On October 13, LAW and OUTLaws co-hosted “Mapping Dimensions of Abuse,” a discussion exploring the roles of race, class, culture, and sexual orientation in domestic violence. Professor Elizabeth Schneider, a nationally recognized expert in women’s rights and domestic violence, moderated panelists Andrew Sta. Ana, a staff attorney at Sanctuary for Families’ LGBT Initiative, and Lisa Rivera, Associate Director of the Matrimonial and Family Law Unit at New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG).
Sta. Ana and Rivera began by describing the similar work they do at their respective organizations. Both Sanctuary for Families and NYLAG provide legal assistance to domestic violence victims and their families in matters that range from divorce proceedings and child support to housing aid and immigration assistance. Rivera often works with lower income women, while Sta. Ana primarily represents gay, lesbian, and transgender victims.
Professor Schneider followed with a list of questions submitted by the student group hosts and other students in the audience to serve as starting points for the speakers’ discussion. Both panelists stressed the importance of taking culturally sensitive approaches with their clients. Rivera explained that certain groups—particularly women of color, LGBT individuals, and immigrants—are more vulnerable to domestic violence due to additional cultural obstacles that make them more hesitant to report abuse. She noted in particular, that women whose conservative religions forbid divorce and LGBT victims who have not yet come out to their families fall into this category. In cases such as these, where clients may not have support from family or friends to leave their batterers, Rivera said there is a time when a NYLAG or Sanctuary for Family attorney must “take off your lawyer hat and put on your social worker hat.”
While these organizations are well versed in culturally competent communication, Sta. Ana also expressed the need for ongoing cultural sensitivity training for police officers, judges, clerks, court officers, and many others who interact with domestic violence victims in legal settings. “There are 15 minutes of training to explain, ‘This is a trans person,’ but it’s not ongoing. It’s not enough. We need to ask: where is the breakdown and disconnect between language and policy and the police?” The courtroom can also be a difficult setting for vulnerable domestic violence victims. Rivera shared anecdotes of court officers mocking her transgendered clients or clients with language barriers. Sta. Ana added that incidents like those underline the importance of “advocating for spaces to self-identify.”
Both Sta. Ana and Rivera discussed the lack of interconnectivity among social needs organizations. Much of the work related to domestic violence extends beyond filing restraining orders and prosecuting abusers. Sanctuary for Families and NYLAG also assist clients with finding new housing, acquiring food stamps or welfare, or handling immigration paperwork, despite not necessarily having expertise in those areas. “We always wish there was more teaming up with other community focused groups,” said Rivera.
Kathryn Hensley ’13, co-chair of OUTLaws, agreed with the value of identifying the cultural impact of a victim’s experience of abuse and how the community as a whole can provide assistance. “Developing an understanding of these complex issues helps attorneys to develop more holistic, contextualized legal and non-legal responses to intimate partner violence,” she said. Her remarks and those of the speakers further demonstrated Professor Schneider’s closing comment that “lawyering is not just about litigation.”