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

Featured

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

Discrimination Hurts. Period.

woman-embracing-sky-3
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. 

#IHaveTheRightTo

Chessy Prout stands tall and strong.
Chessy Prout stands tall and strong.

The start of the school year and the recent conviction and sentencing of Owen Labrie to two years’ probation for sexually assaulting 15-year-old Chessy Prout make it particularly important to get out messages about sexual assault on high school and college 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.

“I have the right to my body. I have the right to say no.”  Thanks to Chessy Prout, I have learned the power these words hold.

Her story is well known. She’s a victim of sexual assault at St. Paul’s School, a private boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire. The perpetrator, Owen Labrie, was  convicted on charges of misdemeanor sexual assault and felony use of a computer. But until recently, the public did not know the victim’s name or her face. This changed when Chessy spoke publicly for the first time on the Today show about her ordeal. “I want everyone to know that I am not afraid or ashamed anymore, and I never should have been,” she said, her family flanking her. “It’s been two years now since the whole ordeal, and I feel ready to stand up and own what happened to me and make sure other people, other girls and boys, don’t need to be ashamed, either.”

Chessy is now 17 years old. She was 15 at the time of the assault: my age!

Chessy was incredibly brave to come forward. Although she was anonymous to the public, she testified at trial and experienced the victim-blaming so many victims of sexual assault have to face. Now as she speaks publicly, she demonstrates that same bravery. It cannot be easy for her.

Her message is an important one, and I am so thankful to her for continuing the conversation so publicly about preventing sexual assault in high school. “I want other people to feel empowered and just strong enough to be able to say, ‘I have the right to my body.  I have the right to say no,’” she said. She took the our generation’s important communication tool, Twitter, to launch the #IHaveTheRightTo campaign with the hope that  more people will be public with their stories.  (Click here to watch a video about the campaign.)

When you are robbed of a possession, society does not (usually) condemn you, the victim, by proclaiming “you asked for it.” But that is just what Chessy has had to endure. Spend 10 minutes on the internet and you will find numerous, cruel messages accusing her of being a “slut” (and worse!). Why are victims of personal property crimes treated better than victims who sustain crimes to their bodies? It is time to take a stand. We all have the right to say “no.” Chessy understands this and is working to ensure that other kids, like me, do, too. For that I am incredibly grateful.

Thank you, Chessy Trout.

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. 

U.S. Supreme Court Stands Up for Domestic Violence Victims

Woman at sunset 2
Twenty-six people―mostly children―were gunned down in Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twelve people were shot to death in a Colorado movie theater. Fourteen people slain in San Bernardino. Fifty-three people were ambushed in Orlando. Then there were the woman and four family members in Texas, shot and killed by her husband at their daughter’s birthday party; the woman, three of her friends, and her attorney shot and killed by the woman’s ex-husband in Arizona; and the Short family―a mother and her three children―murdered by their father while they slept in their Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota home.

In addition to being mass shootings, these killings have another thing in common: many of the shooters had a history of domestic violence. And they are not the only ones. A 2015 study revealed that of the 133 mass shootings between 2009 and 2015, 57 percent had ties to domestic and/or family violence. In fact, in 21 of those cases, the shooter had a prior domestic violence charge.

A recent U.S. Supreme court decision recognized the dangerous connection between domestic violence perpetrators and gun violence and maintained prevention efforts previously put in place by Congress. On June 27, 2016, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of limiting gun ownership and possession for domestic violence perpetrators. The Court’s strong stance came as a relief to victims of domestic violence and women’s advocates across the country because of its implications for the safety of victims. The Supreme Court effectively conveyed that it had no intention of drawing a line between reckless and intentional acts of violence, focusing not on the intent of the abuser, but on the abuser’s actual or attempted use of force.

More than a decade ago, in 1994, Congress enacted a law prohibiting individuals found guilty of a felony from owning or possessing guns. Nonetheless, most domestic violence perpetrators were slipping through the cracks because domestic violence crimes are often charged as, or pleaded down to, misdemeanors. To bridge the gap, Congress amended the law in 1996 to read that any person guilty of a “misdemeanor crime of domestic violence” is prohibited from owning or possessing a gun. (A MCDV requires that: (1) the person was convicted of a misdemeanor under federal, state, or tribal law; (2) the crime was committed against a domestic relation; and (3) the perpetrator used or attempted to use physical force, or threatened the use of a deadly weapon against the victim.)

However, domestic violence gun laws are not uniform throughout the states, which is where the recent Supreme Court case,  Voisine v. United States, comes into play.  In that case, two petitioners in Maine were charged with violating federal law by possessing guns following misdemeanor domestic violence convictions. The two men argued that they were exempt from these charges because Maine’s law criminalized “reckless” domestic violence which, according to the petitioners, did not qualify as “use of physical force.” Instead, the petitioners claimed “reckless” implied the conduct was accidental. They believed that a reckless act of violence―as opposed to a malicious act of violence―was not grounds to lose their right to bear arms. The Court disagreed, stating it does not matter whether a person acted intentionally or recklessly―so long as the person willfully exerted a force that the person knew was substantially likely to cause harm. As such, not only did the Supreme Court uphold the federal law, but it further clarified that the gun prohibition was intended to reach to domestic violence perpetrators across the country, despite variations in state statutory language.

Citing previous jurisprudence and congressional intent in its ruling, it is apparent that the Supreme Court felt strongly about the dangers of domestic violence perpetrators owning guns.

As seen in the examples referenced above, there is a strong link between mass shootings and domestic violence. Domestic violence abusers are statistically two to ten times more likely to commit violent crimes with guns than the average gun-owner.

In addition, domestic violence perpetrators’ access to guns increases the lethality in domestic violence situations. A recent Huffington Post study revealed that in January of this year alone, 112 people in the United States died as a result of domestic violence. Not surprisingly, guns were involved in more than half of the deaths. Domestic violence perpetrators are five times more likely to kill someone in a domestic violence incident when a gun is present. Although not perfect, laws criminalizing gun possession for domestic violence perpetrators have the ability to decrease the amount of gun-related domestic violence homicides by upwards of 25 percent.

But laws are not enough; we need to do more to limit access to guns. For example, this struggle plays out in Minnesota where, since 2013, it has banned domestic violence perpetrators from owning guns. Nonetheless, each year guns are still involved in more than half of domestic violence homicides in the state, and in 2015, 37 percent of these homicides were executed by men who were legally prohibited from possessing guns.

Despite where people stand when it comes to the Second Amendment, it is clear that individuals with a history of domestic violence are statistically more likely to commit acts of violence in the future and that guns substantially increase the lethality of domestic violence incidents. It is imperative that access to guns be limited for domestic violence perpetrators both on paper and in practice.

By: Rachel Pence, a summer intern with The Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program and a student at the University of San Diego School of Law.