Updates – Supporting Victim/Survivors of Domestic Violence during the COVID-19 Pandemic

What’s New? The following article provides updates to our previous blog published March 26, 2020.

On April 30, 2020, Governor Walz issued Executive Order 20-48, which extended the Stay Home Order until May 18. The order is intended to continue to slow the spread of the virus, while allowing some people to return to work. In particular, this order allows retail businesses and non-critical businesses to resume operations with curbside pick-up.

In response to the Governor’s order, The Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea issued another order that extends the limited physical access to courthouses until May 18. Parties are encouraged to use virtual technology, when possible, to conduct hearings and all jury trials are suspended until at least June 1, 2020.

How does the new order affect victim/survivors of domestic violence?

Like previous orders, Minnesotans can leave their homes if they are unsafe, call 911 and/or seek and obtain emergency services. Victim/survivors can also file for a Harassment Restraining Order (HRO) or an Order for Protection (OFP). Judges will issue emergency orders if an imminent risk of physical harm exists.  A hearing may be scheduled if the judge determines that the emergency order creates a public or personal safety concern that must be addressed.

Domestic violence shelters remain open, and domestic violence advocates remain “critical sector workers,” under the Governor’s order. Shelter availability may be more limited due to more social-distancing within shelters. Call 1.866.223.1111 to find a shelter and services in your area.

How do I know if my hearing will be conducted remotely?

If you are a party to a case, the Court will contact you about the scheduling and manner of the hearing. You should contact either district court administration of the assigned judicial officer if you have received information yet.

Hennepin County District Court at (612) 348-6000 Ramsey County District Court at (651) 266-8266 Washington County District Court at (651) 430-6263 Stearns County District Court at (320) 656-3620

If you can wait up to 3 business days for a response, you may send an email. My hearing will be conducted remotely. How should I prepare?

The MN Judicial Branch advises all participants to follow these best practices for remote hearings that are held both with audio and video or else audio (telephone) only:

  • Find a quiet, well-lit place for clear and distraction-free audio and video. Turn off TVs, radios, and phone notifications. If there are others around you, try moving to a room with a door you can close.
  • If joining by video, find your device’s video camera and make sure it is uncovered. Position the camera at eye level so others can see you clearly.
  • If possible, make sure your device is plugged into a power source and not running only off battery power.
  • Dress in solid colors, and be mindful of what is behind you.
  • Use headphones, if possible, for the best sound quality and the fewest background noises.
  • Mute yourself when not speaking.
  • Identify yourself each time you speak.  The court reporter may not be able to identify individual speakers without identification.
  • Speak one at a time and pause before speaking in case there is audio or video lag.  Do not interrupt.  The court reporter can only take down one voice at a time.
  • Enter your first and last name when you join. If you are an attorney, identify which party you represent. For example, Joan Lawyer, Attorney for the Petitioner.

For more information, visit the MN Judicial Branch’s webpage on remote hearings.

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A Volunteer Reflects

Sydney Goggins, University of Minnesota Law Student and WATCH volunteer

Going into a courtroom for the first time compared to re-entering a courtroom after a semester of law school are wildly different experiences. My first time in the courtroom was with WATCH, a court monitoring and judicial policy initiative of The Advocates For Human Rights, when I was 18. I was overwhelmed, excited, and confused but eager to learn. The cases moved so fast and it felt like the lawyers and judges were speaking in a foreign language. The lawyers’ clients, if present, seemed just as confused as me. It was not how I had imagined court at all. Similar to many Americans who have never been in courtroom, I was picturing a scene similar to television, a lawyer screaming “this court is out of order!” at the judge after a passionate argument. However, the reality within a courtroom is a more procedural process. Lawyers coming in and out stating what they needed from the judge and leaving, the judge rapidly shuffling through papers, and the occasional defendant coming out in handcuffs. I left the courthouse that day inspired and excited to understand the inner workings of the process. I wanted to be a part of it all. 

Fast forward to when I was 21 years old, re-entering a courtroom for the first time after a semester of law school. Things made sense and the process felt familiar and easy. While the lawyers’ arguments were not the passionate, powerful arguments you see on television, I could understand how and why they were making arguments for their clients. I found excitement in the little things that I hadn’t seen or noticed before. Filing motions, writing briefs, and dealing with the procedural issues is necessary work in order to win a case. In law school, especially during your first year, there is a disconnect between what we are learning and how it is applied in practice. WATCH has provided me confidence in a courtroom and in front of a judge that many other students may not yet have. Volunteering for WATCH allows me to bridge the gap between my legal education in the classroom and how this information I am learning is put into practice in the courtroom. 

By Sydney Goggins, University of Minnesota law student and WATCH volunteer

The Advocates for Human Rights is a nonprofit organization dedicated to implementing international human rights standards to promote civil society and reinforce the rule of law. The Advocates represents more than 1000 asylum seekers, victims of trafficking, and immigrants in detention through a network of hundreds of pro bono legal professionals. 

 

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A Global Look at COVID-19 and Domestic Violence

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Photo credit: CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS

The Advocates is taking action to respond to increased domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Visit our social media about the impact of COVID-19 on domestic violence in countries around the world. 

Across the world, agencies are seeing an uptick in domestic violence cases as stay-at-home and limited movement orders have been put in place in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some countries report a decrease in domestic violence calls to hotlines, advocates warn that this is more than likely due to victims/survivors being unable to safely make a phone call while living with their abuser. In response, hotlines around the world have implemented text and email hotline services that help victims be more discrete when attempting to access help.

Many shelters have been named “essential services,” especially in the United States, and this has allowed shelters to maintain operation of their in-person services, although these shelters are quickly becoming overcrowded. Advocates also warn that the pandemic may cause less people to seek these services due to the fear of contracting the virus. In addition, when victims are at home with their abusers, it may be more difficult for them to leave. It may also be more difficult to obtain legal services during this time, although many courts have moved proceedings online and have extended certain stipulations in order to protect victims and their children.

Although there have been efforts across the globe to address the increased risk that victims of domestic violence are now facing, gaps remain. Advocates around the world, as well governments and inter-governmental bodies like the United Nations, have led discussions on the alleviation of these barriers.

 Current state of affairs and principal concerns

Advocates around the world warn that shelter-at-home executive orders, sometimes called “safe at home” orders, will produce unintended and lethal consequences for domestic violence survivors, including:

  • Increased violence due to various aggravating factors, such as economic constraints, job loss, increased alcohol consumption and drug use, close proximity, children being at home
  • Pandemic-related abuse, such as:
    • Threatening to put victims on the street if they show symptoms
    • Making victims wash their hands until they bleed
    • Hiding essential items like hand sanitizer and soap from the victim
    • Threatening to cancel insurance
    • Circulating misinformation to victims to cause fear and deter them from leaving or seeking help;
  • Increased isolation from support systems, such as friends or family;
  • Travel restrictions that impact a victim’s escape or safety plan, or where it may not be safe for them to use public transportation or fly;
  • Decreased or eliminated access to safe havens like school, work, and community gatherings;
  • Difficulty accessing services, because of an:
    • Increased monitoring of phone activity by abusers
    • Inability to make hotline calls safely with abuser home
    • Decreased opportunities to escape
    • Decreased shelter space or shelters repurposed by the government to service COVID-19 patients
    • Fear of contracting the virus at shelters
    • Hotlines overwhelmed by increase in calls
    • Health systems that are overwhelmed by the pandemic, making it more difficult for survivors to access medical services, including therapy;
  • Increased anxiety and re-traumatization;
  • Homelessness;
  • Mental health consequences;
  • Decreased financial resources for victims to flee and support themselves due to job loss;
  • Decrease in family court approvals of requests for hearings;
  • Petitions not determined to be emergencies being dismissed or adjourned to a later date. These decisions may be made by someone in the court system screening electronically filed petitions, which could be life-or-death decisions for survivors;
  • Impacts on health workers, many of whom are women;
  • Reduced or limited access to vital sexual and reproductive health services, including for women subjected to violence.

What to do if you need help 

If you are in immediate danger in the U.S., call 911.

For help in Minnesota, call DayOne Hotline at 1-866-223-1111 or text 612-399-9995.

For help in the U.S., call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE(7233) or text LOVEIS to 22522. American Indians and Alaska Natives can also call the StrongHearts Native Helpline at 1-844-7NATIVE (762-8483).

What The Advocates is doing to strengthen protections for women

The Advocates is currently collaborating with Violence Free MinnesotaMNCASA, and Standpoint to gather information about the challenges faced by Minnesota’s justice system in responding to domestic violence and sexual assault.

The Advocates is conducting fact-finding with systems actors to provide ongoing analyses of the issues and new challenges that systems actors and courts face under the COVID-19 situation that it can provide to Violence Free Minnesota, MNCASA, and Standpoint as they develop real-time guidance to strengthen systems’ responses.

This week, The Advocates will begin posting daily with COVID-19 response information for countries around the world.  Follow @TheAdvocatesforHumanRights on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn) for daily COVID-19 updates for countries around the world.

For more information on violence against women, visit our website StopVAW.org.

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Following Harvey Weinstein’s Sentencing, the message to the Rest of the World’s Prosecutors: “Just Try It!”

Women’s human rights defenders are celebrating an overdue breakthrough in prosecuting sexual assault and harassment. Former film producer Harvey Weinstein was sentenced in New York to 23 years in prison on Wednesday, March 11 for his two sexual assault convictions.  He faces additional charges in Los Angeles.  Many who work against sexual violence see a clear message to criminal justice professionals:  Just try it!

The criminal laws are only as good as the professionals who enforce them.  Human rights defenders around the world, including The Advocates for Human Rights, commonly report that criminal sexual assault laws are not implemented to hold offenders accountable.  If police and prosecutors do not investigate, charge, and go to trial in sexual assault cases, then the existence of well-written laws have little effect in the community.  Of course sexual assault perpetrators often victimize repeatedly with multiple victims.  They are free to do so with impunity so long as justice professionals find reasons not to enforce the law.

But the Harvey Weinstein case serves to demonstrate what can happen when police and prosecutors do their best work to enforce sexual assault laws.  Weinstein was convicted of both acts of sexual assault he was charged with committing.  He was convicted of forcing oral sexual contact with Mimi Haleyi in 2006, and of raping then aspiring actress Jessica Mann, in 2013.  He was acquitted of three other higher-penalty charges involving those same events, but the jury found him guilty of committing the 2006 and 2013 crimes.  In short, the jury believed the two women Weinstein was charged with victimizing.

The prosecutors going into the Weinstein trial had no guarantee the jury would convict him.  They had multiple challenges to overcome and no physical or biological evidence of sexual encounters.  The prosecution was almost entirely based on the testimony of women describing acts that occurred years ago.   Haleyi and Mann, and others who also testified about Weinstein’s sexual attacks, continued to communicate with and meet with Weinstein.  They continued to be friendly to him and, in Mann’s case, even saying that she loved him.  They did not report the crimes to the police at the time.  Yet, with their testimony, along with other survivor testimony, the jury found proof beyond a reasonable doubt of his guilt. 

The Weinstein verdicts support the notion that community members -serving as jurors – are ready to hold sexual assault perpetrators accountable.  It won’t happen every time; prosecutors must have sufficiently thick skin to weather a few not-guilty verdicts.  But, when it comes to enforcing the sexual assault laws, if not now, when?  If not today’s prosecutors, then who?  The age-old excuse that “a jury will never convict him” is beginning to evaporate.  So, the only way to move forward is for police and prosecutors to do their best work and just try it. 

By Kaarin Long, Staff Attorney at The Advocates for Human Rights and former sex-crimes prosecutor

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New Help for Volunteer Attorneys Representing Domestic Violence Survivors

Matter of A-B-

Imagine you suffered years of near daily physical, sexual, and psychological abuse from your husband in silence, knowing that every time you tried to escape, he found you and beat you worse for attempting to leave him.

Imagine he told you that you were his property and your role as his wife was to serve him for the rest of your life.

Imagine you go to the police, begging them to keep you safe. They refuse, saying that your husband has the right to discipline his wife how he chooses. Your husband finds out and beats you worse to punish you for going to the police.

Terrified, you flee with your children to the United States, determined to give them a better life. You have heard that, in the United States, people believe women should have the same rights as men. You hear that there are laws in the United States against domestic violence, and that the laws are followed.

After a dangerous journey, you finally reach the United States. You file for asylum, but while your case is pending the law protecting domestic violence survivors changes. Now you live in fear that you will be deported back to the nightmare you and your children fled.

This situation is the lived reality of many domestic violence survivors represented by The Advocates for Human Rights and our volunteer attorneys. In the summer of 2018, Attorney General Jeffrey B. Sessions issued a decision in Matter of A-B- that threw into question the well-established precedent recognizing a protected group for survivors of domestic violence whose home country governments did not protect them from their abusers.

Following the Matter of A-B- decision, many judges around the country have recognized that domestic violence survivors who cannot receive protection from their home country governments continue to qualify for protection. In too many cases, however, judges have used this decision to deny protection to women and children fleeing domestic and family violence.

To support the efforts of our volunteer attorneys and others in the Eighth Circuit arguing for protection of asylum seekers fleeing domestic violence, we have issued Gender-Based Asylum Claims in the Wake of Matter of A–B– A Supplement for Practice in the Eighth Circuit. Drafted with our pro bono partners at Gray Plant Mooty, this practice advisory includes extensive strategy guidance that advocates can use to protect their clients.

Please consider taking a pro bono case with The Advocates for Human Rights today. Your work can save the lives, and families, of domestic violence survivors.

By Alison Griffith, a staff attorney working for refugee and immigrant rights at The Advocates for Human Rights

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Risking it all for Human Rights

Gretchen Piper speaking from Sarah Brenes
Volunteer Gretchen Piper speaking at a recent house party to support women’s human rights

Remarks from volunteer Gretchen Piper

Collectively, we risked nothing in attending tonight’s event—in coming together to advocate for others.

People around the world risk everything.

In July, Julianne and I attended a conference in Zagreb, the capital and largest city in Croatia. The conference was called by The Advocates for Human Rights. We were part of a team of 7 volunteers, trained by The Advocates, and assigned to collect the stories of 31 human rights defenders from 17 countries.

The first morning, we gathered in the hotel conference room at 8 a.m. Our first task was to find a coffee tin …

… to block cell phone signals.

Some participants worried their cell phones had been compromised, participants like Hanna from a Central European country. When her 8-year-old mobile phone was stolen during a lunch break, Hanna contacted her sister to let her know she was safe. She then activated her safety protocol to ensure that her phone was not compromised.

With the tin can secured, Julianne and I opened the conference with a talking circle. Our job was to quickly establish an environment of safety and trust—so people would share their stories.

As they did, a terrifying pattern emerged: the rise of populism and the radical right have fueled violence against women, the LGBT community and immigrants across the globe.

Participants shared harrowing stories of violence, of police ignoring hate crimes—of courts not enforcing laws that protect vulnerable communities.

What is as terrifying as the violence itself is this fact:

Violence. Discrimination. Human Rights Abuses. They are a tactic in a larger geopolitical effort to ensure that powerful global business interests have their candidates in elected positions of power.

Our new friends from Italy, Austria, Belarus, Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia, and Ukraine cited examples of extremist candidates elected by inciting fear of immigrants, of losing their “native” cultures, of ceding to gender politics.

The right is well organized, disciplined and well-coordinated … around the globe.

The right is a force we need to match, and The Advocates for Human Rights is on the forefront of that battle. With more than 20 years of experience in working with women’s groups in Europe, providing advocacy, legal training, and research, The Advocates is a trusted partner. They have a proven track record of leveraging skilled volunteers and building local capacity for action.

Rose and her team had prepared us well.

The conference galvanized the participants. They vowed to support one another, to reclaim human rights tools for rapid response to defend against false information and media attacks. To train lawyers, work with police and prosecutors, to learn effective communications strategies, to share resources and continue to meet—no matter the risks.

Two weeks after I returned home, I was sitting in my car, waiting for my kids to finish practice, thinking about what to make for dinner, what work I needed to finish. I picked up my phone and scrolled through the headlines.

In my news feed, was my new friend, Svetlana, an LGBT advocate in Russia whom I had met at the conference in Croatia.

Svetlana was speaking about her colleague, Yelena Grigoryeva, a well-known LGBT activist in Russia. Yelena had been found stabbed to death—murdered—outside her St. Petersburg apartment.

Days earlier, Yelena had gone to the police to report that she was on a “Gay Kill List.”

Just this past week, Svetlana, was in the news again. She and her colleagues in the Russian LBGT community were imploring the police and the ministry of internal affairs to solve Yelena’s murder—to find the people behind the Gay Hit List, a list published by an anonymous online group called Saw, after the American cult horror film. Saw continues their assault, offering cash for murders—and telling LBGT activists that unless they murder their own colleagues, they themselves will be killed.

Julianne and I don’t want to lose another friend, which is why we teamed up today to ask for your help.

Help people who are risking it all. Support The Advocates for Human Rights at TheAdvocatesForHumanRights.org/donate.

Gretchen Piper is a volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights and President of Gretchen Piper, LLC, a consulting firm focusing on strategic planning, fund raising, and marketing.

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Domestic Violence Awareness Month: Remembering the Origins of WATCH

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Robin Phillips, Executive Director of The Advocates for Human Rights, presents Susan Lenfestey with the 2019 Golden WATCH Award

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, as well as the month in which Sheila Wellstone and her husband Sen. Paul Wellstone died in the crash of a small airplane in 2002.

For those who knew her, the two are forever linked, because Sheila was a leader in bringing awareness to the crushing impact of domestic violence.

A self-described ‘wrestling mom’, Sheila traveled the state with Paul during his 1990 senate campaign.  As she sat in coffee shops and VFW halls, she heard women talking about the abuse they suffered in their own homes at the hands of the men they thought loved them.  While economic dependency played a role, it was also a mix of fear and shame that shackled them to their abusers.

Recognizing these women and children needed laws and services to help them find safety and to break the cycle of violence, Sheila and Paul enlisted then Sen. Joe Biden to help them draft the bill that would become the Violence Against Women Act of 1994.

Meanwhile, 1991 saw the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the United States Supreme Court and the testimony of Anita Hill about the sexual comments Thomas had allegedly made to her when they worked together in a previous job.   The panel of male senators sniggered their way through her testimony like embarrassed schoolboys, and we know how that turned out. I still believe Anita Hill!

Shortly after that, the Star Tribune ran a series called “Free to Rape,” detailing the lenient sentencing practices in Minnesota in cases of rape and domestic assault.

In that series, a Hennepin County victims’ advocate said that she wished there was an organization like MADD to keep an eye on the courts.  “Until that happens, nothing will change.”

That article was the catalyst for WATCH (Women At The Court House, later condensed to WATCH), which I helped found later that year.  The mission was to make the courts more responsive and effective in handling cases of violence against women and children and to create a more informed and involved public.

The idea was simple: trained volunteers would monitor felony cases of sexual assault and domestic violence from arraignment through sentencing. They would note “objectively observable behaviors” of court personnel, such as timeliness, ability to he heard, attentiveness to the victim, apparent race of the victim and the defendant, amount of bail set, any upward or downward departures from the sentencing guidelines, as well as how much of the proceeding took place in the judges’ chambers.

Cases with unusual outcomes would be referred to staff for further research to develop a more complete understanding of the issues affecting the case.   WATCH looked for systemic patterns of behavior, not for the occasional misstep.

And yes, volunteers would carry clipboards because judges requested a way for them to be easily identifiable to them, but not to a jury.  Red clipboards were chosen because they were on sale the day we went shopping, not as an incendiary color to intimidate anyone (as one judge later charged)!

After one year, WATCH issued its first report, Hennepin County Criminal Courts, A View from the Outside, which was based on observing more than 1600 appearances in cases related to domestic abuse and criminal sexual conduct.  The report can be found here:

The report made recommendations on how the often-byzantine system could be more easily navigated by the public, especially victims and their families, as well as changes to certain policies that left victims exposed to more danger  As Hennepin County District Court Judge Daniel Mabley wrote at the time, “The report demonstrates that sometimes the best ideas for change come from “outsiders” who are not biased by the assumptions and history that often blinds insiders to the need or potential for change.”

Over the years, WATCH expanded into observing and reporting on similar cases at the misdemeanor level, conducted a multi-year monitoring and research project in child protection court, advocated successfully for a designated domestic violence court, monitored family court in order for protection hearings, compared sentencing practices in misdemeanor domestic violence cases in the suburban courts to those in the downtown court, worked to pass legislation making strangling a felony offense, not a misdemeanor, and much more.  Recently, WATCH expanded into Ramsey and Washington counties and issued two reports on the prosecution of sex trafficking in those jurisdictions.

But in the very early years, we were encouraged and guided by Sheila Wellstone. She moved behind the scenes to bring domestic violence out of the shadows. With others, including WATCH, she helped change the legal and cultural attitudes that viewed domestic violence as a family matter.

HRAD 2019 R Park & Susan Lenfestey Bill C photo
Rosalyn Park, Director of The Advocates’ Womens’ Human Rights Program, and Susan Lenfestey announcing that WATCH will become a project of The Advocates for Human Rights (June 2019)

WATCH recently became a project of The Advocates for Human Rights, and I cannot imagine a more perfect partnership.

Our work is cut out for us.  In 2017, 24 people in Minnesota died as a result of domestic violence, 19 of them women, the other five family members or friends of the victims.

All acts of violence are horrific, but violence in the home passes its toxic seeds on to the next generation, and the next after that. Children who grow up witnessing abuse have a difficult time breaking the cycle.

In October, we pause to remember those who have been silenced by an intimate partner, and to renew our commitment to end the pandemic of domestic violence.  And I’d add, to honor the courageous work of Sheila Wellstone.

To volunteer with The Advocates’ WATCH Project, please click here.

By: Susan Lenfestey, founder of WATCH, the court monitoring and judicial policy non-profit based in Minneapolis, MN. Susan is the 2019 Gold WATCH Award Recipient.