Jumping Through Hoops: Student Attorneys Speak On the Experience of Domestic Violence Survivors Seeking Relief

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Stephanie Kocubinski and Melissa Light are 3L Student Attorneys in AUWCL’s Domestic Violence Clinic

We first met with our client, a survivor of domestic violence, at the Domestic Violence (“DV”) Intake Center at D.C. Superior Court. The system itself is not user-friendly for survivors. They often have to jump through hoops to receive relief after going through traumatic experiences. For instance, the survivor first tells her story to an intake counselor. Then, if she wishes, she meets with student attorneys, where she has to tell her entire story again. Part of the problem is that the intake center and the attorneys are decentralized, and each has its own privacy agreement with the client. If there were a way to merge the two client confidentiality agreements to allow the counselor and attorneys to share information, the client would have a smoother experience.

“They often have to jump through a lot of hoops to receive relief after going through traumatic experiences.”

Additionally, the divisions of the court that provide services to DV survivors spread over several blocks within Judiciary Square and not easily identifiable. One of our first assignments as student attorneys was to visit many of these locations so we could familiarize ourselves with the locations and services provided. It was very difficult to discern which unit was located where and it was taxing to walk from place to place as if we were on a scavenger hunt. A DV survivor has already suffered a traumatic event, and having to trek from office to office compounds the stress of navigating the system. A DV survivor would be better served if she could inquire and receive services within the same building.

“…the DV Intake Center should be a source of comfort. Instead, in this instance, the lack of complete information served as a source of frustration.”

Next, the DV counselors at the Intake Center seem accustomed to clients who have experienced abuse and counseling in the past. As a result, counselors may assume that clients are aware of the overall process and not convey information with the necessary level of detail. Our client commented to us that she felt that the counselor treated her as though she had experienced counseling in the past, which was not the case. As a result, our client felt that she did not receive the level of information needed to make an informed decision on different housing opportunities. At the end of the day, we circled back to the counselor so that our client could receive counseling on her remaining unanswered questions. Because it was later in the day by that point, the options that would have been available to our client in the morning no longer existed. This meant that she had to figure out her own housing at 5:00 p.m. for the next three days.

DV is traumatic, and the DV Intake Center should be a source of comfort. Instead, for our client, the lack of complete information served as a source of frustration. Additionally, the counselor’s presumptions about our client made her feel stereotyped and marginalized. To make matters worse, after securing housing from one of the community charities associated with the DV Intake Center, our client found the conditions of the housing to be unsanitary. This is because the housing is recycled on a short-term basis and many individuals cycle through a particular housing unit.

We also observed the way the front desk staff interacted with DV survivors seeking help. Often, survivors are vulnerable and afraid, and this is their first outreach for assistance. Our impression of those at the front desk who were accepting Civil Protection Order (CPO) filing paperwork was that they were laconic in their interactions with clients, using a cold tone instead of projecting warmth and empathy.

“…the preventable difficulties our client experienced in making even small steps towards leaving and heightened the trauma she was already experiencing and made the task of escaping abuse even more daunting.”

In our opinion, these issues are with the DV court system, and the DV court system could ameliorate them if the institution were willing to do so. Like many DV survivors, our client came to us from a volatile situation and one from where she kept returning. While her strong emotional ties to her abuser certainly complicated her ability to follow through with her choice to seek a CPO against him, the preventable difficulties our client experienced in making even small steps towards leaving and heightened the trauma she was already experiencing and made the task of escaping abuse even more daunting.


About the Authors:

Melissa Light is a 3L Student Attorney in the Domestic Violence Clinic at American University, Washington College of Law.

Stephanie Kocubinski is a 3L Student Attorney in the Domestic Violence Clinic at American University, Washington College of Law.

Volunteering at DC SAFE

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From left, DVC students Lindy Stone and Heather Lothrop, Practitioner in Residence Natalie Nanasi, DVC students Amy Gordon and Prianka Sharma-Iacobucci.

Students in the Domestic Violence Clinic volunteered at DC Survivors and Advocates for Empowerment (SAFE) for WCL’s Day of Service on March 29th. DC SAFE “ensures the safety and self-determination for survivors of domestic violence in the Washington, DC area through emergency services, court advocacy and system reform.”

WCL’s Office of Public Interest organized the Day of Service.

Human Rights At Home: D.C. Recognizes Freedom From Domestic Violence as a Human Right

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From left, with the Council’s formal proclamation, Claudia Cuccia (’13), Practitioner-in-Residence Natalie Nanasi, Michael Murali (’13).

Last year, in addition to representing survivors of domestic violence in court proceedings, WCL Domestic Violence Clinic students Claudia Cuccia (’13) and Michael Murali (’13), in collaboration with Elizabeth Lawrence, a student at Catholic University’s Families and the Law Clinic, worked to pass a resolution in the D.C. Council that recognizes freedom from domestic violence as a basic human right in the District. This effort came about as part of a nationwide response to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ ruling in Lenahan vs. United States of America.

In 1999, Jessica Lenahan’s young daughters were murdered by her estranged husband, who had taken them in violation of a domestic violence restraining order, which the local police in Castle Rock, Colorado, had refused to enforce. Ms. Lenahan sued the police, alleging that by failing to enforce the restraining order, the police had violated her civil rights. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Ms. Lenahan did not have a constitutional right to have restraining orders enforced by the government on her behalf. Ms. Lenahan took her case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which held in 2011 that the United States had violated its citizens’ human rights by failing to ensure the enforcement of restraining orders in domestic violence cases.

In response to the Commission’s indictment of U.S. human rights policy with respect to victims of domestic violence, advocates began asking individual cities to recognize a duty to protect their citizens from domestic violence. Cuccia, Murali, and Lawrence worked throughout the 2012-2013 school year with the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and other members of the District’s anti-domestic violence advocacy community to draft a resolution and lobby the D.C. City Council. On October 1, 2013, the first day of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, the Council adopted the resolution and declared that D.C. residents have the basic human right to be free from domestic violence.

Practitioner-in-Residence Natalie Nanasi notes that by acknowledging its duty to enforce restraining orders, the city has demonstrated its commitment to combatting the serious problem of domestic violence and decided to hold itself accountable to ensuring the safety and human rights of its residents. More broadly, by asking major cities to acknowledge their human rights obligations in this context, advocates nationwide are working to “bring human rights home” by change the overall culture of law enforcement and local governments and create a compassionate and effective response to domestic violence.