Friday, May 1, 2015

A Mother's Fight

Rachelle (left) with her partner,
Angela VanHoose
With all the progress we’ve made for LGBT equality in Washington, I didn’t think I’d be treated any differently in my divorce because of my sexual orientation. But I was wrong.

After nearly 20 years of marriage to my former husband and having three beautiful children, I filed for divorce last year because I realized that I am a lesbian.

Even though I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for more than 15 years—for my children’s entire lives—the court gave primary custody of our children to their father, and now I have my children only a few days every other week. The court also restricted me from talking to my children about homosexuality, religion, or other “alternative lifestyle concepts” unless I obtained specific approval for each conversation from their counselor.

Legal Voice, with the help of attorneys at the Perkins Coie law firm, is representing me in my appeal of this ruling. I am so grateful for their advocacy and support, and I am asking—on behalf of all individuals facing discrimination—for your support.

Please make a gift to Legal Voice during GiveBIG on Tuesday, May 5th. They are working to change the system so that no one else has to go through what my children, my partner, and I are going through. During this time when Legal Voice is supporting me, I hope you, in turn, will support them.

- Rachelle Black, Legal Voice Client

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Legal Voice Self Help Committee:
Seattle's Best Kept Secret

By Lauren Akamine
Last spring, I was in the market for a muse. Late nights with Jon Stewart were not sufficient anymore and as a potential JD candidate about to take the plunge, I was in dire need of an overdose on motivation. My firm announced that we had two tickets left for an event, “Cocktails for a Cause.” Of course I was in. Networking with social justice champions and feasting on delectable hors d’oeuvres? Painting the town with likeminded individuals was the mental stimulation I had been craving.

Upon arriving to the event, I grabbed a crab cake and parked myself in front of a giant orange screen that read, “Women’s rights, nothing less.” At that moment, I knew I was going to be a part of a leading movement. For the rest of the night, I sat and looked up at the guest speakers in awe. Where did these women come from? Where does one find that kind of eloquent confidence? How do these women remain so hopeful in the face of the constant onslaught on women’s rights? Where has Legal Voice been all my life?!

I recently celebrated my one year anniversary as part of the Legal Voice family. I am currently a proud member of the Self Help Committee, a diverse group of social justice superheroes comprised of, but not limited to, attorneys, paralegals, and law students. We meet tucked away above The Paramount Theatre at the Legal Voice headquarters on the second Wednesday of every month. As Self Help Committee members we discuss issues on proposed court ruling with legislative advocacy staff, identify legal needs through community outreach, and increase access to legal information for the general public. The meetings are informal, usually accompanied with fresh fruit, old Halloween candy, and riveting dialogue about Legal Voice’s latest work.

What I didn’t anticipate was how much this small-scale committee contributes to the people of Washington State and to the mission of Legal Voice. From specific issues facing victims of violence (Hearing Guidelines for a Domestic Violence Protection Order – “You can do it without a lawyer!”) to basic information about lawyers (Working With a Lawyer  – yes, that phone call to your lawyer just cost you $50!) to estate planning and end-of-life issues (After a Death Occurs - a Checklist  – a vital collection of information for a very stressful time, excerpted from another example of dedicated committee work, the Handbook for Washington Seniors: Legal Rights and Resources.) As a contributing editor to the Self Help materials—available in the Tools to Help You section of the website—I discovered so much about issues that I had never considered before such as Basic Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples and Leave from Work for Victims of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Stalking (a right brought to you by Legal Voice!)

From this experience I began to understand why so many people required legal help. The law is an entity that we interact with every day. However as citizens, we often fear the law and perceive its complexity as a restrictive force. In reality, the law is in place to protect and enhance our rights. This is why the determined efforts of the Self Help Committee are so important. Our mission to enhance the general public’s access to the law enables citizens to find solutions to their legal issues and, in turn, increases their understanding of the law and how it can help them.

What I enjoy most about being part of the Self Help Committee are the people. I have never encountered so much passion in one room from so many different backgrounds, genders, and age groups. I like to think organizations like this are where people like Shirin Ebadi and Madeleine Albright first started: a small room, good ideas, and profound generosity. If the riveting conversations aren’t enough for you, consider joining for the unlimited smiles, the fulfilling work, and the old Halloween candy. Welcome to Seattle’s best kept secret. You won’t regret it.


Lauren Akamine is a paralegal for MacDonald Hoague & Bayless by day, and a Legal Voice feminista by night. She hopes to be accepted to law school soon so she can finally spread her wings and abandon cubicle life.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Survivor Stories:
Education, Entertainment,
or Public Investigation?

Law & Order: SVU Rips Story From Dozens of Campus Rape Headlines
By Alex Kory

Including the voices and real life experiences of survivors can personalize issues like domestic violence and sexual assault in ways that statistics cannot. Stories educate, inspire, and connect people. Because of this, survivor stories are frequently told on the news, at public events, and even in movies and television. But has our demand for survivor stories come at the expense of survivors themselves?

While some survivors choose to share their stories on their own accord, many others are approached with speaking opportunities or interview requests. When I worked as a domestic violence advocate it was not uncommon to get inquiries from media or event planners looking for a survivor to share her story; Legal Voice, too, frequently receives similar requests. As advocates, we can help survivors decide whether to share her story by weighing the intent of a request against the impact on the survivor. In the end, the survivor is our number one priority.

But in other circumstances, that isn’t the case. Even with seemingly good intentions, education can quickly become exploitation by journalists, event planners, or panel moderators who are simply looking for the shocking details. Survivors may face disbelief in their stories or be pressed for explanations of very intimate, personal, and traumatizing events. Put on the spot, survivors may not have prepared for certain questions or considered the potential impacts of taking their story public.

Journalists who report on violence against women have to balance the demand for stories with scrupulous fact-checking. In the aftermath of Rolling Stone’s discredited story on an alleged gang-rape at University of Virginia, journalists are even wearier of believing a survivor’s own words. And as more stories are reported, including stories that become discredited, the public is weighing in on the issue in disturbing ways—playing out the role of investigator and adjudicator in news article comment sections and on social media.

Survivor stories that are told without the input or permission of the survivor can create risk, unwanted attention, and scrutiny for the survivor. I cannot count the number of times I saw the video of Janay Rice (Editor’s note: link does not take you to actual video) being dragged unconscious out of an elevator—not once because I sought it out. When she did decide to speak about her experience to ESPN, over 650 people weighed in in the comments section, with varying degrees of victim-blaming and misogyny.

It becomes even more problematic when we try to reconcile the demand for survivor stories in the news and at public events with the entertainment industry’s use of violence against women. While some stories are told to educate and engage people, others employ violence against women solely and indisputably for the purpose of entertainment. The wildly successful Law and Order: SVU—a show that dramatizes, reenacts, and profits off of stolen sexual violence survivor stories—has been feeding our insatiable desire for “real-life” survivor stories for over 16 years. And like the entertainment industry, most news media outlets are also driven by profits, which can lead to sensationalist reporting, gratuitous violence, and even highly sexualized depictions of victims and survivors.

Survivor stories at public events such as conferences, fundraisers, and even hearings on proposed legislation allow for live interaction between survivors and the audience, opening up the dialogue in critical ways. But it also creates the potential for invasive questions or offensive assertions by people assessing credibility, judging stories, and picking out the survivor’s mistakes. All of this may leave survivors feeling exhausted, angry, and exploited.

The goal of sharing survivor stories should be to empower women affected by violence and inspire others to take action against it. But when survivors are scrutinized, blamed, and used for entertainment, we’re only adding to the myriad reasons for the gross underreporting of rape and domestic violence.

So how can we engage with survivor stories in a way that is respectful, educational, healing, and empowering? There is no bright line rule and we can’t always anticipate the full impact of sharing a survivor story. But we can take steps to carefully consider the survivor speaker, the audience, and the purpose.
  1. Survivor speaker: Choosing a speaker should be done thoughtfully. As an advocate at an emergency domestic violence shelter, I always turned down requests from people seeking survivors to speak because my clients were homeless and living in crisis, and often in the process of seeking legal protection or child custody. Survivors should be given space first before being asked to take their story public, and should not be asked to decide immediately. The survivor should be able to choose her own identifiers or labels, if any (i.e. dv survivor, victim of trafficking, etc.) and should be able to decide beforehand what topics will be discussed.
  2. Audience: The particular audience may impact who the speaker is, what topics will be covered, and whether the audience will be able to engage with the speaker or not. Some survivors may be invigorated by speaking to potentially hostile or uninformed audiences like lawmakers or batterers groups. Others may prefer sympathetic audiences already knowledgeable about and committed to ending violence against women.
  3. Purpose: Generally, survivor stories should be shared with some intention of educating people about the problem of gender-based violence and inspiring them to take action—rather than to entertain or instill fear. It may also be important to consider whether the story is put into context, related to larger societal issue, or accompanied by a discussion of the root problems and possible solutions, or a call to action.
Public speaking is scary enough. Asking a survivor to share a traumatic story with strangers should always be facilitated with care and respect. For more insight, check out the Survivor’s Guide to Public Speaking by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.


Alex Kory is an intern at Legal Voice and 4 short weeks away from graduation. She is a Scholar for Justice at Seattle University School of Law; and like a true north westerner, she camps in the rain.

Photo courtesy of Jezebel (Gawker Media).

Monday, March 16, 2015

My Dreams


By Sun Huijun

My dreams have been changing as the time goes by. The dreams before I came to Seattle were to expand my global vision and change my lifestyle. I made it. Now, one of my new dreams is to take action to protect women’s rights. 

I have worked as a practice attorney since 2008 in China. At that time, no more than 20% of attorneys were female at my former law firm. I worked hard, so I was considered as a tomboy. One of my co-workers thought that it was hard for a female lawyer to get married. “Why?” I asked. She said lawyers’ professional characteristics made you have stronger opinion. Generally, Chinese men would not like to have a wife who is stronger than him. I kept silent. I did not want to argue about the topic.

I decided to come to the U.S. to study a new culture, including the language, business practices, and legal system. On the first day of 2013, I arrived in Seattle, and my status changed from a lawyer to a student. My lifestyle was totally changed. I enjoy the studying experiences here. By studying and traveling in the U.S., I not only have achieved my former dreams, but also added one more dream—to do something related to protecting women’s rights. I decided to take action to accomplish this new dream. Legal Voice inspired me.

On February 4, 2015, when I was on the way to volunteer with Legal Voice, I read a story on a Chinese news website about the first lawsuit in China about terminating parental rights. The Court made the decision because the facts of the case were extremely horrible: a father abused and raped his 11-year-old daughter. I was emotional when I read the report—how hard of a time the girl will confront in the future! The girl’s mother, who has mental issues, is divorced from her father and remarried to another man. Her father was sentenced to go to prison. Her neighbor would like to foster her, but the government is still considering if it is suitable for her to live there. I can’t imagine how hard it will be for this little girl to heal.

I want to emphasize that this is the first lawsuit in China about terminating parental rights, and it didn’t happen until just this year. Similarly, China still does not have a sound legal mechanism against domestic violence, though the first anti-domestic violence law is supposed to be issued this August. In reality, when someone is suffering from domestic violence, it is so hard to get the protection from the police. If she/he calls the police, usually, she/he receives the answer “That is your family issue, we cannot deal with that.” Or “That is not our business, but you can sue and go to court.” 

Compare with the lawsuit case I read at Legal Voice about terminating parental rights. A woman who had suffered from domestic violence lost custody of her children due to, among other reasons, her “poor partner choice” and because “her history as a victim of domestic violence put the children at risk.” This means her status as a domestic violence survivor was used against her. Legal Voice got involved with the appeal of this case because, if she loses custody of her children, other women may not dare to call the police when they suffer domestic violence. Because they may be afraid of having their parental rights terminated, too.

I saw the above two cases on the same day. I did some research then. I saw the big legal gaps in protecting women’s rights and against domestic violence in China. There are some legal provisions related to protecting women’s rights, but they are general principles. Women need more specific laws to outline their protections. This is a serious issue. We cannot just wait for the legislature to make laws to protect women’s rights—we can get involved. 

These two cases made me think of another case I took before I came to Seattle, and the first time I wanted to do something to protect women’s rights. Before I came to Seattle, a client came to my office. She was 30 years old and looked very nice. She was educated and was an accountant. She wanted to divorce. I asked her to introduce her situation. She could not help crying. After she became calm, she told me that her husband showed how he loved her before they got married, and even after they married. But that changed when she had their daughter. He wanted to have a son. His parents wanted to have a grandson instead of granddaughter. He did not care for their daughter and did not live at home anymore. I couldn’t help but wonder how many women were suffering the same thing in China. What could I do to protect women’s rights, including my own? I took the case and tried my best to help her and her daughter. She divorced her husband, and now lives with her mother and her daughter. 

I wanted to do something to protect women’s rights, but I felt alone at that time. But now I know that I am not alone: a lot of people are striving to protect women’s rights. So now, when I go back to China, I want to do more research, let more people know which rights women have, join the women’s federation, take pro bono cases related to women’s rights, and more. 

I know it is a long journey, but I will keep going on. When I do this, I know I am not alone. Thousands of people are doing the same thing: protecting women’s rights. Dream will come true; equality will win.


Sun Huijun works at Yingke Law Firm as a partner attorney. She came to Seattle to study at University of Washington. During her studying, she volunteers at Legal Voice as an intern.

Photo courtesy of Sun Huijun.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Support Mothers, Support TANF

By Joshua Turnham

The Great Recession of the 21st Century hit everyone hard, but many people continue to struggle in the recovering economy. Poverty has grown in Washington every year since 2008—now over 14%—and the state is one of only three with rising rates of both poverty and income inequality. One of the (many) problems with our beloved capitalist society is that many people get left behind; this is why we have created various social safety nets to help people that do not benefit from the capitalist successes that others enjoy. Washington State currently has more than 288,000 kids living in poverty, yet the state has drastically cut funding to one of the most important safety nets for kids and families who have fallen on tough times: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

TANF is a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people—particularly women—who struggle on a daily basis to clothe, house, and feed their children. About half of TANF recipients are single-parent families, primarily led by single mothers who need financial assistance caring for their children so they can find or keep jobs. But the current grant amount of $478 per month (for a family of three) is nowhere near enough to help families cover the necessities: the cost of some of the most basic needs—rent, heat, transportation, and health care—has increased statewide by an average of 46% since 2001. Meanwhile, the value of the grant has decreased by 34% percent, thanks in large part to the 15% legislative cut in 2011. Between that enormous cut and the state underspending each year, TANF has been cut, directly and indirectly, by $610 million since 2009, forcing more than 20,000 families off the program and resulting in nearly 55,000 fewer people receiving TANF funds in 2014 than in 2009.

As with most other benefits provided to citizens, various barriers have been erected to separate the supposed deserving from the undeserving poor. With TANF, one significant barrier is the work requirement. In Washington, TANF takes form in the WorkFirst program, through which only those who are actively seeking work are eligible to receive help with feeding their children. Putting aside for a moment the fact that—despite the economic rebound—finding and holding a job is still very difficult for many people, this false dichotomy between who deserves TANF and who does not ignores those whom TANF is supposed to help: the children. Clich├ęs abound on how children are the future, they are always the innocent victims, and how they can’t choose their circumstances, so why do we create barriers for kids to get the resources they need to succeed?

Poverty alone creates huge barriers for young people, especially girls, and TANF is one of the tools we use to help young girls who face these barriers to have equal opportunity and to thrive. For example, several studies show that kids in the child welfare system experience pregnancy, child bearing, and STIs at much higher rates than the overall population of young people. Girls aged 17 and 18 in foster care are twice as likely to be pregnant than their peers in the general population. Young people in poverty who come into contact with the juvenile criminal justice system are more likely than their more affluent peers to be found guilty of delinquency. Unfortunately, girls are coming into contact with police and the justice system at higher rates than ever before, and once a young person has been incarcerated, she often can become stuck in a cycle of poverty and criminalization. If we continue to shortchange kids, we are only going to see more poverty and more kids in jail.

The Washington State legislature is currently considering a bill that would expand TANF eligibility. As of now, a person who receives TANF can remain eligible if they are participating in vocational training or education, but only up to one year—HB 1875 would double that time to two years. The bill has passed the House with 90 votes for and only 6 votes against and is pending in the Senate. This is a nice first step, but if the State only expands the pool of people who are eligible for TANF without increasing overall funding, even this bill will be, unfortunately, a hollow victory. Therefore, it is critical that we continue to encourage and pressure the legislature to support increased funding for TANF.

Join the conversation on Twitter using #84amonth—representative of the $84 in monthly funds that were eliminated in the 2011 cut—to see how you can get involved.



Joshua Turnham is a legal intern at Legal Voice and is in his last semester at Seattle University School of Law. He continues to be awed by blindness to systemic inequality.


Photo courtesy of CIA DE FOTO.