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The satisfaction of seeing the court vindicate true justice for a victim of domestic abuse is like nothing else.

When I began DV LEAP, my greatest fear was that, in the end nothing would change. As a practicing lawyer and professor at George Washington University Law School, I witnessed first-hand survivors of domestic violence reaching out to the courts for protection, both for themselves and their children, only to be denied that protection - often in ways that humiliated or disrespected them, or increased the danger to them and their children.

Most survivors assume that if they come forward honestly, risking their lives and their children’s lives by defying their abuser, the justice system will be there to provide protection and justice. For many reasons thousands of victims experience the very opposite in our nation’s courts.
 
Fifteen years later I can say that we’ve seen progress, but it’s been hard won. Our successes run the gamut from landmark supreme court victories, to a mother finally seeing the abuse of her child come to an end. Every inch of protection and justice we have obtained for survivors required substantial effort from the lawyers, but even greater courage and sacrifice from the survivors who have persevered in seeking justice and safety through appeal, despite earlier defeats.

At DV LEAP, we take cases where an abuse victim has been wrongfully denied justice, and we appeal their case to a higher court -- mostly free of charge. In winning an appeal we protect the victim and their children, but in doing so, we also impact the law, which wraps all future survivors in that same protection. We believe this unique work creates a ripple effect, which is the key to lasting change in justice for victims of abuse. And we need your help.

I invite you into this work with a determined and hopeful heart.

Sincerely, Joan Meier
Founder, DV LEAP

Updates and News

March 8, 2018

DV LEAP Participates in #TimesUp for Family Courts Press Conference

DV LEAP participated in the #TimesUp for Family Courts press conference on February 7, 2018 in Pittsburgh, PA.
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October 25, 2017

DV LEAP Provides Amicus Briefs in Landmark Custody Case

DV LEAP wrote two amicus briefs that will affect how trial courts treat survivors for years to come...
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One of the toughest moments for me was during my work with a survivor, who was a recovered crack addict. The way she could make enough to provide for her son was to work as a prostitute at a migrant work camp. It was just a really difficult situation for her and her son. What struck me was just how shrewd and practical she was about it. I remember her saying how it’s the way she can make enough money to support her son because it’s such a large amount of people in a small area.

Her husband was abusive and also a crack addict, but she had gotten herself clean. There were so many layers stacked against her: she was a DV victim, she was a woman of color, she was a single mother, she couldn’t go back to him, and honestly I just came to a place of realizing my own limitations to help. I mean, I could help her get a protective order so he couldn’t hurt her, but there were so many layers.

On the other side of the coin, what I’ve learned is that sometimes just listening to clients’ stories and acknowledging their struggles and pain is meaningful. They are so grateful. It really makes a difference. Just that small act seems so little compared to all the issues clients are facing, but it can be both healing and far reaching.

A recent New York case is a good example of the long term impact our work can have. A custody evaluator who clearly did not like our client, the mom, wrote a very negative report and the court took away her custody based on that report without giving her an opportunity to challenge the information or defend herself. It was a clear violation of her due process rights. We had a positive outcome in that case, and within a one year turnaround, other cases have cited it saying: we can’t do this, because of this ruling -- we can’t take away a parent’s custody rights without giving them an opportunity to be heard in some kind of hearing.

I feel so fortunate to work with the attorneys in our pro bono network, they are smart, professional and truly committed to our mission. For example in one case we had, the abusive father lost custody, but his mother was attempting to gain custody of the child as a roundabout way of maintaining access for her son. The pro-bono legal team devoted endless hours to the case. We spent days getting the briefs just right for the appeal. 

The team is from one of the top law firms in the country and their work is so impressive. And it’s not just the quality of the lawyers--it takes a tremendous amount of time and energy. And we could offer this mom the support of a whole legal team--something she never would have been able to afford. This mom had very limited financial resources but that type of legal support is not something even the average middle class person could ever access or afford.

It’s leveled the playing field. You can hear the change just in her voice. She had felt so beaten down. The grandmother has money and is well-respected in the community. Mom takes great care of her son but couldn’t always afford a lawyer and had to represent herself at times. Grandmother’s lawyer took advantage of that and tried to paint her as crazy and unable to properly care for her child. She felt alone, outgunned. But DV LEAP’s involvement has given her her life back. She feels she has a voice, the tables are turned. Mom is harder to bully now.

She is growing more confident with this team behind her; more hopeful.

When the public has trouble believing courts would do this to survivors, first, I try to put myself in their shoes. That was me before I came to DV LEAP. I was a clerk for this really great judge. I practiced in a small town and felt that, for the most part, my clients got justice. Then I came to DV LEAP and there were these cases that were so absurd and contradictory to justice-- I didn’t want them to be true and just had a hard time absorbing it. But over time, the things that we’ve seen... there is no easy way to explain it. The desk is stacked against survivors in so many ways.

So what DV LEAP was able to do is explain to me all these surprises that I wasn’t expecting in the court system. But also, moving forward, they really helped me strategize, like witnesses, how we’re gonna present things, because they’d already seen where things go wrong.  It actually helped me a lot in the trial phase. We strategized how we presented the evidence in the custody trial to help us prepare for what we thought was going to be an appeal.  It ended up working out that I got full legal custody. At that point, they ordered like 6 months of supervised visitation which we ended up fighting about for years, and eventually visitation was terminated completely.

When visitation was terminated, *Stephanie was 8. And I said to her, “The judge said you don’t have to go back anymore.”  And she looked at me and said, “Are you serious, is this real?” And I said, “It’s very real.”  She looked at me and said, “This is the best day ever.”  And she just looked off, and that was the end of it. It was incredible. And ever since then, she’s not had to go back. She is a completely normal and happy kid because she no longer has that fear.

I read articles on a daily basis of somebody [who] tried to leave; their kids were forced back to see the abuser, and those kids are dead. Or the kids and their mom are dead. Nobody who’s in that situation should have to feel like there’s death on either side. You know what I mean?

Every time my kids went to unsupervised visitation, I was worried I’d never see them again.

I am so lucky. I totally lucked out. I think it’s a very rare outcome to be where I am, and I attribute a lot of that to my fortunate circumstances in being able to have Joan guide us through what we were doing.

So what DV LEAP was able to do is explain to me all these surprises that I wasn’t expecting in the court system. But also, moving forward, they really helped me strategize, like witnesses, how we’re gonna present things, because they’d already seen where things go wrong.  It actually helped me a lot in the trial phase. We strategized how we presented the evidence in the custody trial to help us prepare for what we thought was going to be an appeal.  It ended up working out that I got full legal custody. At that point, they ordered like 6 months of supervised visitation which we ended up fighting about for years, and eventually visitation was terminated completely.

When visitation was terminated, *Stephanie was 8. And I said to her, “The judge said you don’t have to go back anymore.”  And she looked at me and said, “Are you serious, is this real?” And I said, “It’s very real.”  She looked at me and said, “This is the best day ever.”  And she just looked off, and that was the end of it. It was incredible. And ever since then, she’s not had to go back. She is a completely normal and happy kid because she no longer has that fear.

Sasha Drobnick
Managing Attorney
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Survivor
Jennifer

I think for a lot of people, it’s a snowball kind of thing. For me, it started with a lot of emotional abuse. There’s no marking that you can show somebody, but you’re sort of systematically being destroyed. And then the next thing was, I got a smack on the back of my head during an argument. And that was a “one time thing.” And the next time it happens I was shoved up against the wall with his hands around my neck.

I think the way that this tends to spiral is people who are abusing you emotionally, they tend to kind of isolate you. If I went and did something by myself, it was, “What are you doing?!” And then I’d get accused of, "Oh you’re out trying to pick up other guys!" And I’m like no, I’m sitting here with my friend, and I’m having a conversation. And the next thing he says is “No, you have to leave now.” So, to lose that connectivity… you start believing it.

He would write out every day what I was supposed to do. [It was] a lot like the movie Sleeping With The Enemy. He insisted on cutting my hair, he monitored phone calls, he drove me to work to control my schedule. 

There were things with my parents where he would basically script the entire conversation and I would have to say exactly what he said; and there were some times where I was talking to my mom, and she would say, “this is not my daughter speaking to me.”

My kids were 2 and 4 when I left. I worked at a law firm at the time. When I started talking to people about what was going on and really saying I have to get out, I’m worried about, you know, the safety of me and my kids, every attorney that I talked to, said the same thing to me.

They said, “Oh my gosh, of course you have to get out, and of course any judge in the world is going to listen to what you’re saying, and listen to what’s happening to these kids, and they’re going to protect you. And you guys are going to be fine. And, you know, how could you not protect these kids from further injury, from further emotional abuse?” And I thought, right, OK, of course that’s going to happen, and then as soon as I left with the kids, I describe it as Alice in Wonderland. I mean, it was completely the opposite of what everyone expected.

I forget what night it was. My oldest must’ve been three; my youngest, Stephanie, must’ve been about one. I was just so beat down emotionally. I was so stressed and I was so convinced that half the things he said about me were true. 

I remember sitting downstairs in our basement guestroom. I was crying. I was like, I don’t know how to get out of this.  And I remember, very distinctly, I poured out the pills on the bed and I was like, I kind of thought if I was dead, the pain would go away, but then I realized, hell no. I can’t leave these girls; I have to protect them. I think that was probably my lowest point.

I literally walked out the door with the 2 kids in the car. I was able to grab their favorite dolls and shove them in my bag, and that was it. I mean my clothes, their clothes, we took nothing. I basically got out with their life and my life, and that’s all I cared about.

I had asked for a protective order for me and the kids. But right away, the judge said you can have one, but the kids are gonna go see their dad. He didn’t think it was that big of a deal.

In one of my hearings where we were arguing over supervised visitation, the judge actually said, “I just need this to be a normal divorce with normal visitation.”  [There’s] nothing normal about this situation at all. I don't even understand how a judge could think that way.

I even had a therapist testify about all the things that were going on with *Sarah… including disturbing pictures, and the judge just really didn’t give any of it any credibility. 

My older daughter, *Sarah, started developing a split personality which was diagnosed by a therapist. The court didn’t give any weight to it at all. We went for about 3 years on and off fighting over visitation and supervision. My youngest came home one time, and she was like, “Mom, dad’s gonna put a knife in your eye.”  I don’t think she knew what she was saying. She would come back and say “Dad has a gun” or “Dad’s gonna kill people.”  

I’d report that and say “Hello, my kids are coming home and saying this.”  They’d say, “They’re little, they don’t know what they’re saying.” Even when I involved CPS, it just came across as if they really felt it was more my fault. When I would bring things up and ask for help, the people at CPS would say, “Well, you asked the question the wrong way.”

So what DV LEAP was able to do is explain to me all these surprises that I wasn’t expecting in the court system. But also, moving forward, they really helped me strategize, like witnesses, how we’re gonna present things, because they’d already seen where things go wrong.  It actually helped me a lot in the trial phase. We strategized how we presented the evidence in the custody trial to help us prepare for what we thought was going to be an appeal.  It ended up working out that I got full legal custody. At that point, they ordered like 6 months of supervised visitation which we ended up fighting about for years, and eventually visitation was terminated completely.

When visitation was terminated, *Stephanie was 8. And I said to her, “The judge said you don’t have to go back anymore.”  And she looked at me and said, “Are you serious, is this real?” And I said, “It’s very real.”  She looked at me and said, “This is the best day ever.”  And she just looked off, and that was the end of it. It was incredible. And ever since then, she’s not had to go back. She is a completely normal and happy kid because she no longer has that fear.

I read articles on a daily basis of somebody [who] tried to leave; their kids were forced back to see the abuser, and those kids are dead. Or the kids and their mom are dead. Nobody who’s in that situation should have to feel like there’s death on either side. You know what I mean?

Every time my kids went to unsupervised visitation, I was worried I’d never see them again.

I am so lucky. I totally lucked out. I think it’s a very rare outcome to be where I am, and I attribute a lot of that to my fortunate circumstances in being able to have Joan guide us through what we were doing.

Attorney - Oliver-Zhang Law
Julie Oliver-Zhang

The problem with family law and domestic violence is that too often in these cases, once people lose, they are given up on. Because most times, people absolutely can’t continue. They’re too exhausted emotionally, physically, and also financially to carry on with the legal process to appeal a bad decision. DV LEAP is able to help them at that time of awful defeat, where bad laws are about to become “the” law. It basically takes a case that was lost, when it shouldn’t have been, and reverses the damage for the good of all.

The new precedent championed by a DV LEAP victory, would then continue to benefit other victims, like other moms and other families who come after it, seeking justice with their own share of heartbreaking stories.

I think that is the most compelling thing about DV LEAP.

The first time that I had really dealt with a DV case involved a mom who had two little girls. Her husband was so insanely abusive that compared to her case file, I couldn’t recognize the person standing in front of me. The photos they took of my client at the police station... her face was just so swollen that you couldn't even see her eyes.  

The survivor was an immigrant. Her ex-husband dangled the promise of legalizing her status before the mother of his children, but never actually applied for her. Of course, the severity of the abuse shocked me, but equally I was touched by what my client did as a mother for her two daughters. That is, to prove that she is deserving of the visa, we had to show the government that she had good moral character.

She brought with her two full binders of everything she did as a mom for her two girls. How she went to every activity. How she kept every award certificate and honorary ribbons for these girls. How she from the moment she woke up, took care of these girls, cooked and fed them, helped them with homework, bathed and dressed them, helped them brush their hair, until the time they finally had their bedtime story and went to sleep. Her entire life was devoted to these girls, her daughters. For years she endured the abuse, but she left because she wanted to protect them.

At the end of the day, that spirit, that strength of women who get to escape with their lives and their children’s lives, that’s what DV LEAP safeguards.

I think that if you decide to work in this field, you have made a pact to fight injustice. And injustice is hard to witness, especially when it happens to the most vulnerable people who have no way to defend themselves. You are talking about moms, kids, and sometimes men, too.

What makes me feel most sorrow is the system itself. Because ultimately in order to prevail in our legal system, you must have resources. Unless you are someone who is very lucky to receive help from an organization like DV LEAP, you are pitting a David of a mom against the Goliath of an abuser who essentially held all the keys and all the credit cards, and all the money from day one.  

The problem is that there is a lot of prejudice or maybe misunderstanding in the courts about what a victim ought to be or ought to look like. There is this unreasonable expectation that an abuse victim has to look like she is so together. The legal system requires witnesses to speak credibly, rationally, and calmly. Someone who is abused every day doesn’t act normal because they have been traumatized. They get emotional. They are often disorganized in the way they communicate. You want to pit that against somebody who is a charmer and has a job, who talks the talk and is very used to being in a position of power. You put that in a court setting and it is very intimidating for a victim.

You asked if I have ever felt sorrow. Yes. Even when you get to the end of the case and you receive a victory, sometimes it’s bittersweet. Because the victim is now in the shape where they’ve spent a lot of money, you know tens of thousands of dollars because they want to save themselves and save their kids. And they get a decision that does not support the severity of the abuse they endured. They know that for three days, every other week, holidays and summers, their children are not with them. They are with the abuser, and there’s absolutely nothing they can do to protect them.

In the courts, abuse against the spouse is not supposed to equate to any kind of evidence or predictor for the abuser’s behavior towards the children. The idea is that an abusive husband can still be a good dad. Though there have been exceptions, often they really more or less just ignore that piece of evidence of spousal abuse when determining custody. They are far more interested in the photos of dad and kids at Disneyland at Spring Break, than photos of mom with a bloody lip and black eye from two years ago.

You can have a question that is very commonly asked [of the victim] in divorce proceedings, especially involving abuse in the marriage and custody. And that question will be, “Can you think of something nice that you appreciated about your spouse?”  

It’s a very common question that the opposing attorney will ask the victim, because it doesn’t matter how bad he was or she was during the marriage; how they beat you while you’re pregnant and bloodied your mouth every Saturday when you said the wrong thing. It doesn’t matter.  In this sort of fairness culture, you need to say something, anything at all, that’s nice about the other person.

The victim is placed in this situation where that just does not fit. It doesn’t fit. They can really think of nothing they can say. And that’s bad for them. You know, if you can’t be “charitable” enough to say something nice about your once-husband and the father of your children (who raped you during your marriage), you are “troublesome” and you are labeled the “uncooperative parent” who fails to get with the program and do the expected co-parenting with your abuser.   

Our culture uses very normative lenses to view these cases. Often, people don’t believe you, and they assume you must have done something to deserve the abuse, or it couldn’t have been that bad. How I try in the court-setting to help them understand is I do it in the first person. It’s all about storytelling. They have to see and feel what happened as your client saw and felt it. And you must anticipate a lot of the issues that are going to come up against your victim client, and thoroughly prepare them. You really have to hold their hands and help them tell the story, which is extremely difficult for them. You are in an open place and the guy who has hurt you for so long is sitting right there. You gotta hold their hand and help them tell it.  

In some situations, this is also kind of a therapeutic process for a lot of the clients if you do it right. When they are believed, that’s powerful. It really helps them heal. When they are believed and they get help from people, that in and of itself has such strength in helping them to realize that they can get beyond this and can start life anew.

There are many misconceptions about people who are victims of domestic violence. Such as they are from lower economic class or backgrounds, and they are in that situation because something went wrong with their life, their judgement, or life choice. On the contrary, many intelligent, well-educated people with excellent careers, who are excellent parents, find themselves in these tough situations.

Obtaining justice is so important when you have been wronged and victimized. DV LEAP is here to help balance it out. To give the resources in a case where the unthinkable happens and the kids are still in the clutches of the abuser, and the abuser wins the day. In that situation, DV LEAP is there to turn the tables and make it right.

Survivor
Teresa

It started with a lot of verbal name calling. Then it began to escalate to the point where it became physical. My first experience was being picked up and thrown to the ground when I was pregnant with my daughter. It was the most excruciating pain that I had ever experienced. At that point I’m not thinking that it’s DV. You always picture DV as being something else. I don’t know if you’ve ever studied the cycle of abuse, but I was in that cycle: verbal abuse, then physical, then apologizing. That’s pretty much what I went through.

Most of the domestic violence I experienced was during my pregnancy. I know a lot of mothers go through this, but when she was born, her cord was wrapped several times around her neck. When she was born she wasn’t breathing. I had a very stressful pregnancy, very stressful. I don’t know what she was hearing in there. She was constantly twisting and turning, flipping and all that. I wonder if she got into that position based on what I was going through, being pushed and shoved and thrown.

The last experience was… I think it was around Mother’s day. He became really mad and kicked me in the eye, and I ended up falling under my daughter's crib. And he stomped me some more while I was under there. I was trying to get up -- with the eyeglasses I was wearing. When he kicked and stomped me in the face I couldn’t find my eyeglasses. So I was on the floor looking for my eyeglasses.

As I was trying to get up off the floor, ‘cause I had much longer hair then, he pulls my hair and drags me across the floor, and at this time I was hearing my hair being ripped out of my scalp. It was the worst sound that I could ever hear, and that’s when I realized, okay, I need to go. So I ran throughout the home looking for a telephone to call the police, and every phone that I grabbed he pulled out of my hand and yanked out of the wall.

He and I divorced when she was about two years old. Sometimes you have an intuition, this feeling that something’s just not right. Sometimes you just try to overlook it, like maybe it’s just me. I had some concerns early on, with comments and behaviors, and I just felt like maybe if I had said something earlier on,maybe I could have prevented my daughter from going through some things.

There came a time when she was finally able to talk, able to explain herself. She started exhibiting certain behaviors that I was really concerned about: acting out, gyrating, displaying all kinds of inappropriate body language. Most of it happened because we had a visitation arrangement. And so, when she would come back from visits, that’s when I would see the body language, and when she would say some things. She would cry saying she didn’t want to go, but she would never really say why she didn’t want to go. If I went to take her she would cry, she would stand at the door and block herself from going out.

There was this one time she was just laying on the bed, playing, and she started acting like she was having sex with someone. By this time she was about four. And at that age, you know, kids are very honest. And you really can’t even get a kid to lie. It takes a lot of effort to get a child to lie. And in her own language and development, I remember I asked her, what are you doing? Where did you get that from? And she’s like, “My daddy.”

One day she’s lying down again by herself and she starts to masturbate on herself. And then she just starts to talk and says, “My daddy pee peed on my poo poo.” And she starts to demonstrate what happened and what she had experienced.

I didn’t know anything back then, so I took her to her pediatrician, and her pediatrician was like, you need to go to the children’s emergency room right away. We went and got extensive evaluation where the doctors talked about the way her vaginal area looked and it appeared something may have happened, and it was really emotional. I was an emotional wreck back then.

It was a lot to experience, just feeling helpless, like I really just could not do anything.

It was a really hard process, especially with the other side of the family thinking, “You’re so mean, you’re nasty, why are you doing this? You’re just trying to discredit him or make him look bad.” But it was nothing like that, and that’s why I felt like I was always put in this position, where my job is to protect my child. I mean, if this is what she said, you know, she’s so small and vulnerable she can’t help herself, so I’m like, what would you do if it were your child?

I felt frustrated because it seemed like the court did not believe my daughter. It seemed like the court was just looking at me, you know, as this vindictive parent, this vindictive mother who’s just trying to get back at my ex-husband. It felt like they couldn’t look past me, and look at this little child.

It just felt like he [the judge] was so sympathetic to the father, but not sympathetic to a child. I just felt like, if you don’t believe me, talk to my daughter. Talk to her. Talk to her therapist. Talk to all those who have spoken with her, interviewed her, who she’s reported these same things to.

Even trying to get the visitation arrangement revised to where it would be supervised. At first he [the judge] was continuing to give him unsupervised visits, but then he said, well we’ll let his mother supervise the visits. I’m like, his mother?! I’m like, do you really think his mom is going to be able to supervise him and his child?

And it didn’t stop... she was still coming home, saying things that had happened and demonstrated things that had happened. Nothing’s changing, if anything, it’s getting worse. She’s still having nightmares. She’s still wetting the bed. She’s still crying saying “Mommy I don’t want to go, I don’t want to see him.”

Nothing has changed, and [the court] is just saying his mother can supervise the visits just to try and appease me with this word “supervised.”  

The judge just gave no justification whatsoever for that. [His mom being supervisor] was a suggestion that the father and his attorney made. And you know at that point Joan [at DV LEAP] wasn’t really involved yet. And it just seemed like, because I wasn’t paying an attorney, it seemed like he [the judge] was more gravitated towards the father because he was spending money on his attorney. I couldn’t afford an attorney.

I remember after going through that last case, the judge issued his findings. By that time Joan Meier was involved. I was just so emotionally distraught. After all the evidence, all of the expert witnesses, after everything, he still issues the same ruling, and so I remember just breaking down crying and I’m just like, this is unbelievable. So Joan says, “Well *Teresa, you can appeal.” And I’m like appeal? What is that? I told her, I’m tired, I’ve been going back and forth to court for the last few years of my life, I just don’t think I can do it anymore. And she said, “Just think about it, because you really wouldn’t need to do much, it would just be the attorneys doing everything.”

The time I met Joan Meier was the most encouraging thing to me, when they came to me and said we want to introduce you to Joan Meier. It was like, she just had this magic about her, and I felt it as soon as I met her. And I think what she did was she made me feel so calm. And I remember hearing, “It’s our job to do the stressing, not you.”

I remember going to the DC court of appeals. I sat and waited. I sat and waited about an hour but it seemed like the longest hour ever. And finally Joan and her team came out with excitement -- the argument had gone extraordinarily well, and it seemed likely we would win the appeal! And I was like, oh my gosh! Yes!! And I remember her telling me, she’s like, “*Teresa, your case is going to CHANGE the legal system. Your case is going to help so many other families. So many people are going to be referring to your case.”

To actually get the document in the mail, just to see where they pointed out so many mistakes… evidence, what therapists said, what doctors said, what the expert witness said, he [the judge] just overlooked all of that. The appeals court terminated all visits, and they did not even send the case to the lower courts to carry out, they did it themselves, which Joan said is almost unheard of.

He’s never showed up again. He stopped coming. It’s been 13 years and he’s never showed up.

My daughter is my lioness, that’s what her name means. I’m so proud of her for the strength she has exhibited. She’s studying to be a nurse.

Attorneys - Jones Day
Charlotte and Jennifer

Charlotte: This mom, in a very pulled together way, once this violence raised its head, got out of the relationship. We represent the mother, she’s our client.

This case is a paternal grandmother who sort of realizing that her son was no longer going to have access to his child, her grandchild, then went to court to try and get some enforced access -- which apparently is a common pattern when there is an abusive parent. Sometimes that party’s parents, sort of as a proxy, try to get access. The implications for protecting victims of domestic violence in other cases is significant.

In this situation, in our case, you have a woman who left, and didn’t stick around for years of abuse and made that decision early on. Yet still, nine years later, finds herself in a court battle.

Jennifer: I think for women who have undergone a traumatic situation, where there’s a lot of fear and trust [concerns], and there’s a child involved... to then be in the court system where those rights are being threatened by the parents of the child’s father… she’s going to be intent on protecting her children. And seeing that decision makers are not [intent on protecting her children], the way she may react, unfortunately may sometimes undermine what she’s trying to achieve. The decision maker isn’t aware of what she’s gone through or why she may be so overzealously protective.

Charlotte: He sued for parental rights and she objected to that -- he has a history of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, and assaulted both his wife and his own parents; so that all certainly seems to have been evident to the court.

There were times when he was restricted from seeing the child or could only have supervised visitation, and that was almost trending towards its conclusion -- he'd have some access to the child, but he wasn’t going to have possession or custody. At that point, before that legal proceeding concluded, that’s when the grandmother intervened in the case, seeking a court order that she should have court ordered visitation.

Charlotte: The court starting putting in some measures... and the court ordered visitation to the grandmother. The mother was understandably angry about that and resisted the court imposing on her contact with this family, because the grandparents had been sort of in and out of the picture when the father was behaving inappropriately with the child, so she really wanted out. But again, I think her anger was misinterpreted, and seen as resistance against the court's directives.

I think that you do have an incredibly frustrating [situation], because [the mother] has emotions that are not just understandable, but allowable, and she has the desire to protect her child and the desire to stand for what she believes to be the right outcome for her family. [It] sort of ended up counting against her because the court began to see her as not wanting to cooperate -- but I did feel strongly that there’s a system that doesn’t want to see women getting angry.

Jennifer:  So the trial court ended up not only granting the grandmother visitation, but also custody, joint custody with the mother, so the legal right to make decisions for the child.

Charlotte: This was one of the remarkable things about our trial, that the mom was told over and over again [by the court], “You’re doing an excellent job as a mother,” I mean, nobody disputes that. She has no history of drug and alcohol abuse. She has no criminal record, she was consistently employed. The child’s teacher and babysitters and neighbors testified that he [the child] was doing really well and he loved his mother.  

Of the 20 or so page [court of appeals] opinion, there are probably two pages for the ultimate question in the case about whether the trial court erred in giving the grandmother these rights that normally a child’s parent has. And in that two page discussion, there is reference to the mother having outbursts in court. That’s something that the trial court commented on, so it’s still making its way in the system and part of the reason why the court is keeping in place this arrangement between the mother and the grandmother.

Charlotte: The other thing I felt was very serious, but doesn’t appear from the surface level of this story is that the grandparents are sort of well-heeled. They’re middle class. The grandmother is a teacher at a private school that’s very well respected in the *Oklahoma City area. They just kept saying, “We just want to help provide for the child.”

And the mother, although she definitely has her act together, she didn’t complete high school, is not well off, and I think that there was just some class-based prejudice. There was this idea that it was unreasonable for her to refuse this help at all from these nice grandparents who just want to help support her.

Jennifer: [In a divorce] there’s a standard practice of dividing up time so the child gets to spend time in both places and the parents have to cooperate, or at least inform each other of decisions, like the child’s education, if the child was to get married before a certain age, or go to the military, health decisions. There’s a pretty standard way of how two parents are going to continue making decisions when they’re no longer living together in one unit.

Charlotte: In a case where it’s ex-husband and ex-wife, if they can’t agree on if one of them wants the child to go to a very strict religious school and the other one doesn’t, and they can’t actually work that out themselves, they both have equal votes, so they ultimately have to go to court and the court will work it out.

Jennifer: What the court did in this case was really just sub in the grandmother for the father. So we have the mother, now having to interact with and negotiate with and consult with the mother of the man who she fled from.  

Charlotte: I became aware of DV LEAP’s work, got involved in this case, and it has been an education. Having had this experience, I have subsequently become aware of people that I know well [personally] that are in a situation with domestic violence and emotional abuse, and it has actually been really helpful to have this experience and background in terms of ways I can give support.

There’s certainly no way that I could have gotten the opportunity to be involved in a case like this without them.

More broadly, just as an appellate lawyer at a law firm in DC, if you’re interested in pro bono opportunities, what they’re doing is essential and special. It’s fascinating and it’s a fundamentally important area of the law, but not the kind of thing that necessarily comes up a lot if you’re working at Jones Day or equivalent. I feel that I’ve been lucky to have the chance to do this sort of work -- trying to further the interests of victims of domestic violence, and there’s no way we could be doing it without DV LEAP.  

Jennifer:  Over the course of this case, which has now been about two-and-a-half years, I’ve learned it’s a unique relationship from what I’ve seen with how private law firm lawyers will work with a pro bono organization. It works particularly well… it’s not always intuitive, what is a policy or an argument or approach that is effective for these victims of domestic violence, and that’s what DV LEAP’s skill is. This case, more than any other pro bono case I’ve been on, we have partnered really hand-in-hand. 

So Sasha, the staff attorney at DV LEAP, she appears on all the briefs, she’s admitted into the courts, just like we are. The expertise that she brings into what could be traps, or arguments that could ultimately hurt the larger cause for victims of domestic violence, it’s been crucial to have her in that role. So it wasn’t a case where we get the issues, and we go off and run with it. It’s really been a true partnership. It also makes me comfortable volunteering because I’m not left floundering to figure this out by myself, but I know that collectively we can provide good representation for somebody who’s in this space. So it’s been very rewarding... feeling like we’re providing an effective voice to the client.

Attorney - Fresh Fields LLP
Peter Jaffe

I first started working with Joan and DV LEAP in the fall of 2013 shortly after I returned from my clerkship.

Normally DV LEAP represents victims of domestic violence who are affirmatively seeking legal relief against the people who have abused them. This was a case in which DV LEAP was coming to the defense of a victim of abuse. Her abuser already had been judged to be an abuser. Then, while the victim was seeking further relief, her former abuser came into court with an audio tape that appeared to show that the victim had been fabricating part of the story she had told the court. I say "appeared to" because the authenticity of the evidence was contestable.

The judge threw her in jail immediately under a theory that’s called Summary Contempt. Summary Contempt means you do something wrong in the courtroom itself - something the judge can see with his or her own two eyes. The classic example is that somebody comes in and starts screaming in the middle of the courtroom. So in this case, the judge's view was that he had actually witnessed her engage in misconduct in the courtroom by giving false testimony, and could therefore sentence her to jail immediately. He didn’t give her an opportunity to speak in her own defense. She didn’t have a lawyer present… she had no idea that this was coming.

She had no counsel. She had no right or opportunity to be heard. She was sentenced to jail right away. And in the view of DV LEAP this was wildly inappropriate.

When I fully read the facts of the case where the domestic violence victim was actually sent to jail in these circumstances, I was aghast. I was largely aghast that at least one judge would, without regular due process, without thinking through the issue, without giving someone the opportunity to be heard, without considering the alternative explanations for what he just heard, send somebody to jail right away.  

Not only was it wildly inappropriate, but it had very bad ramifications for victims of domestic violence. Because it meant that merely by complaining about domestic violence and putting yourself in court, you might subject yourself to criminal process. And you know what, by the way, I think that everybody agrees that it’s fine to sentence someone to jail if they perjure themselves - that is an abuse of the court system. But you need to have due process protections such that you won't be thrown into jail immediately without an opportunity to be heard and without counsel present or any of the other protections that you would expect. Frankly, any of the protections that a domestic violence abuser would receive. To me it indicated something of a reflexive disbelief of victims. That, I found extraordinarily alarming.

The victim took this to the Supreme Court of Virginia and there we supported her as amicus, which means we’re a friend of the court. We aren’t actually a party, but we’re trying to help the court understand the ramifications of its decisions for victims of domestic violence everywhere. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that this was an inappropriate use of summary contempt.

So we drew one distinction, and that’s between legal work and non-legal work. Representing somebody in a case versus donating to a shelter. And I in no way mean to denigrate the importance of donating to shelters and other types of non-legal organizations. But with a legal case, every appeal sets a precedent. Every precedent goes on to help not only the victim you’re representing at the moment, but future victims. And so legal work inherently has a lasting impact simply because you never just apply the law, you’re always in some sense making the law going forward. 

I would say it’s also relevant to know that every time you go and expose a judge to a domestic violence case and show the facts to that judge, you are helping educate that judge about domestic violence. For the judges that do [understand it], they’re always going to come out with a better understanding of the real problems of domestic violence than they had when you went in.

Handling cases at the appellate level is even more impactful. When courts of appeals hand down decisions, their precedential force is obviously much greater than an opinion from a trial court. Both as a strict legal matter and as a practical matter. For example, in the *Telford case with the domestic violence victim sent immediately to jail for alleged perjury, I don’t think that almost any judge in Virginia is ever going to make that mistake again. So there’s a force multiplier. You’re not just helping out the one victim, but you’re helping victims in similar circumstances in the future. Simple as that.   

Survivor
Madeline

If you are an immigrant, and especially if you have children, you are in a vulnerable position. I came here with a green card conditional on marriage. When we moved to this country is when it got bad. Whatever I do, if he doesn’t like it, he can have me kicked out of the country in 48 hours, but the kids will stay here.

You heard the expression "walking on eggshells"? The sort of not knowing when he’s going to explode. That was the hardest. I got out lucky because I’m still alive.

There was one time he tied a dish towel around my neck and was choking me. I thought I would die. I stared at him in his eyes, and at the last moment, he couldn’t do it.

A CPO (Civil Protection Order) might provide some protection for a period of time, but under certain circumstances, in the long run might even hurt your case.

Shortly before filing for divorce, I went to court and got the CPO, but the CPO was without admission [of abuse]. There was a domestic violence judge who said, “Oh, CPO without admission is fine.” So, all the evidence - my bruises, my shoulder injury, my doctor’s note was not admitted at that point. And the judge is like, “If he agrees to it [the CPO], it’s a waste of my time to do any hearing.”

This hurt my custody case, as nine months later, family cases take a lot of time, the Family Court judge did not treat this episode seriously.

There was one judge in England in the 18th century that said the rape victim is actually the one that’s more on trial, rather than the rapist. It kind of persists here. In domestic violence cases, people don’t really consider it serious and often blame the victim. [They think] when it’s a relationship, they quarrel, they get back together.

In the case of the domestic abuse, the abused party doesn’t have any rights, no due process. Abuser can just say, “She alienated my kids.”  And that’s it. No proof, no evidence required.

Family courts don’t take children’s testimonies about abuse seriously. My older child told anyone that she could that the father is an abuser. She was describing very specific things. Nevertheless, the child’s words were shrugged off and she was labeled “alienated.”

“Parental alienation” is used by abusers to continue having control over the victim. Way too often the judges rely on the “experts” to make a decision to give the children to the abuser without even considering real facts.

The decision to take away my five-year-old was made by a woman [court-appointed parenting coordinator] who’d never seen the kid; she claims she visited her in school, but in reality only observed her at a distance.

One of my children still had to go see her father. Multiple times she was not given timely medical care, and when she returned from her visit I had to bring her to emergency. Finally, the court asked her to come to the hearing “to talk to the court.” Without any warning, right there, she was taken away by three men in black, court marshals, to be “reunified” with her father. She got home 555 days later. Of course, as time proved, “reunification” did not work, as “parental alienation” never existed.

When people hear about domestic violence, they often say, “Why don’t you just leave?” The problem is you can’t just leave and get out. In a lot of cases the victim does not have financial means to do that, but even if you have a good job and can support yourself it’s not that easy, especially once you have kids. You can’t just leave them behind, and if you try to take them and leave, our legal system does not allow that.

[My advice to other survivors], never show your emotions, don’t break down. They’ll say, “Oh, she’s hysterical.”  

For example, when police come… it’s a kind of first impression thing. Be very careful about first impressions.

I survived, but suffered a lot. And what is worse, my kids were suffering and still suffer. I believe the loophole in the law allowing abusers have custody should be closed. Domestic violence should mean no custody to abuser.

The most important is don’t give up and don’t let depression [take you]. Now when I’m thinking about that time, I wonder, how could you survive that? It’s unthinkable.

When you tell someone here about it, the normal reaction is like, “This could never happen. It must be some fault of yours. It’s so outrageous.” And that’s what’s difficult. People don’t like it. America is very optimistic, so people don’t like to hear the sad stories. So people say, "No, it can’t happen here."

Attorney - Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP
Julia Judish

The two petitioners in Voisine v. United States had been convicted through guilty pleas of misdemeanor domestic violence, and later were convicted of gun possession in violation of federal law. The argument [these Supreme Court] petitioners made was against a provision in the federal Gun Control act that prohibits anyone convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence from possessing a gun. Their argument was, because the Maine statutes under which they were convicted make reckless assault a crime, that those [domestic violence misdemeanor] convictions… should be excluded from the coverage of the federal Gun Control Act. That’s the legal posture.

Why this case resonated with me is that I’m aware, and certainly the data supports and we included in our brief, that so many DV crimes, when people call the police, or call for help, even if there are felony charges pressed, the vast majority are pled down. So it's a guilty plea, which is more likely to result in a misdemeanor conviction. And for states with assault or battery statutes that define the crime to include recklessness, then the outcome these petitioners were seeking would have allowed almost anyone with a domestic violence conviction resulting from a plea bargain to possess guns.

And they’re exactly the people who should not [have guns]...you don’t want someone who can recklessly put someone’s life in danger to have a gun, to use that as an instrument of creating fear and control over someone in their family.

When we read about these mass shootings, I’m struck again and again by the history of the individual, whether it’s the Orlando night club, whether it’s the Republican Congressional softball game, whether it was the shootings at the University of California -- there is a history of prior DV incidents by the shooter.

Often, the DV incidents don’t actually result in a conviction, but there have been 911 calls and there has been evidence that people have accused them of domestic violence, and these are the same individuals that have guns and go on to engage in mass violence. The idea that the Gun Control Act protections would be eliminated for people who are actually convicted of domestic violence is frightening. And the number of acts of lethal violence against women is very high in the U.S., especially against women who are trying to leave an abusive relationship -- that’s often the most dangerous time in their lives, when they’re trying to escape. 

The CDC reports that over ten thousand women were murdered in the U.S. over an eleven-year period, and more than half of those murdered women were killed by a current or former romantic partner. Those are horrific statistics. So for me, the Voisine case, which brought together the issue of domestic violence and gun violence, was a very important one for the firm to take on. 

That case turned out very well from our perspective. DV LEAP brought the subject matter expertise, and law firms were able to bring their considerable resources.

In the Voisine case in the Supreme Court, the Solicitor General's office was defending the Gun Control Act. There was a technical argument that the petitioners raised regarding the relationship of common law definitions of battery to the statutory definition of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. I had calls with the lawyer from the Solicitor General's office who was doing the government’s brief, and she commented that they didn’t have the resources to research the historical definitions in all 50 states, so they weren’t making that argument. We were able to, with a team of over a dozen lawyers in many offices, do the in-depth research into the common law and statutory rules in 50 states, historically at the time of enactment of the federal statute, and to include that research in our amicus brief.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Government and upheld the challenged Gun Control Act provision. Although the majority opinion did not cite our amicus brief, its holding rested on the conclusion that the common law definition of battery was not well-settled and therefore Congress had not intended to incorporate the common law's treatment of mens rea into the Gun Control Act. Unlike both petitioners' brief and the Government's brief, our brief made that argument and backed it up with extensive research. It seemed clear to us that our brief made a difference to the outcome, and affected the way that the court analyzed and approached the case in their ultimate decision.

In appellate work, you’re arguing this is how the statute should be properly interpreted, and that impacts the people on the ground: the police who are called, the DAs or prosecutors who are considering whether they have the basis to press charges, the family court judges who are considering whether they have an adequate basis to grant a civil protection order. They’re all looking to apply the background rules, not just, how do I feel about this case, but what does the law tell me I should do or have to do, or am allowed to do?

Our firm has also partnered with DV LEAP on federal legislative initiatives, which is another important way to have a wide-reaching impact. One member of the legislative advocacy coalition we spearheaded for DV LEAP became a domestic violence advocate a year ago after her 2 ½ year old daughter was killed in a murder/suicide by her daughter’s father with whom she was estranged. Her daughter’s biological father had the right to have the daughter over and he shot her two times in the back and shot himself and burned down the house; this happened in the D.C. metro area just a year ago.

These sorts of horrible tragedies are enabled when courts fail to intervene to prioritize safety. And courts sometimes feel like they’re limited in stepping in because of the background rules and that’s why the appellate work and the statutory work is so critical in having an impact on people’s lives.

Here we are, a law firm with all of these resources that we bring to bear on behalf of paying clients, in support of their interests -- the idea that we could take those same resources and dedication, time, skills, knowledge, expertise of our lawyers, and put that toward making arguments in the public interest that otherwise would not have been made, was very important and meaningful.

One of the reasons why this was such an attractive opportunity for the firm is because taking on appeals or amicus briefs… has a significant impact. I’m not in any way suggesting that individual representations are not important, they absolutely are; but appeals and amicus briefs have a widespread impact. Not just taking the gun away from one abuser, but taking them out of the hands of convicted abusers in every state. That helps protect individuals that we don’t yet know need our help and hopefully prevents harm that otherwise might have happened.