Supporting Victims/Survivors of Domestic Violence during the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Pandemic

As the coronavirus spreads throughout the U.S., and across the globe, more and more people are being ordered to stay home. Yet, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “home” is the “most dangerous place for women.”1 For victims/survivors of domestic violence, the ability to leave home to go to safe, public places, such as school or the workplace, is a critical protective measure. So, too, is a victim/survivor’s ability to access the courts to obtain emergency protection and relief.  

On March 13, 2020, Governor Walz declared a peacetime emergency, which imposed restrictions of a wide range of public activities.2 And on March 25, 2020, Governor Walz issued a stay-at-home order effective midnight Friday, March 27 until April 10, 2020. The state’s district and appellate courts remain open, but have limited their operations. As essential safety services, domestic violence programs also remain open. If you are experiencing violence, please call Minnesota’s 24/7 crisis hotline at 866.223.1111 or text 612.399.9995. [Text Wrapping Break] 

“COVID-19: Court Changes for…OFP Cases During the Pandemic”* 

Education for Justice (Law HelpMN) & the MN Judicial Branch 

*modified and condensed from original version 

What has changed? On March 16, 2020, the courts  split case types up into different groups. A “High Priority” group of cases will continue as normal. The rest of cases are suspended for 14 days. 

What are “High Priority” cases? Cases that involve your safety are “High Priority.” All court cases related to domestic violence are in the “High Priority” category. You can see the full list here: http://www.mncourts.gov/mncourtsgov/media/CIOMediaLibrary/Limited-Court-Service-Case-Priorities-List-with-Definitions.pdf  

As of March 23, 2020, the parties and attorneys to an OFP case may appear remotely.3 

If you have exhibits, you should ask the judicial officer how best you can present those exhibits if appearing remotely.  

Can I still file for a restraining order or order for protection? Yes. You can still file a case for restraining orders or orders for protection. Your county might have different rules about how to come to court for this.  

If you feel unsafe, call an advocate. A domestic violence advocate who knows the process and can support you through all of the steps. Violence Free Minnesota has a statewide online directory of advocacy agencies. You can also call their 24-hour crisis line at (866).223.1111. 

You can also call your Legal Aid office. Find your Legal Aid office here: https://www.lawhelpmn.org/providers-and-clinics. You can also apply for help from Legal Aid online: www.justice4mn.org. In-person clinics are probably canceled during the COVID-19 outbreak.   

For more information, check out the following resources: 

https://www.lawhelpmn.org/self-help-library/fact-sheet/covid-19-court-changes-housing-family-and-ofp-cases-during-pandemic

http://www.mncourts.gov/Help-Topics/Domestic-Abuse-and-Harassment.aspx#GetOFP

https://www.vfmn.org/

http://www.mnlegalservices.org/

How do I file for a restraining order or order for protection if I don’t want to leave my house? Use Minnesota Guide & File to create the forms you need to Ask for a MN Restraining Order – either an Order for Protection or Harassment Restraining Order. You can file the forms electronically (eFile) through Guide & File, or print your completed forms. For more information, visit the Guide & File Help Topic on the MN Judicial Branch Website. Your county might have different rules for whether or not you can file by paper, so call the court to confirm (For Hennepin County District Court, call (612).348.6000​). Other counties’ numbers include:  

Ramsey County: (651) 266- 5130 

Washington County: (651) 430-6261  (Family Court) 

Stearns County: (320) 656-3880 (Victim Assistance Coordinators) 

Criminal Justice System Responses to COVID-19 

Minnesota’s criminal justice and legal systems are attempting to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak by issuing new guidelines to prevent/reduce the transmission of the virus.  

How does this affect victims/survivors of domestic violence? According to the MN Department of Corrections: 

“Under the new guidance, if an offender violates the terms of his/her release, supervision agents and hearing officers are being asked to assess the level of danger posed by the violation before revoking the client’s probation/parole and taking the client into custody. Overall, agents and hearing officers are being asked to be as conservative as possible when it comes to taking violators into custody. 

However, if the violation or new crime provides evidence that the individual poses a credible threat to an individual victim or to the general public, agents can bring someone into custody and/or request a hearing through the Hearings and Release Unit.”  

What if my abuser is currently in state prison? Will he/she be released now? Most likely not. The MN Department of Corrections noted: 

The MN DOC is not talking about releasing incarcerated individuals to reduce prison populations at this time; rather, they are focused on reducing the numbers of individuals coming in for low-level violations and crimes, and possible early release of some inmates whose release dates are less than 120 days and who have approved release plans in place. (Of the ~130 individuals being considered for this modified work release with increased levels of contact with DOC staff, all are individuals who are considered low-risk based on the DOC’s scoring assessments.)” 

Will this affect whether I am notified through VINE or MN DOC system of my abuser’s release? No. Nothing has changed in regards to victim notification; it still depends entirely on whether or not victims have registered for notification in the MN DOC system (https://mn.gov/doc/assets/VICTIM_NOTIFICATION_REQUEST_FORM_2015_tcm1089-276323.pdf). It is critical to understand how notification operates, and that VINE (county jail) registration does not transfer to HAVEN (MN DOC/state prison) registration. 

For more information, check out the following resources: 

https://mn.gov/doc/

https://mn.gov/doc/family-visitor/search-offenders-fugitives/

https://www.vinelink.com/#/home

By Rosalyn Park, Women’s Human Rights Program Director at The Advocates For Human Rights

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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

Ukraine delays decision on Universal Periodic Review recommendations on domestic violence

 

Ukraine blog photo 1.png
The delegation from Ukraine, led by H.E. Mr. Sergiy Petukhov, Deputy Minister of Justice of Ukraine for the European Integration, speaks during Ukraine’s Universal Periodic Review on November 15, 2017. Source: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/human-rights-council/universal-periodic-review/28th-upr/watch/ukraine-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5647215634001#

For the 3rd cycle Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Ukraine, The Advocates for Human Rights submitted a stakeholder report in collaboration with Center “Women’s Perspectives,” a non-governmental agency based in Lviv, Ukraine. The report focused on the prevalence of domestic violence in Ukraine.

Domestic violence is a pervasive problem in Ukraine. In 2016, the Ministry of Social Policy recorded 96,143 complaints of domestic violence, and data indicate that the number of complaints has been on the rise by 10% per year. The legal system fails to adequately protect women, a problem exacerbated by ongoing political conflict.  Ukraine has not yet created a specific crime of domestic violence, nor has it specifically defined gender-based violence in its laws. A package of laws to address violence against women passed a first hearing in Parliament in 2016, but was sent back to a working group over concerns the draft laws were harmful to traditional family values. Members of Parliament have asked the working group to remove references to “gender” and “sexual orientation” and to allow religious groups to sit on the Working Group. Ukraine has yet to ratify the Istanbul Convention on violence against women. Victim services remain insufficient and underfunded.

During the UPR in early November 2017, 70 countries made 190 recommendations to Ukraine, 29 of which were related to domestic violence or violence against women. This marks a significant increase from the four domestic violence-related recommendations made in 2012, a sign that more countries are taking note of conditions in Ukraine.

After the review, the country can either accept or reject the recommendations, and can choose to provide an additional response if it wishes to explain its decision. The UPR process also gives the state under review the option to delay its response to some or all of the recommendations. Ukraine has decided to defer decision on all of its recommendations and will have until March 2018 (the 37th session of the Human Rights Council) to submit an addendum with its responses to the recommendations.

By Laura Dahl, a 2017 graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in Global Studies and Neuroscience. She is a Fall 2017 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

This post is the fourth in a series on The Advocates’ international advocacy.  The series highlights The Advocates’ work with partners to bring human rights issues in multiple countries to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. Additional post in the series include:

The Advocates’ lobbying against the death penalty packs a big punch at the Universal Periodic Review of Japan

How The Advocates brings the stories of women and children fleeing violence to the international stage

Sri Lanka’s Evolving Stance on the Death Penalty

 

Building the Capacity of Russian-Speaking Lawyers to Protect Women’s Human Rights 

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Our Legal Training Academy fellows from Georgia, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan working together on a UN treaty body exercise.

Members of The Advocates’ staff recently returned from Bulgaria, where we finished training 16 lawyers at the first session of our Legal Training Academy on Women’s Human Rights (LTA). Through this two-year project, we are building the capacity of lawyers to use international and regional human rights mechanisms to defend women’s human rights after all domestic remedies have failed. Being able to effectively access these options is crucial. For lawyers in some countries, which may not have adequate public prosecution laws concerning domestic violence or even basic protections for victims, the option of being able to leverage another remedy is powerful. Once a lawyer has exhausted the options available to them in their country, it is not the end of the road for the victim/survivor. Instead, they can still pursue effective, top-down recourse through the UN, European Court of Human Rights, and the Council of Europe. This two-year training academy teaches these lawyers how to most effectively bring these cases.  

 

The lawyers hail from nine countries in the Former Soviet Union—Russia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan, to name a few. Often, these human rights defenders are operating under laws that oppress or hinder civil society. For example, some of these countries impose onerous NGO registration requirements, while others use “foreign agent” laws to brand NGOs as spies and subject to heavy surveillance and conditions. Yet, each of these lawyers brought energy, commitment, enthusiasm, as well as drive to learn and connect with each other.  

 

In this first of three training sessions, we spent the first day hearing from the participants about the issues they face in their country. They described issues such as the severe lack of shelters, legal aid, and resources for women victims and survivors, the abuse of women in prison, and the use of village elders to decide cases of violence against women rather than formal court systems.

For example, one participant described the harmful practice and effects of polygamy in her country: “How do you register second and third wives? As a second or third wife, if my husband comes and beats me, and I’m not married, I cannot get a restraining order.”  

 Throughout the week, we discussed various forms of violence against women, including sexual violence, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and trafficking. We also addressed human rights for LGBTI and persons living with HIV.  

 

In the next two sessions, taking place in spring and fall of 2018, we will build the skills of these lawyers to leverage the UN and European mechanisms. Importantly, we are building not only a cadre of trained women’s human rights defenders, but a network of peers who will continue to share best practices and strategies, support each other’s efforts transnationally, and celebrate successes. Already, we have begun to see the impact after our first training. At the conclusion of the session, one participant said, 

“With your help, I have started to believe that we can change our situation to the best. Thank you all very much.”  

By: Rosalyn Park, director of the Women’s Human Rights Program at The Advocates for Human Rights.

How The Advocates brings the stories of women and children fleeing violence to the international stage

UN HRC room
The Human Rights Council chambers in Geneva, Switzerland. UN Photo/Elma Okic. Source: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=56915#.WjhEE7T83_Q

Since 2014, a growing number of women and children fleeing gender-based violence in Guatemala have requested legal assistance from The Advocates in applying for asylum in the United States. Using information from interviews with these clients, The Advocates documented violence against women in Guatemala and submitted a stakeholder report to the United Nations Human Rights Council for consideration during Guatemala’s third-cycle Universal Periodic Review, which took place on November 8, 2017.

Violence against women remains a serious problem in Guatemala, especially as the country continues to struggle to implement protective measures and programs. In the first ten months of 2015, the public ministry reported receiving 11,449 reports of sexual or physical aggression against women. In the first seven months of 2015, there were 29,128 complaints of domestic violence against women and 501 violent deaths of women.

Due to lack of protection and high rates of impunity, many women choose to leave the country rather than face potential reprisals and stigma. Domestic violence is also a significant push factor for unaccompanied child migrants.

The Advocates is able to help these women and children in two important ways: providing legal assistance in their asylum cases and using their experiences to advocate at the United Nations for law and policy changes in their home country of Guatemala.

There are several steps involved in bringing these individual stories to an international stage.

First, The Advocates drafted a report documenting violence against women in Guatemala, based on research on country conditions and client interviews. The Advocates submitted this stakeholder report to the Human Rights Council for consideration during Guatemala’s Universal Periodic Review. After the report was complete, I drafted a two-page summary that outlined the key information and suggested recommendations. I then reviewed countries that made recommendations to Guatemala during its second UPR in 2012, and selected 27 countries to lobby based on their past support for eliminating gender-based violence. I emailed these countries, thanking them for their interest in women’s issues and updating them on the status of past recommendations they made to Guatemala. I sent them the full report on Guatemala as well as the summary document.

The purpose of lobbying other countries is twofold— to alert the country to the dire situation in Guatemala and to provide suggested recommendations based on our report. The country under review must acknowledge the recommendations, which can serve as a rebuke for missteps as well as a blueprint for areas to improve.

For example, Guatemala received and accepted recommendations during its second-cycle UPR in 2012 to strengthen the 2008 Law Against Femicide. In order to implement these recommendations, the government established several agencies and institutions to give effect to the law, and created lower level courts. Yet weak implementation of these tools meant there was little reduction in levels of violence against women. In addition, there is no law against sexual harassment, despite its ubiquity. The partial implementation of these 2012 recommendations speaks to the importance of creating targeted recommendations, the success of which can be measured on a defined timeline.

Guatemala photo 2 Guatemala delegation
The delegation from Guatemala, led by H.E. Mr Jorge Luis Borrayo Reyes, President of the Presidential Coordinating Commission of Guatemala, delivers an introductory statement during the November 8th, 2017 UPR of Guatemala. Source: http://webtv.un.org/search/guatemala-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5639386301001/?term=&lan=english&cat=UPR%2028th&sort=date&page=3#

After the UN published the recommendations made during the November 8th UPR, I reviewed them to determine the success of our lobbying efforts. Of the 27 countries we contacted, seven of them made recommendations, five of which Guatemala accepted. Interestingly, the number of VAW-specific recommendations made to Guatemala remained fairly constant from 2012 (30 recommendations) to 2017 (31), but the makeup of the countries making the recommendations changed. In 2017, 77% of the VAW recommendations were made by countries that did not make a VAW recommendation in 2012. This shift suggests that a wider group of countries is taking note of the situation in Guatemala and willing to use their platform at the UN to advocate for women. It also suggests we should expand our lobbying efforts to target additional countries.

I was pleased to see the following recommendation from Spain, a country we targeted with our lobbying:

“Allocate sufficient resources to specialized courts and tribunals with jurisdiction over femicide and other forms of violence against women as well as move towards the full implementation of the Law against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence against Women.”

 

Guatemala photo 3 Spain gives rec
Mr. Emilio Pin, the representative to the UN Human Rights Council from Spain, delivers Spain’s recommendations to Guatemala during the November 8th UPR. Source: http://webtv.un.org/search/guatemala-review-28th-session-of-universal-periodic-review/5639386301001/?term=&lan=english&cat=UPR%2028th&sort=date&page=3#

This recommendation indicates that Spain acknowledges steps Guatemala has taken (specialized tribunals, partial implementation of the Law against Femicide) and points out a key gap in the implementation of these efforts: lack of government resources.

It’s incredibly powerful to see this recommendation and other calls to action that grew out of The Advocates’ client testimonies.

Guatemala accepted 28 of the 31 VAW-specific recommendations and will have five years before its next review to work on implementing them. I hope, the country will continue to build on past work and use the recommendations made during this review to effect meaningful change.

By Laura Dahl, a 2017 graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in Global Studies and Neuroscience. She is a Fall 2017 intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.

This post is the second in a series on The Advocates’ international advocacy.  The series highlights The Advocates work with partners to bring human rights issues in multiple countries to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council through the Universal Periodic Review mechanism. Additional post in the series include:

The Advocates’ lobbying against the death penalty packs a big punch at the Universal Periodic Review of Japan

Sri Lanka’s Evolving Stance on the Death Penalty

Ukraine delays decision on Universal Periodic Review recommendations on domestic violence

Discrimination Hurts. Period.

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I am constantly amazed at the accomplishments and bravery of kids my age. Many confront issues that I simply do not have to take on—often with respect to very basic things. I hope that if I was confronted with the same situations, I would be as brave.

Parkriti Kandel from Katmandu, Nepal is one such teenager. Throughout her life, she has been forced to live and struggle with the  “menstrual taboos” in her culture. At a listening party for 15-year-old girls hosted by NPR, I heard Prakriti’s story and her efforts to mitigate the menstrual taboos in her country and, in spite of it, her struggles to achieve her dreams.

In rural Nepal, women and girls experiencing their menstrual period are referred to as “untouchables.” Each month in rural Nepal, women and girls often consider their menstrual cycles as a time when something “horrible happens” to them. They are ostracized from society on a monthly basis, and are often forced to sleep in sheds despite the practice being outlawed in 2005 by Nepal’s Supreme Court

“When I’m having my period, I can’t touch my grandmother, and I can’t eat while she’s eating,” Prakriti told NPR. “I can’t touch the table while she’s eating. I can’t touch my father; I can’t touch my mother.” Prakriti was even blamed for her father’s illness because she had touched him while she had her period. “Because of this belief [the belief that women are infectious on their periods], because of this ritual, women are not equal to men,” she said. Her goal in life “is to be the prime minister of Nepal and change things” regarding menstrual taboos.

There is a certain shame that I feel when I hear girls talk about their periods. I have had a difficult time talking about it, too. Why do I feel this shame? It is a normal bodily function. Why do negative stigmas surround it? As Prakriti noted, “discrimination always hurts.” For example, blaming a woman for being moody is a discriminatory menstrual taboo wrongly suggesting  women cannot consistently operate as rationally as men. And at the Olympics in Rio, when the Chinese female swimmer, Fu Yuanhui, mentioned to a reporter that she was experiencing her period, she made international headlines for breaking a Chinese menstrual taboo.

The negative connotations associated with a woman’s period must end. I hope by drawing more attention to this issue, I will help others feel comfortable talking about their periods and the taboos we experience. Yuanhui broke the silence, and it is time we do, too.

Period.

By youth blogger Jenna Schulman, a tenth grade student in Washington, D.C. 

Building a Culture of Consent in High School

Photo is part of the "Fraternity House" series, by artist Violet Overn, a recent New York University graduate, is a sharp reminder that one in five women are sexuall assaulted in college.
This photo, part of the “Fraternity House” series by artist Violet Overn, serves as a sharp reminder that sexual assault is prevalent on college and high school campuses.

The start of the school year and the recent conviction and sentencing of Owen Labrie to two years’ probation for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old make it particularly important to get out messages about sexual assault on campuses. In Labrie’s case, the sentence is not justice. It does not hold him accountable. It does not send a message of zero tolerance for sexual assault; and it does not serve to keep our communities – and girls – safe. As students across the country head back to school, the words of Jenna Schulman, our youth blogger, are an important reminder.

Sexual assault is not just an issue for adults or students in college, it is also an issue for teens in high school. Studies show that one in five women and one in six men are assaulted during their lifetimes. Forty four percent of these victims are less than 18 years old.

This summer, I took part in a program at my high school, Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., to investigate the issue of sexual assault and consent at the high school level. The object of the program was for us to learn more about the issue and then create a program in our school and for the larger community to address it.

We spent the first two weeks of the project getting educated about the issue of sexual assault and consent. We met with stakeholders based in the DC- metropolitan area, including government officials, advocates, survivors of sexual assault and social service providers. Following these meetings, I struggled to understand how such a small program, like ours, might offer any meaningful help. Initially, I looked at these traumas as if the only solution was to create policies by going through state and federal government. However, my perspective changed. The HRC advocates talked to us about how creating a culture shift, one step at a time, at the grassroots level, could help prevent sexual assaults. A culture shift would include three major components. First, it is important to develop universal definitions of what it means to give affirmative consent and what it means to be sexually harassed or assaulted.  It is important to minimize ambiguity sensibly. Second, the conversation about consent needs to be expanded and geared toward younger children. This does not mean that we should be educating our six year olds about how to have sex. Rather,  it means that we should be educating six year olds about boundaries and what it means to say yes and no. Third, we need to be much more open to believing survivors. Sexual assault is one the crimes where a survivor is too often seen as guilty until proven innocent.

We spent the second two weeks of the program trying to move from policy to action – thinking about ways to affect a culture shift in the DC high school community. As a first step, we decided to host a summit addressing sexual assault and consent for all area high schools. The summit will take place on Saturday, November 19, at Georgetown Day School.  The goal of the summit is to begin a conversation within the high school community about how to address sexual assault and how to create a consent culture. The event will have breakout sessions led by advocates, policy makers, educators, and survivors.

I feel very fortunate that my school gave students, like me, the opportunity this summer to address the issue of sexual assault and consent at the high school level.  I appreciated that they let us “own” the issue, and think through it ourselves. The program has changed my perspective on how I perceive sexual assault – allowing me to understand even more how it affects teenagers in high school (and not just those in college).  It also provided me with a greater sense of urgency that change has to happen and that we cannot remain complacent about the issue.

I encourage other school districts and teens from around the country to begin conversations of their own, within their schools and with friends and family about the seriousness of sexual assault and the importance generating a culture shift. It really begins with you and we can together create positive change.

By youth blogger Jenna Schulman, a tenth grade student in Washington, D.C.