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Knocking Down the Barriers for Cases of Abuse

Clinic Helps Domestic Violence Victims

April 6, 2009 –Studies of domestic violence indicate the crime knows no gender, racial, ethnic, religious or socioeconomic boundaries. The recent celebrity felony charges filed against singer Chris Brown for allegedly beating his girlfriend, singer Rihanna, may be making headlines now, but the assault and criminal threat case is far from isolated. About two in three female victims of assault are attacked by an acquaintance or relative, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Deborah Epstein directs the Law Center's Domestic Violence Clinic, which educates and trains second- and third-year law students to represent clients in civil domestic violence cases. Through the clinic Georgetown students find clients through D.C. Superior Court domestic violence intake centers and help about 60 to 70 victims annually obtain civil protection orders against perpetrators in Washington. Epstein sat down with the Blue & Gray to talk about the challenge of getting victims legal representation and the recession's impact on the occurrence of domestic abuse.

Q. Why is something like Georgetown Law's Domestic Violence Clinic needed?
A. In terms of the issue itself, it's critical that we have a domestic violence clinic because about 97 or 98 percent of victims of domestic violence in D.C. are not represented by lawyers (in civil cases).

If you're accused of a crime in the United States, you're appointed a lawyer by the court. But if it's a civil, not a criminal case, as protection orders are, there is no court-appointed lawyer for either side. Unless you have lawyers willing to donate their services or the government appoints a lawyer, people go unrepresented.

This is a particularly needy group in terms of legal representation. The clinic has stepped in certainly to not close that gap, but to help in an area where legal assistance is really needed in a dire way.

Q. Can you paint a picture of domestic violence in D.C.?
A. Intra-family violence is predominantly a male on female problem, and that's the majority of cases we see. But there is every permutation you can think of -- we've represented cases of victims in a same-sex couple, women against men, grandchildren abusing their grandparents and sibling violence. There was recently a case of people who lived in the same boarding house. There wasn't a relationship, but there was the challenge of being safe when you live in the same space.

It's a pretty broad expanse. When there is intimacy in our culture, people's buttons get pushed through these intimate or family relationships. You hope the majority of people respond with words and other ways to work things through, but some respond with violence. Violence can erupt in any kind of relationship.

Q. Is there one sector of the population more at risk than another?
A. One thing we know from a number of different studies is that domestic violence happens across socioeconomic status, race, every line that exists, but it happens with greater frequency in poorer communities. The reason for that is probably that there are fewer ways to escape in poorer communities. Somebody who has more resources may not have to go get a civil protection order in court because they often can get away from an abuser. Poor people have the court, and that's all they have.

Q. Are you concerned the recession could accelerate incidents of domestic violence?
A. It makes sense that it would. Poverty increases domestic violence; domestic violence increases poverty. It certainly increases for people with few resources.

Q. How does the legal system usually treat domestic violence victims?
A. It's gotten much better in the last couple of decades because there are now specialized civil protection order statutes in every state and the District of Columbia. There has been a major stepping up of the criminal justice system's response to domestic violence.

There are mandatory arrest laws for police so they can't decline to arrest if they arrive on the scene, which they used to do almost all the time. Prosecutors have a no-drop prosecution policy; they used to go forward with criminal prosecution almost never.

There are still lots and lots of problems, including that the criminal justice response is so stepped up now that many battered women are reluctant to call the police because if they do, there is no way to stop the ball from rolling toward criminal prosecution.

Particularly, in our community of D.C., a large number of African-American women are very reluctant to be in a position where they are bringing an African-American man into what they see as a racist criminal justice system. The same is true in the immigrant community. If you are convicted of domestic violence and you're an illegal immigrant, you become deportable. A victim may be scared that the immigrant community will view her as someone who forced a deportation and unfairly blame and ostracize her.

Q. Even though domestic violence is a nationwide problem, does Washington have specific obstacles in addressing it?
A. In D.C., housing is probably the biggest crisis for so many issues, but certainly relationship violence. I've had hundreds of clients stay in abusive relationships because there simply is no public, low-cost or subsidized housing available in this town. Waiting lists for public housing are years and years long. If you have nowhere to go and you're choosing between you and your children being homeless or staying in a relationship with someone who's going to hit you, many mothers choose to stay.

Q. What happens to the public perception of domestic violence after something like the Chris Brown case?
A. One big ripple effect that happens when there is a high-profile case is that women who come forward to the court and say, ‘I haven't had the courage to admit this is happening to me or to do anything about it. But if it can happen to Rihanna, I'm willing to come forward.'

I hope that Chris Brown gets involved in some anti-domestic violence education programs and puts himself and his celebrity out there in communities where he has influence to talk about what happened. He could make a really big difference if he could do that with his time.

Q. What questions should we ask as a society when someone is battered?
A. The most important thing is for people to stop focusing so much on: is she going to stay or is she going to leave him? It's not that the question is unimportant, but it just absorbs all of the focus. There are many, many relationships where people will continue, for a wide variety of reasons, to stay in the relationship despite violence. The question needs to be, if she doesn't want to stay, how do we make sure Rihanna and every woman who doesn't have the resources of Rihanna, is able to leave? Have we provided the legal, economic, shelter and support resources so women can successfully leave relationships that are abusive?

The next question is: if a woman feels like she wants to stay … are we giving her the resources to make her safe within the continuing relationship? That's the place where we have the most work to do. We know for a fact that a large percentage of women don't leave or leave for a short percentage of time and go back. What we haven't really focused on is what we can do for those women.

Q. How would you start improving the legal system's response to domestic violence?
A. We need a broad approach. We need to first realize the justice system, as it exists now, is not perfect, and we need to reconceptualize what it can do for people. People are using the justice system as a resource to get out of violent relationships, but they're returning to those relationships because of economic dependency. That's where we need to help them figure out how to get job training, how to get public benefits and how to figure out their economic situation so they can stay violence free.

We need to connect resources and thinking in the feminist movement, the antipoverty movement and the domestic violence movement to bring those areas of advocacy together. This is a complicated social problem.

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