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.
- Julie Z., DV LEAP Legal Volunteer

Our Work

In our collective 40 years of experience, we have walked survivors through the trenches of the domestic violence legal system, over and over again. This boots-on-the-ground approach has allowed us to produce a surprisingly rare gem: a well-documented playbook for improving the system. Our experience overcoming barriers to justice uniquely positions us to remove them.

Our 3 Areas of Work

Litigation

DV LEAP is a national leader in DV litigation at all levels, including the Supreme Court. Our work holds trial courts accountable to the fairness embodied in the law. Information about eligibility for assistance with an appeal is here.

Consultation and Training

We multiply our impact by providing training and in-depth consultation to lawyers, judges, mental health professionals, litigants, and by sharing resources with key stakeholders.

Policy

DV LEAP partners with advocacy organizations at the local and national level to improve policy and laws. H. Res. Con. 72 makes child safety the first priority of custody and visitation adjudications. Learn more and spread the word!
Thanks to DV LEAP, I am stronger mentally and I am more confident to face my abuser in court because I now know that there are truly good people in this world who care and will help survivors of domestic violence.

So thank you for not only caring, but for actually helping people like me.
- Survivor and DV LEAP Client
DV LEAP’s cases are high stakes and high impact, and they become precedent for hundreds of subsequent cases.
-Kerri Ruttenberg, Partner and Head of litigation, jones day

Organizational Progress

Pro Bono Investments
Pro Bono Hours
Pro Bono Partners
Consultations Provided
2017
$3.8M
5746
130
786
2016
$3.6M
5646
159
1000
2015
$2M
3506
103
1273

SPECIAL PROGRAMS

DC LEAP 

DV LEAP pursues justice for survivors locally and nationally with a strong focus in Washington, DC. Our DC LEAP work includes appellate advocacy, training and technical assistance for advocates, lawyers and judges, and extensive consultations with survivors.

Learn More

Supreme Court Cases

Before DV LEAP was launched in 2003, no domestic violence specific cases were argued before the Supreme Court. That changed within five years of our founding as we helped usher three DV appeals to the high court.

Learn More
One of our earliest clients said something that really resonated and has stuck with me ever since. She said, “You gave me a voice.” Over the last 15 years at DV LEAP, and the many more years I have been in this work, we have observed biases in the courts that are specific to women; patterns that contribute to ongoing unjust court rulings. That is why, in order to create lasting change, we endeavor not just to win appeals, but to ensure women’s voices are heard.
-Joan Meier, Esq., Founder & Legal Director

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
link to the story page
Managing Attorney
Sasha Drobnick

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.

Unfortunately, my advice to any survivor is: be strategic. You think, I’ll do the right thing, I’ll go into the court and tell them what’s happening. I’ll report what’s happening and I will be able to protect myself and my children. But often that is not what happens. They need to know, the court might not be a friendly place to a survivor. It’s a sad and depressing piece of advice about this institution that is supposed to protect you, but I can’t tell you how many survivors and mothers have come to me saying: I went in and told them, I did what I was supposed to do, and now I’ve lost everything.

Sasha Drobnick

Managing Attorney

Sasha Drobnick is managing attorney at the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project (DV LEAP) in Washington, D.C., where she litigates appeals, conducts trainings and provides consultations on family violence issues. Sasha formerly practiced family and domestic violence law in Maryland with a focus on low income communities and received service awards from both the Mid-Shore Council on Family Violence and the Mid-Shore Pro Bono Center. In her early career, Sasha worked extensively in South Africa to promote women’s equal access to higher education. Sasha received her B.A. from Georgetown University and J.D. from New York University School of Law.

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Consulting Attorney
Elizabeth Liu

I was in law school and a friend of mine was in a romantic relationship; and I remember we were having coffee one day… and she was telling me about an argument that they had and she had mentioned that he had been physically violent with her.

I don’t remember what I said. I’d like to think that it was something supportive and tactful, but I’m not sure. I just remember being really surprised in part because this was a friend of mine who was not what you think a stereotypical victim would be. Since I’ve done this work professionally now, I understand that my vision of a victim was not accurate.

I remember that struck me pretty strongly and I think that it also made me realize that really no one is immune. I never knew much about the person who was abusive to her, but I also knew he was a law student. You know, somewhat educated, probably had a decent number of socioeconomic resources to at least be in law school.

The cases with children always hit me on a more intense level.  

So there was one case, and I’m going to use initials M.R. -- it was a protection order case. I remember the survivor was probably around my age and I think she was in graduate school, and she had a young daughter. And I remember thinking, this is someone I would be friends with. This is someone I would hang out with. And I think up until that point there had always been a little bit of distance, right?

These survivors are older. These survivors, I don’t know, are at a different point in their life, they have a different career. They have lots of kids… they are just somehow, a little bit different than me. And then there was a survivor who wasn’t. And I remember thinking, she goes to the same coffee shops that I hang out at. She does the same things I do on the weekends. She probably does yoga like I do. We would talk about her case, and then we would just talk about, I don’t know, whatever books we were reading. And it just made me think, who else in my daily life, that I see, could be a survivor?

I think that what’s helped me in dealing with disbelief of our clients and our cases [from onlookers] is recognizing that that this kind of disbelief doesn’t come from a bad place. It comes from a place of wanting to believe that the justice system is effective and it does good; [that] it offers protection and abusers will be held accountable and punished. So I try to remember that... It’s hard for someone to understand this kind of sad, traumatizing information. Especially when they haven’t been exposed to it. It’s an education process that has to take time.  

There’s a lot of reasons why DV survivors don’t do well in court. I remember talking to a psychologist once who said, “You cannot create a worse system in terms of survivors’ mental health than the court system.” I think in general, they’re scared, they’re upset. They’re probably stressed out, they probably haven’t slept well. They may not have mental health support. And you’re threatening them with the loss of their children.

They’re going to be angry in court. Given perhaps especially when they don’t have a lawyer to represent them at the trial level. We see this a lot. They’re going to give a bunch of irrelevant information probably. They’re not going to be focused. They’re not going to be clear. They may yell or they may have a really flat affect. Which to us, we understand that may be trauma speaking, but to a judge, it undermines her credibility. Why isn’t she upset? Why isn’t she crying? As if there’s some sort of magical formula about how upset you’re supposed to be: be upset, but don’t be too upset.

And then you have the abuser who’s probably well dressed. Probably very articulate. Probably apologetic enough. And I think it just means that your client is facing an uphill battle.

I’m really proud that we just keep going. I know that’s not a really glamourous quote for the website. But I’m especially proud of Joan because she’s been doing this forever. But I’m just proud of us as an organization for continuing to do what we do.

I also think that all of us are inherently pretty self-reflective people. We’re also good about learning from our mistakes and that’s really important in this field. The DV landscape changes, and I think it’s important that we constantly evaluate ourselves.

There’s definitely survivors we turn away because we don’t have the human capacity to help. Our biggest challenge is making sure we can grow our staff. Some day, Joan will retire. We need to develop our staff to make sure DV leap continues. And I’m sure there’s more big picture work about the field that we do if we had more resources; more training, more technical assistance, more litigation.

Beyond the obvious [use for more money], which is hire more attorneys, I would really love to get some sort of therapist who could talk to survivors and help provide them with mental health support. I think we’re all supportive and good listeners, but someone with professional experience to help them manage the trauma they’re going through. I think it would be incredibly useful, because at the end of the day they would be better prepared to fight their cases.

The hardest thing for me in this work, I think it’s the cultural thing, for lack of a better word -- and that is, disbelief of victims. An inability to be able to handle the idea of horrible things happening to women and children, and instead deciding that they must be liars or somehow maliciously making things up. The culture of disbelieving survivors.

I think one of the interesting things about disbelief of survivors is that, I’ve been surprised in my work. I’ve been surprised to the extent at which domestic violence is tolerated. There have been some cases where even when judges don’t completely dismiss it out of hand, I think it’s been interesting how it can be minimized or whitewashed. Especially when it comes to the effects on children.

I’ve seen some cases where there’s recognition that the father was abusive with violence towards the mother, and the kids saw it. And [the court will] say it has nothing to do with whether or not he’s going to be a good father. They’ll say he’s still safe. He didn’t physically hurt the kids and he’s probably learned his lesson. It was probably just a push here, or a slap there, and she was being really annoying anyway. I think it’s a combination of some level of tolerance in our society of violence against women when it’s in the context of a family.

It really has meant a lot to me to be able to help survivors of DV, both the individual clients, and then knowing that the work that I’ve done also helps improve the ability of other survivors to get justice. One of the unique things about DV Leap is that you help the individual client, which is incredibly rewarding and why we do this work; but you also know that there’s, I don’t want to say larger, because that minimizes the individual's experience, but I can help so many more people doing the work that I do. The ways that the impact is magnified through appellate work is something that I found really rewarding.

Elizabeth Liu is currently a Consulting Attorney with DV LEAP. She was previously DV LEAP's Managing Attorney and litigated domestic violence appellate cases and helped lead various training, advocacy, public speaking, and outreach efforts. Prior to joining DV LEAP, she was a Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellow at Georgetown University Law Center’s Domestic Violence Clinic where she supervised law students litigating civil protection order cases and co-taught the clinic seminar.Ms. Liu has served as the president of the board of directors for the Asian Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Resource Project. She was also a member of the board of directors of the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence. She received her LLM in Advocacy from Georgetown University Law Center, her J.D. from Harvard Law School and her B.A., with honors, from the University of Chicago. She is the co-author of Representing the Domestic Violence Survivor, with Barry Goldstein.

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Founder, Legal Director
Joan Meier

My first DV case was in Chicago when I was not yet a lawyer, but was assisting a survivor as an advocate, in a criminal case -- we were asking for a protective order.

The client and I spent 60 minutes discussing whether to request the court to order him out of the house; but we knew this was an unlikely request. The client was very afraid that if the court declined, he would be even more violent as retaliation. For battered women, there are consequences to not getting what you ask for in court. There’s payback from the abuser. So we decided to just ask for a no strike order, like no threats, no hitting, to be safe, on the assumption that we would at least get that.

The judge was about to issue various pre-trial orders, and I was making an argument for it to include a partial protection order. The judge looked at me and yelled at me, “If they’re going to live together, and you're going to tell the court to tell them not to hit each other, that’s ridiculous!” He was saying essentially “how dare you suggest, if they’re gonna live together, if she chooses to live with him, how dare you expect me to issue an order about his conduct.”

This was my introduction to the hostility of the system - to the idea that a judge should have anything to do with what goes on at home. And it was all on the victim. And so here is this guy screaming at us. Ironically, we would have loved to have him ordered out, but we didn’t think we could get what she really needed, [which was] to be free from him.

I have had many moments where I’ve felt pain and sorrow most acutely, and they all have to do with children being abused by their fathers, and the courts refusing to protect them.

I remember one in particular. I’m driving home one day after hearing about one particular case that I was trying to consult on. This was the beginning of my exposure to all of these kinds of child-focused cases, and this one just got under my skin. I think that it’s because I was younger then, it was newer. I was just wanting to scream and wanting to cry and jump up and down, hearing about how children are being victimized and courts are denying it, and condoning it, and it’s just too much, it’s too painful. It’s not just the abuse that’s painful - it’s the courts themselves, refusing to believe it, condoning and almost inviting it.

There was a period when I wasn’t sure I could continue the work because it was so demoralizing to me. Over the years I’ve learned a lot about vicarious trauma and self care and I’m much better at it. It’s kind of a fine balance between becoming numb, which is not good, or reacting too personally and emotionally, which is also not good. Finding a way to be a strong advocate without being victimized by each horror story that you hear. The key to learning to live with the truth of all those children’s and women’s suffering - both at the hands of their abusers and at the hands of the courts - is feeling like you can make a difference. That’s what keeps me going.

My greatest fear is that I will get to the point of retiring, and nothing will have changed. What keeps me going is the sense that there’s progress to be made and seeing that there’s already progress happening. I see some of the macro interventions we’re now involved with (federal legislation, national empirical study, and media) as the key to change.  

For one thing, we have to change the culture of denial against sexual abuse against children, because this denial coexists with undisputed data that everyone agrees with: that 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18, and 1 in 6 boys. That’s a staggering number of children. But people pretend that when a given case comes to court - and the father simply denies it - that it’s not true. I think we allow ourselves to believe that sexual abuse is done by strangers, but it’s not. It’s done primarily by people in the home.

My feeling is that if we can puncture that denial - both about all types of abuse and about how much courts avoid facing it - with the media and with federal attention, things will change in a heartbeat. I’m very much on that path, and that gives me hope.

The *Davidson victory was probably the most rewarding victory we’ve ever had because not only of the way it protected *Teresa’s daughter and vindicated *Teresa, but it also made incredibly important law about how protective our custody law is in DC. It was new because nobody had applied that provision before, and you had a really powerful ruling from the DC court of appeals saying, “This really means what it says.” And it’s really protective of children, even if the past abuse was only of the mother. So it was just an incredibly resounding victory both on a legal level and on a ground level, and on a personal level.

That really fed my and my colleagues’ sense of effectiveness and empowerment for a long time. And there have been some others, of course. The satisfaction of seeing the court vindicate true justice for the victims of abuse is like nothing else.  

Founder, Legal Director

Ms. Meier is the Founder and Legal Director of DV LEAP and Professor of Clinical Law at George Washington University Law School. Over the past 26 years she has litigated hundreds of domestic violence cases at the trial, appellate and Supreme Court levels. While litigating and teaching she also works collaboratively on national and local domestic violence advocacy and legislative reform efforts, delivers regular trainings for judges, attorneys and others, and has consulted for numerous organizations including the Department of Justice and American Bar Association Commission on Sexual and Domestic Violence. In 2009 she received the Inaugural Sharon Corbitt Award from the ABA Commission on CSDV; she has also received the Sunshine Lady Peace Award, Justice for Children’s Leadership Award, Washington Area Women’s Foundation Leadership Award, and the Mary Byron Foundation Celebrating Solutions Award.

Professor Meier received her B.A. magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1980, her J.D. cum laude from the University of Chicago Law School in 1983, and clerked on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

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Executive Director
Lee Ann

Lee Ann brings a unique combination of nonprofit leadership and academic scholarship to her new role as Executive Director of DV LEAP. An ardent advocate for women's and human rights, she has over two decades of experience linking research and action for change to benefit vulnerable groups in the US and in Africa. Dr. De Reus is an internationally recognized expert on gender, sexualized violence, women’s rights, and activism with speaking engagements at TEDxPSU, the Oslo Freedom Forum, and France24 TV.

She is the co-founder and chair of the board of directors of Panzi Foundation USA, a nonprofit that assists survivors of gender-based violence at Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Under her leadership, the funds raised by the Foundation increased tenfold in only four years. Her efforts on behalf of PFUSA were recognized by Purdue University, her alma mater, with the 2017 Distinguished Service Alumni Award. At Penn State Altoona, Dr. De Reus was an associate professor for 20 years in the departments of Human Development and Family Studies and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies where she conducted research on gender-based violence and taught courses on intimate partner and family violence.

DV LEAP is excited to have Lee Ann on board, and we confidently look forward to new growth and the expansion of our footprint with Lee Ann at our helm.