims. Judicial education eliminates gender biases in court rooms and helps judges to understand how they need to explain rulings to both the victim and the perpetrator in ways to reduce further contact and violence.

In Next Time She’ll Be Dead, Ann Jones explains that there are necessary changes in the criminal justice system in order to support women leaving domestic violence. Judicial education informs judges on lethality risks and can help them understand the risk associated with a batterer who has threatened suicide. It can also help judges to overcome “letting their own bias of a nuclear family blind them to the dangers women and children face.” Everything from divorce proceedings to custody hearings can be better informed when judges understand the risks and dangers associated with domestic violence.

In Kentucky this is even more compelling because recent changes in the law now allow victims of dating violence to receive protective orders. There is debate between family court and district court over who should hear the cases and who is “most equipped” to deal with this issue. What if all judges received training on dating and domestic violence? Because regardless of who is handling these cases the issue is present in every court room.

While the “preaching to the choir” phenomenon may be manageable at my college because if one person chooses not to attend a training it isn’t the end of the world, judges have considerably more power and influence. A judge armed with the powerful knowledge from DV training is more likely to rule in fair and just ways for the victim. They are able to understand a victim’s hesitation about speaking up. They are able to identify risk factors within the relationship that the victim themselves may not even recognize. They are able to alleviate barriers put in front of victims by the legal system.

Without this kind of knowledge, we may see more occurrences of what happened in court on June 12 when a Jefferson County judge put a victim behind bars for changing her story after her abuser used coercive behaviors from behind bars to intimidate her to change her testimony.

Furthermore, what is the purpose in training police officers, lawyers, and social workers on domestic violence if the highest authority on the law will not be trained on the issue? What is the purpose in implementing protocol so that police take action if any progress will only be reversed by a judge who doesn’t understand the complexities of domestic violence?

In August of 2008, Dorene Seidl went to court to have a Domestic Violence Order (DVO) entered after she had filed a series of EPO’s documenting a history of abuse. The judge claimed the case was a “he said, she said” and ruled it was not domestic violence. When Dorene Seidl went home a few days later accompanied by Mr. Seidl’s brother to gather her belongings, Mr. Seidl emptied a loaded gun into her and murdered her.

Had the DVO been entered, the police would have escorted Dorene Seidl safely into her home to pick up her things. Mr. Seidl wouldn’t have been able to purchase the new gun used to murder his wife.

Had the DVO been entered, chances are much higher that Dorene Seidl would be alive.

So how do you know if your judges are receiving the right information? How do you know victims in your community are safe in courtrooms? The map above shows the requirements for judges in some states. If your state isn’t colored, reach out to your local judge. Reach out to your state’s coalition against domestic violence which would be happy to talk to you about the regulations and requirements surrounding domestic violence.

Although many states require domestic violence training for judges, we have to continue to ask is it adequate? Is a 2 hour seminar once every few years enough to truly hone in on and understand the issue that can cause substance abuse, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) affecting behavior and parenting, and most importantly victims who act desperately out of fear and may make mistakes in and out of court because of it?

Laws vary based on state, but no matter where you live you can have an influence on how your judges are selected. 39 states hold elections for trial court judges. 31 have elections for intermediate appellate courts. You have an influence and power over who makes decisions in court.

It is not enough for only family court judges to have experience with domestic violence. If this is their chosen profession why would a judge choose not to go to a training that pertains to so many of the people they serve? Shouldn’t they be jumping at the chance to improve their ability to serve?

Domestic Violence is an epidemic affecting 1 in 4 women in her lifetime and therefore will touch every court room and every judge. Find out more information on the judges in your area and demand that every judge receives appropriate and timely information on domestic violence.

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Guns, Knives, and Social Media: The New Frontier for Abuse, Harassment, and Victim Blaming

Written by The Mary Byron Project Intern

If you were walking down a public street and suddenly noticed a man beating a woman to the ground, violently hitting her, you would know that you were witnessing abuse. You would not only label it as wrong but also hopefully take action—calling the police or intervening yourself.

If you were in a store at the mall, and you heard a woman screaming threats of violence and death at her partner you would again label this as wrong and know action should be taken, whether that is bystander intervention or contacting law enforcement.

So then why is social media any different? Instinctively our gut tells us it is wrong when we see someone being physically abused or threatened in public. We must realize that our lives our now online and online abuse via social media must be viewed with the same gut-wrenching disgust.

Zoe Quinn, a 28 year old video game designer, was at the height of her career when her ex-boyfriend published the “Zoe Post”—a deluge of personal information and lies about their relationship that led to online attacks and stalking. He was able to garner so much attention that other people began to harass Zoe. Suddenly, she and other female game developers were receiving death threats and tweets telling them to get out of the video game world.

Zoe was scared enough to approach the police for help even though many people told her to simply stay off the internet. As if that was the solution. As if that was possible. She told the Boston Globe, “In 2015, that’s like saying, ‘Oh, there’s an angry mob camped outside on your sidewalk, just don’t ever go outside again.”

And I can understand where Zoe is coming from. As a college student, the internet and social media are a part of every day of my life. Just staying off the Internet is not simple, and it’s not a solution.

Because the internet is such a critical part of our lives, it has also become an avenue for abuse.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence surveyed victims and found that social media is the number one type of technology abusers use to monitor, track, and impersonate victims. Social media is the second technology source used to harass victims, superseded only by texting.

An advocate wrote: “Facebook is the hardest for survivors to shut down or avoid because they use it to keep in contact with other friends and family.” Harassment forcing victims offline, off social media, is social isolation and is abuse. Isolation is an often used tool by perpetrators, serving as a way to maintain power and control. Ultimately abuse is about power and control and social media provides the perfect tool.

Online harassment through social media can be classified as cyberstalking. Cyberstalking takes many forms, including: harassment, embarrassment and humiliation of the victim, emptying bank accounts or other economic control such as ruining the victim’s credit score, or harassing family, friends, and employers to isolate the victim.

Many states have tough laws to punish some forms of cyberstalking. But while emptying someone’s bank account or ruining a credit score are obvious crimes, social media is a gray area. To some it may be difficult to understand the harassment Zoe has experienced because it is on the internet and not directed specifically at the victim so it should be avoidable and not as big of a deal.

Even the justices of the Supreme Court grappled with the issue of online harassment.

Anthony Elonis, the man at the center of a recent Supreme Court decision regarding his Facebook posts, used social media to threaten his ex-wife, the police, and even a local elementary school after his wife left him.

Ask yourself, would reasonable people consider the following posts frightening?

“There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.”
“Fold up your PFA [protection-from-abuse order] and put it in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?”
‘’If I only knew then what I know now . . . I would have smothered your ass with a pillow. Dumped your body in the back seat. Dropped you off in Toad Creek and made it look like a rape and murder.’’

To answer the question, of course they would. These are just a few of Elonis’ horrific posts about his wife. She sought out and received a protective order against Elonis but that couldn’t stop him from wildly posting threats against her on Facebook.

I can already hear people repeating what Zoe Quinn was told, “stay off the internet.” And similarly, that is how many police officers handle cases of online harassment. As if not seeing it would mean it doesn’t exist. This new type of victim blaming is dangerous because it asks victims rather than abusers to change their behavior.

Obviously it will take time for law enforcement to catch up with the technology, but why are we waiting for law enforcement? Bystander Intervention teaches us to step up when we see instances of violence. It is time that we view abuse via social media in the same light. Why are we tolerating this kind of behavior?

Social media institutions often hide behind the First Amendment to leave their sites unmoderated and open to abuse. Caitlin Dewey, a Washington Post journalist, reported abuse to Twitter after receiving a tweet that said, “get raped, you c***.” Twitter responded with a generic letter explaining that the content does not violate Twitter’s rules and therefore the tweet can be left online.

In an interview, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo admitted that Twitter has a problem with abuse and that the site has become an “ideal platform for harassment” and that they have been unable to deal with abuse for years. There is clear evidence that abuse is occurring via Twitter, and yet the site has not changed. I have to wonder, what would Twitter’s position be if 10 million Twitter users wanted different policies?

When victims are told to simply “stay off the internet” (an impossible task) and real action is not taken to protect victims, we leave them vulnerable and in dangerous situations.

While fears that the internet isn’t safe or that we put far too much information online are somewhat based in reality, the truth is that the majority of people on social media do not use this abundance of information for harm. It is similar to when physical abusers try to use being drunk as an excuse for abuse. Many domestic violence advocates will tell you, the majority of people drink and do not abuse. Alcohol does not make someone an abuser and cannot be used to excuse violence. Similarly, access to someone’s Facebook profile does not make someone an abuser. It is a conscious choice, based on a need for power and control, to abuse someone online and misuse the access to their lives.

Imagine a University of Louisville student wakes up one morning, looks at her phone and has over twenty texts waiting for her—all concerning some blog. She logs onto her Facebook and clicks on the new blog post. She starts scrolling and realizes it is an entire post with photos from her Twitter and screenshots of her status updates. It details her location, where she goes to school, and insults her behavior and viewpoints, persuading total strangers to comment horrible things.

“I feel bad for her parents.” “Too bad she’s such an idiot, she’s pretty sexy. I would tap that.” “I don’t know who she is, but I can tell she’s a slut.”

The worst part is when her parents call, her mom is in tears, questioning her for her posts, asking her why she ever posted photos on her Twitter? She calls a lawyer, hoping she can at least get her school location taken down. She knows who posted it, but can’t prove anything. Sadly, there is no real course of action—it would be too difficult to press charges. She spends the whole day in bed, feeling horrible about herself and regretting her every decision.

She is the victim, and yet she feels the blame for online harassment that put her in danger. She was using social media like 74% of internet users do and yet she was victimized, harassed, and abused.

Many fail to see the actual harm from online threats and harassment. If there’s no actual physical attack, what’s the harm in saying what you want online? But the harm from this type of abuse is very real. It is meant to instill life-altering fear, and it is very successful.

After receiving online attacks, death and rape threats, Zoe Quinn would see people in public and think “Is this one of the people that’s been sending me threats for the last six months? Are they going to tell people where I am?” Zoe left her job, the video game industry entirely, and moved out of the country. Fear created by the abuse forced her to abandon her lifestyle, her livelihood, and her sense of safety.

What is the solution? Of course it is impractical and ineffective to prosecute every person who posts a negative comment on Facebook. That’s not the problem or the needed solution. However, there is action that can be taken. For one, we can shift internet culture to make these types of posts unpopular and unacceptable. But also, online abuse should be handled by social media institutions. Twitter and Facebook must respond to complaints of threats and abuse. Our lives are now online, and so as a community of social media users we must create change and demand action by the institutions that make up our lives.

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Making Excuses for Brutality: The Alarming Responses to Ray Rice’s Violence

Our nation’s domestic violence problem has been featured in the news quite a bit this week after Baltimore Raven’s running back Ray Rice was suspended by the National Football League for a mere two games after knocking his then fiancé, now wife, Janay Palmer unconscious in an Atlantic City casino elevator. TMZ obtained security camera footage of Rice carelessly dragging her immobile body from the elevator doors, and it subsequently went viral. The NFL’s dainty punishment can only be described as absolutely and entirely horrifying. I would think that everyone would agree. I would be wrong. ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith suggested that domestic violence victims should educate themselves “about the elements of provocation” and because Rice’s fiancé had “provoked” him, he asserts, “It’s not about him then, it’s about you.” Goodness gracious, surely no one thought he was making any sense at all in saying that her tragic beating was her own damn fault? Wrong again. Whoopi Goldberg’s diatribe on “The View” communicated the message that if only women would learn to stop hitting men, we wouldn’t be having these problems. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the age old dilemma of intimate partner violence has been solved. It was the woman all along! I suppose it’s high time we pack up the office.

In all seriousness though, the way that our society is so quick to blame the victim, even in the most severe cases of abuse is demonstrative of the problematic way that domestic violence is perceived. Why would victims come forward, stand up for themselves, and experience the trauma all over again if only to be told, “You provoked this.”? The honest truth is that they wouldn’t and they don’t. Belying all evidence to the contrary, we continue to believe that domestic violence remains a crime that happens to invisible people. In a Huffington Post poll asking whether Goldberg’s remarks were accurate, the current standings are 80% yes and only 20% no.

Let’s take a closer look at our culprits of these detrimental paradigms.

The NFL:

Only two games. Though it is indeed difficult to watch, I implore everyone to take a close look at the TMZ clip again. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has suspended players for longer periods of time for DUIs and illegal tattoos. Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon is currently appealing a full year suspension for recreational marijuana use. Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis will sit out four games for taking illegal fertility drugs while trying to have a child with his wife. Again, Rice will sit for just two games. The National Football League’s actions have exemplified a stance that domestic violence is neither an egregious offense nor is preventing it a priority. Adding insult to injury, NFL officials have since issued statements acclaiming Rice as an upstanding man, assuring the fans that he just made a “one-time” mistake and is now back on the right track. A recent poll reports that 64% of Americans watch NFL Football; 73% of men, 55% of women. In an organization with that sort of breadth and reach, their response is nothing short of unacceptable.  We have to hold the NFL responsible for the role it is playing to belittle violence. Goodell and the NFL are implicitly approving domestic violence. And players certainly are not the only ones hearing that message.

Stephen A. Smith:

“Let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions.” Perhaps the worst part of Smith’s rant is the way in which he positions himself as a valiant defender of the women’s rights cause because he was raised by women. That does nothing to silence the crystal clear message that Rice’s fiancé was at least partially responsible for her assault. The way things are now, we teach girls a host of methods, tips and tricks to avoid assault, rape, and abuse but we spend considerable less time telling boys not to assault, rape, and abuse women. In a lackluster, prerecorded apology, Smith states, “My words came across that it is somehow a woman’s fault. This is not my intent. It is not what I was trying to say.” Legal analyst Mel Robbins offered an amazing reality check on CNN asserting, “In 2012, guys, Smith said the exact same thing regarding Chad Johnson. He used the words — in an incident with Chad Johnson, where Chad Johnson was accused of kicking his wife in the head that we got to look at provocation here and he said he was sick and tired of men being vilified, and ESPN did nothing and it flew under the radar screen….And here’s the other thing: He may have apologized, but it was pre-taped, and nothing says sincere like a pre-taped apology. And instead of having a bigger conversation about it — like, okay, wait a minute, you didn’t get to say what you meant? What did you mean exactly by that?”  It is truly unfortunate that misogynistic views like Smith’s are carelessly broadcasted over the airways.

Whoopi Goldberg:

Even after Stephen A. Smith was (rightly) suspended from ESPN for the week, Whoopi Goldberg defended Smith’s statements proclaiming that because Janay hit Rice first, she could expect nothing other than the treatment she received. She states, “If you hit somebody, you cannot be sure you are not going to get hit back… you have to teach women; do not live with this idea that men have this chivalry thing still with them. Don’t assume that’s still in place. So don’t be surprised if you hit a man and he hits you back.” What Goldberg does not acknowledge however, is the massive power disparity between the running back and his petite fiancé. Women indeed are not entitled to hit men under any circumstance aside from self-defense, but to say that she should not be surprised by what happened? The woman was struck by a blow so hard that she lost consciousness. And further, though her cohosts do reproach Goldberg for her statements, at the end of the segment, Sherri Shepard proclaims, “This is the one thing I don’t understand about Ray Rice’s wife: He knocked you out and pulled you out the elevator and you still married this man…” In essence, why doesn’t she just leave him? Definitely not looking in the right direction here.  At the point of physical abuse, emotional and verbal manipulation have usually already cast feelings of fear and guilt upon a victim. Many desperately want the abuse to end, but not the relationship. And if an abuser is promising to change, and the victim loves the abuser, then it is hard to walk away.

What’s really going on here?

Victim blaming. Why on earth are we so inclined to look for reasons why Palmer was probably asking for it? That Rice is a nice man who was simply provoked by his petite fiancé’s slap. In Ann Jones’ “Next Time She’ll Be Dead,” she articulately describes this practice:

“Popular discourse…fills our minds with prefabricated phrases, exonerating the abuser and blaming the victim. We understand that he was under ‘stress’ of one sort or another, while she was emasculating, cold, provocative, self-destructive, hysterical, masochistic, and free to leave. Although many people now agree in principle that it’s wrong to hit women, many of us also seem to believe that under certain circumstances it’s almost bound to happen. And those circumstances are so elastic that in effect almost every abused woman gets blamed…. And whether we blame battered women or pity them for their plight, we tend to think of them as a kind of pariah group, rather like prostitutes, who apparently choose to live “abnormal” and dangerous lives because of some peculiar kinks of background or personality. (After all, we think, she could leave.) Knowing public attitudes, abused women often keep silent out of shame and fear of being blamed, thereby appearing to acquiesce to violence. But if the abused woman appears complicit, so do we; making excuses for the abuser in this case, blaming the victim in that case, we approve violence. Is it any wonder then that battering continues?”

According to Smith and Goldberg, Palmer was bound to be assaulted by Rice because she provoked him, because she was violent first, and he must not have been that bad, because she stayed, didn’t she? These attitudes are far too common.

And lest we forget, charming Ray Rice, who is not behind bars, nor was he behind bars yesterday, nor will he be behind bars tomorrow. Despite being indicted for the assault by a grand jury, Rice will not be charged, nor will he pay a criminal fine, and his record will be expunged. In other words, he got off scot-free in the eyes of the law even though there was an enormous amount of tangible evidence.  Perhaps most alarming of all is Rice’s response. In a statement, he says, profusely minimizing the incident, “I failed in many ways. But Janay and I have learned from this.” I don’t know what his victim could have learned other than to fear her husband, but the media response carries many salient lessons that we certainly can learn from. The most apparent? We provide no shortage of excuses for abusers and accusations of victims.  How can we ever expect domestic violence to stop if we don’t advocate for those suffering from it? To quote Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”

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A Call for Action: Changing the Culture of Teen Dating Violence

Empowering young people with the tools and the language to decipher healthy relationships from abusive ones is imperative in order to quell the epidemic of teen dating violence. We often forget that dating violence, which encompasses physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse between two people in a close relationship, can occur at any age, and can be most detrimental for young people whose ideas about what is normal are still being formed. Among adult victims of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, 22% of women and 15% of men first experienced some form of partner violence between 11 and 17 years of age.  Absolutely paramount in the attempt to end a widespread issue like this is prevention through early education. We must make communication about this issue accessible to teens and introduce intervention before patterns of abuse are cemented. Studies demonstrate that parents and peers are the most effective avenues to reach adolescents and because parents, unfortunately, continuously prove too squeamish, too detached, or too ignorant, the greatest prospect of social change will be through popular opinion leaders and peers.

What does teen dating violence look like?
Dating abuse is a pattern of destructive behaviors used to exert power and control over a partner. When does a relationship cross the line between tumultuous and downright abusive? offers some warning signs: if your partner is checking your cell phone or email without permission, constantly putting you down, extremely jealous or insecure, exhibiting an explosive temper, isolating you from family or friends, making false accusations, demonstrating constant mood swings, physically hurting you in any way, possessive of you, controlling, repeatedly pressuring you to have sex, you are in a violent relationship. Technology and social media are an especially effective way that power and control manifest themselves in teenage relationships. In a generation that garners equal sustenance from smartphones and oxygen, how much texting is too much? Is he checking in or checking up? Does she get frustrated if you take too long to answer? It can be very hard for teens to distinguish dysfunctional behaviors from healthy ones, especially when this may very well be the first relationship they have ever been in.

Why does it happen?
While both young women and young men can be victims of dating violence, the majority of cases deal with abusive boyfriends. Why? Dating violence continues across generations in large part because of prevailing gender stereotypes or what Tony Porter in his Ted Talk calls the collective socialization of men. He posits that until we deconstruct and redefine the view of men as the superior, domineering, emotionless sex we will have problems of inequity in society that lead to accepted relationship dynamics of aggression and control. Young men are taught, explicitly and implicitly, that women have less value, are to be viewed as property, and objectified. These perceptions breed violence. Porter suggests that “my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.”
More recently, the Always commercial by Award-winning director Lauren Greenfield communicates a sobering message about the destructive nature of gender stereotypes around the idiomatic insult “you [throw, run, hit, etc.] like a girl.” At what point does run like a girl go from meaning run as fast as you can to run like a frolicking fool? The commercial demonstrates that the phrase “like a girl” becomes insulting as women get older and negative gender roles are deeply inculcated in their perception of self. As long as this inequity stands it will lead to power imbalances in relationships and contribute to the objectification and abuse of women.

How can we stop it?
Early education is key. Just as campaigns have successfully led to the vast diminishing of cigarette smokers and the almost ubiquitous use of seat belts, if we can spread awareness through middle and high schools with the hope of fostering the spirit of activism, perhaps the demeaning and controlling relationships will be stopped before they become lifelong habits. Currently, there are several state bills pending that will mandate education regarding dating violence in schools. If we educate the population, we will create an environment where a victim of an abusive relationship will have friends who know how to address them and additionally, someone demonstrating abusive behaviors will be reproached by peers. This can stop a young man from becoming a lifelong batterer.  We cannot underestimate the power of getting teens to simply tell someone “that’s not cool.” 

Mary Byron Scholars Program
The Mary Byron Scholars Program selects exceptional and dedicated young women in high school to undergo training to become community liaisons in the effort to prevent dating violence. They raise awareness at Assumption High School and throughout the community. Specifically, they conduct training sessions at male high schools geared towards getting young men involved in the cause and creating valiant bystanders. In April they spearheaded a Teen Dating Violence Awareness Week with three male high schools. Following the awareness campaign, the scholars led a fundraiser in which three boy’s high schools competed in Walk a Mile in Her Shoes® donning high heels and carrying purses in the international men’s march to stop rape, sexual assault and gender violence. By educating young men on healthy relationships, these young scholars are helping to promote vast social change. Eloquently put in his piece in the New York Times, Charles Blow writes, “Fighting female objectification and discrimination and violence against women isn’t simply the job of women; it must also be the pursuit of men…Only when men learn to recognize misogyny will we be able to rid the world of it. Not all men are part of the problem, but, yes, all men must be part of the solution.”  And not only are these young women doing fantastic work in their communities now, they will also be activists throughout their lives, communicating the message of gender equality and healthy relationships wherever their journeys take them.

Celebrating Solutions Programs
The Mary Byron Project’s Celebrating Solutions Program awards exceptional programs honing in on specific characteristics that make an action plan against domestic violence successful.
In 2004 the Mentors in Violence Prevention program won the Celebrating Solutions award for utilizing the coveted status of athletes as role models to address the problem of men’s violence against women. Every MVP session is co-facilitated by a mixed-gender, racially diverse group of former athletes. Their approach to prevention includes interactive playbooks to spark discussion about the ways that young men and women are taught how they can interrupt, confront and prevent violence by their peers. 
2009 Celebrating Solutions Winner SafePlace’s Expect Respect program pioneered legislation mandating that Texas schools address teen dating violence through policies, training, counseling for affected students, and education for students and parents. Their broad range of services for students throughout grade school and high school acknowledges that youth leadership is key to changing social norms related to intimate partner violence and ultimately breaking multi-generational cycles of violence. Research and experience demonstrate that youth need to see their peers as leaders and positive role models in order to adopt new, healthy attitudes and behaviors.

Taking Action
Breaking the cycle of teen dating violence depends on our youth. It depends on our ability to teach them to recognize and put an end to abusive relationships before they start. Dating violence will persist until prevention is made a priority throughout the nation. We must educate both young men and young women of all backgrounds and empower them with the strategies to recognize and react to teen dating violence. Through tried and true methods of peer education and support from popular opinion leaders, we can live in a world where being an activist is what all the cool kids are doing.

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2013 Celebrating Solutions & Roth Award Winners

Domestic violence remains one of the leading dangers for women in today’s world. An estimated one in five women will be a victim of abuse in her lifetime. With an issue so pervasive, so long standing, and so deeply ingrained in society, solutions are not easy to come by. The Mary Byron Project’s Celebrating Solutions Program hones in on specific characteristics that make an action plan against domestic violence successful. Through months of reading applications from all over the nation, The Mary Byron Project commemorates initiatives that present innovative solutions to broaden the scope of available services for victims to turn to, and ultimately create a world where there are far fewer occurrences of intimate partner violence altogether. 2013 boasted groundbreaking models for the nation to follow in shelters, housing, law, education, and medicine. Domestic violence transcends all dimensions of life and therefore must be combated with a multi-front approach. It is the honor of the Mary Byron Project to recognize these valiant efforts.

Greenhouse 17
A little fresh air can go a long way. Greenhouse 17 presents a creative and inventive solution to help victims rebuild their lives after violence has caused extensive loss and damage. Their solution is agriculture based healing. That’s right, aside from providing advocacy, emergency shelter, legal services and housing support, they also give victims the empowering opportunity to help cultivate the land on their beautiful 40 acre farm. Peaceful moments in gardens, where witnessing plants growing can inspire feelings of hope, serve to counteract stresses victims have experienced through their trauma. There is something very life-affirming about planting a seed and seeing it grow—the literal affirmation that confidence in the future is not futile. They benefit from these efforts and are able to eat the fresh fruits and vegetables which also teaches good eating habits. Further, through these efforts the farm plans to become an entirely economically self-sustaining program while offering survivors microenterprise opportunities. They are deeply committed to community involvement and garner support from local establishments. Greenhouse 17 redefines the meaning of healing and helps victims get back on their feet while learning life-long skills.

District Alliance for Safe Housing
Home should be a safe place. DASH posits that every survivor of domestic violence should have stress-free access to a roof over head where they can heal. Lacking a safe place to stay often traps victims and their children in abusive and potentially very dangerous situations. DASH’s innovative design for providing housing departs from the traditional model of shelter and housing for victims, instead offering emergency, transitional and permanent housing services to residents in an apartment setting, where they have leases in their own names and are able to transition in place rather than moving from one facility to another after completing each predetermined stage of housing. They call this program “Rapid Re-housing” and move victims into their own housing units immediately after they have escaped abuse and keep them housed for the long-term. The settling allows residents to have their own private space to heal and recover, conducting their lives as they would in their own homes. Their reach has been nothing short of astounding. In 2013, DASH safely housed 225 individuals (94 women and 131 children) providing over 800,000 safe nights. 350 women and families were placed into emergency, transitional and permanent housing. DASH also works to educate the community and has reached over 2,000 women and advocates. In an article by WUSA 9 DASH resident Janet M. Copeland offers a chilling testimonial: “When she gave me the key to open my door I fell to my knees and kissed the floor because I was so happy. I felt safe. It was like a new awakening. I was just so grateful. That’s the word. I was just so grateful that it was a place that I could go with my baby and feel safe.” DASH places victims in highly secure housing at undisclosed locations so they can rest assured that their perpetrator will not find them. And in the long-term, with DASH by their sides, victims can build a life free of violence in a home they can afford.

Rutgers School of Social Work
Domestic Violence is a complicated issue. In order to enrich the education of those serving in the field, Rutgers School of Social Work has crafted a certification program specifically pioneered for studies surrounding violence against women and children. They are the only university in the country to offer this program to graduate level social work students. Through in-depth courses, specialized field placements and supportive scholarships Rutgers tailors the program to create professionals who have the skills needed to work effectively and sensitively with survivors of violence. Graduates have gone on to obtain professional leadership positions working in the fields of domestic violence, sexual violence and child abuse in clinical and administrative venues. The program’s research, education, and training impacts communities and policies in New Jersey, the U.S. and throughout the world. Rutgers is leading the way in encouraging schools of social work across the country to implement a focus on research on violence against women.

National Crime Victim Law Institute’s Responding to Violence Against Women Project
Victims of domestic violence all too often become victims of the criminal justice system as well. The National Crime Victim Law Institute recognizes that historical and cultural myths and biases create unique hurdles to women’s access to justice. The NCVLI recognizes the necessity to curb the pretenses that intimate partner violence is a woman’s fault for staying in the relationship. They have launched the Responding to Violence against Women Project to focus on ensuring that victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and/or child abuse are empowered in their attempt for justice. The project ensures that service providers and lawyers responding to these victims have the knowledge and skills necessary to protect a victim’s rights, particularly in the criminal case against offenders. The victims are not merely pieces of evidence in the case against the defendants but persons whose independent voice and rights need to be protected so that they can heal from the trauma they have been through. NCVLI conducts research, hosts a myriad of trainings, issues legal publications on rights enforcement to aid practitioners, crafts model legislation and drafts public policy briefings. In short, NCVLI recognizes that the system is flawed and all too frequently puts the victims on the defense. If we want more women to come forward, to seek justice, to pursue protection, the system needs reform.

Every year along with the four Celebrating Solutions winners, the Mary Byron Project recognizes an outstanding program that specifically works with underserved populations with the Roth Award. Because domestic violence affects the full range of socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic and religious groups, there is a demand for programs specifically tailored to reach diverse groups.
Migrant Clinicians Network, Inc.’s Hombres Unidos Contra la Violencia Familiar (Men United against Family Violence)
The epidemic of domestic violence will not change until men join women in the fight. Hombres Unidos engages Latino migrant men in group dialogue, facilitated by their peers, to learn about sexual and intimate partner violence. They learn to define healthy relationships through knowledge, attitudes, behaviors and beliefs. The Austin Texas group recognizes the importance of using a culturally sensitive approach to address the issue of intimate partner violence across socio-economic and ethnic boundaries. They conduct workshops in the language most participants find comfortable, usually Spanish, and foster a safe environment for discussion and learning. By training 150-300 men annually, they create community leaders and activists among Latino men who can spread positive messages of respect and exemplify healthy behaviors to their friends and families.

The Celebrating Solutions and Roth Award winners generate a sense of hope in the continuing fight against intimate partner violence. Their superior efforts to improve the resources available to victims and their drive to educate the masses to create informed foot soldiers of change are integral in ultimately ending the stigma surrounding one of our nation’s largest public health downfalls. These promising initiatives will help to end the cycle of violence that still exists in profundity in this day and age. To see more outstanding programs that we have honored, visit our website.

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Campus Sexual Assault: Our Nation’s Silent Shame

Colleges and universities are being educated by Washington and are finding the experience excruciating. They are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous (“micro-aggressions,” often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate- George Will, Washington Post.

 Micro-aggressions? Belittling the trauma that college women have suffered into a phrase as dismissive as “micro-aggressions” is truly infuriating in this day and age. We live in a society that still questions “Well, what was she wearing that night?” and Will’s column simply perpetuates that mindset. The fact that a well-respected columnist for the Washington Post would belittle a victim’s anguish after harassment and/or assault only heightens the stigma that already surrounds sexual assault and accounts for the diminutive percentage of victims who actually come forward. So let’s delve deeper into this issue…

For many, the journey to college means the launch from the comfortable, nurturing nest of suburbia to a campus beckoning new experiences, new areas of study, new friends, and new jobs all far away from home. These years are often some of the most transformative where students enter as 18 year old boys and girls and depart at the ripe age of 22, young men and women with big plans and ideas. However, for an 18 year old girl entering college, she also enters an incredibly dangerous environment. Hampering the prospect of self-discovery is the dauntingly high risk factor for sexual violence on college campuses.  Statistically speaking, 20% of college women experience dating violence, yet these incidents go vastly unreported. Only 12% of these women will ever come forward. Perhaps victimhood isn’t as coveted as George Will suggests. These women are ashamed and frightened, not seeking attention and recognition. What’s more, when reported, the compulsory response from campuses under Title IX legislation often does not result in more than a slap on the wrist for the perpetrator. The mission of the Legal Aid Society’s “Legal Representation of Sexual Assault Victims on Campus” training I had the privilege of attending, was to elicit a response to attempt to quell this epidemic by giving lawyers and activists a fundamental understanding of how to provide legal representation to victims of sexual assault in campus administrative hearings and counseling on other legal options with both sensitivity and competence to the needs of victims specific to sexual assault. The hope is to empower young women to hold the system accountable for keeping themselves safe and comfortable in the learning environment.


Challenges Specific to College Campuses

Victims of sexual assault often want someone to know about the incident, but the shame and fear they feel following the event inhibits them from reporting even anonymously. This proves, again, that there are no “privileges” (as Will suggests) that accompany coming forward as a victim. They have a strong tendency to blame themselves, especially if they voluntarily consumed alcohol/drugs or engaged in sexual acts. They may have fears about the criminal justice system and may not trust the campus administration, and with good cause. Most frequently their offenders are not even required to leave their living arrangement even if it is near their victim’s. And reminders of the incident are often everywhere. The perpetrator might live in the very same residence hall as the victim. She might have to see him every day in economics class. Or in the dining hall. The rigor of academia coupled with the daily struggle of the psychological experience of being a survivor has a negative impact on the student’s grades, social life and decision making. They have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, dropout rates, and even report contemplation of suicide. In other words, being in the enclosed sphere of the college bubble exacerbates the trauma experienced by the survivor.


Title IX and the Clery Act

What rights do victims have if they do decide to come forward? Title IX dictates that “No person in the United States shall on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In cohesion with the Clery Act, the government holds schools receiving aid accountable for the action taken against dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. In the 2011 the Dear Colleague letter was published by the Department of Education stating, “Education has long been recognized as the great equalizer in America. The U.S. Department of Education and its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) believe that providing all students with an educational environment free from discrimination is extremely important. The sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime.” However, navigating the process to present a case to the school could be confusing for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. In an initiative to address the overwhelming statistics of sexual assault on campus, the White House launched an initiative against sexual assault…the same initiative Will bashes in his article. Their website offers advice on how to navigate the tricky process of filing a complaint and details the services that are available for the victims. There has been an effort to let victims know that, in Obama’s own words, “We’ve got your back.” But do we? Have there been real changes in practice? When administrative hearings often result solely in the perpetrator going to “sensitivity training”, do we call that justice?  


Lawyers getting involved

Gasps were heard and hands shot up from lawyers all around the room when the presenter explained the process of administrative hearings. Unlike a normal case, attorneys are not permitted to participate in the examination of witnesses nor the presentation of materials nor information unless they are specifically asked to do so by the hearing official, an unlikely occurrence. Rather the advisor (who need not be a lawyer) may confer and give advice to the student in a quiet, confidential and non-disruptive manner. The presenter, much to the amusement of the lawyers present, added that she personally prefers to use flashcards to communicate with the women she represents. There is merely a thin separator between the victim and the perpetrator and the victim must call witnesses, make statements and face the account of the other side, with her voice alone…. a large burden considering the trauma that she has gone through… Not to mention the fact the she is 18-22 years old with no experience in the ability that it takes to argue a good case. The system therefore is markedly geared towards the offender.

 And the clincher—the advice about the importance of mitigating the client’s expectations. It is essential going into the hearing for the victim to realize that there will likely not be any consequences for the one at whose hands she suffered. Schools are worried about their reputation and are hesitant to acknowledge the problem. The fact that there are 55 schools in violation of Title IX this year alone demonstrates a dysfunctional system. 


Remaining Questions

Why is it that the protocol for perpetrators of sexual assault is markedly different on a college campus than it is off of it? The law indicates that rape and sexual assault are felonies, yet in administrative hearings offenders are rarely even suspended. Until schools hold perpetrators accountable, it seems unlikely that these crimes will substantially decrease. But with antediluvian opinions from respected men like George Will that sexual assault is not an issue to be discussed, do we have any hope of real policy changes? While it is important to hear both sides of issues, the proposition that sexual assault and harassment are undetectable “micro-aggressions” merely takes several steps backwards in the quest for social justice. And proposing that being a victim is a coveted status? That those who find the strength to take action against their perpetrators are lying or exaggerating? It is this poisonous rhetoric that plagues our system. According to the Legal Aid seminar, it is absolutely essential that victims speak up even though the results may not be super satisfying. But why put victims through more than they’ve already experienced?  It seems as though the only solution would be a totally new approach on the collegiate system of appeals, and a complete change of priorities by people who have the ability to support the strange notion that victims of sexual assault deserve more.

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