Speaking of Women's Rights...

Thursday, June 1, 2017

My Legal Voice Journey: Maddy Rasmussen on Her Internship & Creating The Safe Place Project

By Maddy Rasmussen

When I started at Legal Voice in the fall of 2015, I was filled with a level of excitement that nearly overran my whole body. I was immensely excited and proud to be involved with an organization that played a role in aiding all women. I knew when walking in that I wanted to make an impact on women in some way. I never realized exactly how much of an impact my project would make.

I would sit in on the staff meetings every Tuesday and I was able to hear about cases that Legal Voice was representing and discussions about news stories regarding women's rights. However, the one issue that always stuck out to me was access to reproductive healthcare, specifically abortion.

After many months of hearing about the issue and doing plenty of research on my own, I wanted to find a way to help women be able to find abortion clinics near them. In my junior year, I created a very rough google map pin pointing abortion clinics. When I reached my senior year, I wanted to be able to do something with this research. With abortion clinics and funds for abortion dwindling, the need for a resource like mine grew daily. After many weeks of brainstorming, I realized that the best possible way to present all of my information would be through a website, rather than making my map a public entity. And thus, the idea for The Safe Place Project was born.

The first few months were quite difficult. On the eve of an incoming president who was firmly opposed to abortion, I became afraid that my resource could be used against me and that I could potentially face the future that some abortion providers have to face daily.

There were days where I wanted to give up. Building a website and compiling all the data was no easy task, but I moved forward knowing that if my website was able to even help one woman, my whole project will have been worth it.

I am so proud of the project I’ve created, and so thankful to Legal Voice and Cedar River Clinics for supporting me. The Safe Place Project has already received such positive and powerful feedback from others in the reproductive health access community. Some of them are even interested in helping me keep this site going! I’ve learned so much in my two years with Legal Voice—about women’s rights, abortion access, even about myself—and I know I will continue to learn and grow as I head to college.

Please visit The Safe Place Project at www.safeplaceproject.com and let me know if you have any feedback! You can reach me at contactsafeplaceproject.com.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Fear as a Barrier: Why Immigrant Victims of Violence Can’t Access the Justice They Deserve

By Sara Ainsworth

In recognition of Asian Pacific American Heritage month, Legal Voice has teamed up with the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence to highlight the impact of anti-immigrant policies on immigrant survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

The Northwest states are home to more than a million immigrants, many of whom are Asian American and Pacific Islander. Advocates from API communities – a diverse group facing diverse disparities – have led the way in promoting state and federal policies to make it safer for immigrant survivors of abuse to report the abuse against them and seek the protection of the courts.

But new federal anti-immigration policies – including raids, increased arrests, and targeting immigrants with no criminal history – threaten to undo decades of work to help survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault go to the police for help when they are in danger.

A nationwide survey of legal programs and domestic violence agencies, published last month, found that fears of reporting to the police were up a shocking 78% among immigrant survivors of domestic violence. Today NPR reported on this survey in a story about Latino immigrants in Texas fearing deportation if they reported crimes. As the NPR story noted, these fears are particularly harmful to victims of gender-based violence; in Houston, for example, sexual assault reporting by Latina immigrants is down 43% from last year. In a related report, a Denver prosecutor described having to drop four domestic violence prosecutions after the travel ban was signed in January – all four victims were immigrants who feared they would be taken by immigration authorities at the courthouse if they testified against their abusers.

Punishing immigrant victims for coming forward means violent abusers can continue to threaten, harm, and intimidate their victims. It creates a two-tiered system of justice, where only some of our communities are protected.

How you can help:
  • Call your city council members, wherever you are, and demand that law enforcement and other public officials not inquire about immigration status. 
    • Here's a script: "Victims of violence should not have to fear being deported or separated from their families when seeking help and justice. But countless immigrant survivors are living in fear of just that. When local police collaborate with immigration enforcement, victims are discouraged from seeking safety and cooperating with the criminal legal system. Please pass policies barring local officials from inquiring about victims and witnesses’ immigration status.”
  • Contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and demand that they stay away from courthouses
  • Support the organizations that are moving this critical work forward: 

Photo courtesy of Janko Ferlic | Unsplash

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Doing What it Takes: Maresa's Perseverance and Journey to Legal Voice

By Phil Bouie

“I don’t like when people refer to me as being a strong mom. I’m just doing whatever I need to do to provide for and protect my children. I signed up for this when I became a mother.” 

– Maresa Harden

Maresa Harden had been in a relationship with the father of her children for several years before things took a turn for the worse. He became violent, verbally abusive, and would use intimidation tactics such as breaking her cellphone as an attempt to subjugate her. Maresa’s former partner began using their children as a tool of spite. He would withhold the children from her, sporadically change the times when they were picked up and dropped off, continuously be inconsistent about his availability and conceal information about his visits with the children. He felt he could get away with this blatant lack of accountability because she didn’t have an official parenting plan.

Even though the Washington State Parenting Act helps protect domestic violence survivors and ensure a safe and healthy upbringing for their children by requiring certain restrictions on the abused parent, domestic violence survivors are routinely told to “work it out” through a divorce or custody case. It’s also very common for survivors to be wrongfully granted short-term protection orders rather than a long-term order that suits the situation appropriately. Legal Voice works in Olympia to pass strong laws to protect survivors, but creating those laws is only the first step. We monitor Washington courts to ensure those laws are being followed properly.

Maresa could not afford a lawyer. She was unsure and somewhat frightened of how the process would play out. Could she put her trust in the courts to do the right thing for her and her children? Maresa went to the Pierce County court to file for a temporary parenting plan and found out that she could not put her full trust in the judicial system. The judge granted Maresa a temporary parenting plan and acknowledged her former partner’s history of domestic violence. However, the judge refused to include the father’s history of domestic violence in the court documents. The judge claimed that the charge would “follow him around like some ghost.”

Unsatisfied with the court’s decision, Maresa determined that she needed legal representation if she were to file an appeal.

Legal Voice represented Maresa in her appeal of the parenting plan, arguing that the trial court’s error removed a critical protection created by Washington law. The court’s initial decision left Maresa and her children at risk of further abuse. The decision also left communication guidelines between Maresa and her abuser unresolved. The Court of Appeals agreed with us, reversing the trial court’s decision and demanding a new parenting plan that included restrictions on the father’s decision-making and custody time.

Although the trauma of being a domestic violence survivor is something that never fully subsides, Maresa and her children have persevered, continued to move forward, and are doing well. Maresa recently got a job in her children’s school district that gives her work hours that are more compatible with the lives of her children. Maresa’s oldest daughter is involved with several sports teams and participating in a program for excellent students. She is one of three students that was selected from each school in the district that will have an opportunity to meet with Mayor Jim Ferrell of Federal Way as part of a Communities in School fundraising event. Maresa’s youngest daughter has had perfect attendance for the entire school year while excelling in all of her classes, and has recently earned a student of the month award.

“Legal Voice made it financially possible for this to happen. It wasn’t an option without them,” said Maresa when I met with her recently to discuss her case. “The way that David [Ward] approaches things, his demeanor and his professionalism are awesome.

“I want people to know there are organizations like Legal Voice that fight will for you and victims experiencing trauma in Washington State. I want to thank Legal Voice and the donors and supporters of Legal Voice who made this all possible.” Fighting for Maresa has allowed her family to focus on life and achieve success.

Phil Bouie is the Development Officer for Legal Voice. He is inspired by Maresa's story and urges you to participate in GiveBIG to support this ongoing, critical work.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Empowering Survivors to Achieve Justice: Meet Legal Voice's Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup

An Interview with Olivia Ortiz

Like most nonprofit organizations, Legal Voice relies on the generosity and enthusiasm of our amazing volunteers. One way members of our community help advance our work is through our policy workgroups and committees, where volunteers give their time and expertise to advance the law, defend existing protections, and educate people in the Northwest about their rights.

In observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we asked a few questions of Olivia Ortiz from our Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup to learn more about the important work this group is doing. Read on!

Legal Voice: Who makes up the Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup, and what is the group's goal?

Olivia: The Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup is a diverse group of lawyers, students, advocates, and recent grads all working to one goal: empowering student survivors of sexual violence with knowledge of their rights. Sexual assault is devastating, and has a huge impact on access to education. When you're trying to balance school with just trying to survive, it is hard to know what to do, let alone figure out and research what long and confusing policy means. Survivors deserve an education and deserve justice, whatever that may mean to them, and we are here to help.

Legal Voice: How is the workgroup working toward this goal?

Olivia: Our group is creating an easy-to-access online Know Your Rights guide for students in each state of the Pacific Northwest to access in times of crisis. This guide breaks down state and federal laws in a way students can access and empower themselves in different scenarios following sexual assault. Whether that means preparing for a school hearing, going through the criminal process, or learning what accommodations are available for attending class, we've got you covered. We want this guide to be an intersectional one, including rights and concerns particular to undocumented students, LGBTQ students, disabled students, and students of color. We will release our Washington State guide soon, with guides for other Pacific Northwest states to come.

Legal Voice: Can you tell us about your background and what led you to join this workgroup?

Olivia: While I was in college, I noticed my university had sexual assault policies that were difficult to understand and that were not being enforced in the letter nor spirit of Title IX. I decided to take action and create a survivor advocacy group on campus. One of our very first projects was to create a similar resource guide for students on our campus, and we eventually pushed our administration to create a more streamlined process with an easy-to-understand website to go with it. When I heard that Legal Voice was doing a similar project for students in each state of the Pacific Northwest, I was excited to find another, similar way to continue my efforts after graduation. I am passionate about empowering survivors to achieve justice, and I firmly believe that being able to attend and fully participate in school can be one of those ways.

Legal Voice: Why do you think it is so hard to turn the tide on campus sexual assault?

Olivia: Sexual assault is a huge barrier to getting an education, and all students deserve to go to school where they can learn free from sexual violence. If a student survives sexual assault, schools must do their job to make sure that the survivor is still able to fully participate in classes, student jobs, extracurricular activities, and any other school-sponsored event. Much of the difficulty in turning the tide is the unwillingness to listen to what survivors need to feel able to access their education and then act upon it. Whether that be congresspeople introducing misguided bills forcing schools to report to the police, or schools not honoring survivors requests for accommodations or inclusion in influencing campus policy, survivors are often left unheard. In order to change our culture, we must meaningfully listen to survivors and ensure they are leading these efforts.

Legal Voice: April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In your opinion, what are some of the biggest misconceptions about sexual assault?
Olivia: Two of the greatest myths that I've encountered is that sexual assault doesn't happen at one's institution and that it does not happen frequently. Sexual assault affects people of all identities and particularly the most marginalized. Sexual assault happens at large institutions and small institutions, for-profit and non-profit, religious and non-denominational, and public and private. Although it is convenient to brush these things aside, we must accept this reality in order to change it.

Legal Voice: How can students help get the word out about the upcoming Know Your Rights guide?

Olivia: Our guide is a living document for students, and thus is very much open to student and survivor feedback. We want this guide to be a tool for students and it is really important that we tailor our guide for their interests and needs. And, of course, we could use student help publicizing the guide. We would love for students to bring us to their campus to discuss the guide, or have students reach out to their campus wellness centers or other important partners to distribute our guides.

If you are interested in bringing the Legal Voice Campus Sexual Assault Workgroup to your school or have ideas on how you can help promote the Know Your Rights guide, please contact us!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Interconnected Parts of Me: Deepening Intersectionality for Women’s Liberation

By Anonymous
Trigger warning: racism, sexual assault, child sexual assault

Every year around this time I get sick. I can’t sleep, my eating schedule is off, I am no longer in touch with my body, and I constantly feel vulnerable. This year, I was hoping that something would be different because a decade has passed. I thought that I could “celebrate” my growth and strength as a survivor of racialized sexual assault. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

Sexual assault in the United States is far more common than most people realize. It happens in the workplace, with acquaintances, walking on the street, in the home, and everywhere one could imagine. Many women report feeling rape anxiety—a feeling of impending sexual assault—during normal daily activities. This invisible fear may become evident when a woman lashes out at a “hey beautiful” comment or unwanted physical contact, such as a stranger’s hand around her waist in a crowd.

Personally, I feel rape anxiety when I am around racists. Racism is a huge trigger for my anxiety because my sexual assault may have been racially motivated. I was raped by a racist who actively hated immigrants, people of different religions, and anyone non-white. No one can know if that is what caused him to take out his rage against me in such a dehumanizing way, but I suspect that motivated the attack.

Ten years later, I still feel sick when I hear “harmless” racist jokes because I never know if that racism could be directed at me in a dangerous way. I experience all the fears that white women do in public and walking down the street, but I also feel an added layer of fear because of my skin tone. Even though I’m a successful, independent adult, I am still acutely aware that I am no safer now than I was as a high school sophomore. The weight of this vulnerability is constant and deep.

Racialized sexual harassment and assault is common for women of color and is even more widespread for transgender women, gender nonconforming people, and disabled women of color. But why does it commonly go unaddressed when we talk about women’s issues? And why do some groups avoid it when they talk about systemic racism? Women’s rights organizations must fight for racial justice or acknowledge that they only fight for white women. As a woman of color, I see no compromise on this issue.

I admire Legal Voice greatly for their willingness and effort to change the conversation from sexual assault as imagined from a white perspective to a more comprehensive view of the issue. I’m glad that they have chosen to participate in the Black Lives Matter march this weekend, and that they are learning from people of color-led organizations. Unfortunately, they had to cancel the sign-making event for the Black Lives Matter march due to lack of interest. This was not the case with the sign-making event for the women’s march. My hope is that Legal Voice and their supporters will show up for communities of color with the same love and enthusiasm as they have shown other movements.

As someone who has suffered from both racism and sexual assault, both independently and together, I can say that I do not feel more connected to my gender identity than my racial identity. I feel them both as interconnected parts of me—the same applies to my queer identity and my multiple privileges. I experience the world as one human being who lives at the intersection of various identities.

Just because I am a minority* and a woman, does that mean my sexual assault does not matter because it was racially motivated? I hope you would say, “Of course not!” Then it should require no leap in logic to fight for people of color with the same enthusiasm that you fight for women’s rights. Each person with a marginalized identity has a window into others’ experiences with discrimination. While this does not mean they have a mirror into that discrimination, it should be enough to hold empathy for women of all races, abilities, religions, and citizenship status. Our experiences may not be the same, but our movements must be united.

* I am a racial minority in the United States. It is important to acknowledge that women of color are in the global majority.

Photo credit: Tachina Lee