Author: Julie Goldscheid


Civil rights and gender violence redux

A recent post reminds readers that the 2000 decision in U.S. v. Morrison, in which the Supreme Court struck the 1994 civil rights remedy enacted as part of the first Violence Against Women Act, eliminated a valuable remedy that held promise for survivors of gender violence.  The post is correct that the civil rights remedy might have provided a remedy for the survivor in a recent rape case out of Maryville, Missouri, in which the prosecutors dropped charges.  Indeed, while the civil rights remedy was in effect, it afforded relief for numerous survivors, in cases involving both domestic violence and sexual assault.  A number of states laws still afford similar relief, some through laws providing civil remedies for survivors of gender violence that were enacted in response to the Morrison decision.  These laws should be used whenever possible to provide compensation to survivors and to help shift enduring notions about “legitimate” rape, ideas that victims ask for abuse and lie about complaints, and other antiquated and discredited but nevertheless enduring stereotypes.

The loss of the civil rights remedy in Morrison need not mean the loss of civil rights advocacy for survivors of gender violence.  Instead, we might think expansively about how to use existing remedies and how to develop new arguments and strategies.  For example, recent efforts leverage civil rights laws to challenge law enforcement’s under-responsiveness as well as over-responsiveness to gender violence claims.

Civil rights campaigns should be conceived broadly; although the 1994 civil rights remedy took the form of a private right of action, civil rights strategies can address a range of inequities.  The case of Marissa Alexander, comes to mind.  She was convicted in Florida of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, for firing what she described as a warning shot intended to make her husband, who had a documented history of violence, stop his threats and abuse.  In stark contrast to George Zimmerman, she was not afforded immunity under Florida’s “stand your ground” law.  The case was appealed, and the appellate court ordered a retrial, based on its conclusion that the trial court’s jury instructions on self-defense were erroneous (the court rejected her arguments that she should receive immunity under the “stand your ground” law).  Advocates are calling on the prosecution, to drop the charges entirely.

Civil rights violations take a range of forms and require a range of responses.  A combination of legal advocacy and grassroots organizing, even in the face of setbacks, holds the potential to advance the promise the 1994 civil rights remedy held, and to promote justice for survivors.


Victim compensation: different visions for different victims

This month’s deadline for filing claims with the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (the “Fund”), has caused me to review how victim compensation has evolved since Congress created the Fund in 2001, in response to the World Trade Center attacks.  The Fund responded to widespread sympathy toward survivors and surviving family members, and provided compensation for economic and non-economic losses resulting from the attacks, in return for waiver of the right to sue for damages.  By 2004, when the original Fund closed, it had paid over $7.049 billion (in public funds) to survivors of those who died in the attacks and to those who were injured in the attacks or the subsequent rescue efforts.  In 2011, Congress reactivated the Fund and expanded its scope to cover additional injured persons and to provide medical treatment and monitoring for 9/11-related health conditions.

The combination of government-supported and philanthropic resources available to survivors of the 9/11 contrasts sharply with the resources available to survivors of other crimes.  Every state operates victim compensation programs, which reimburse victims of violent crimes for out of pocket expenses, such as medical expenses, counseling costs, funeral or burial expenses and lost wages or support.  Maximum awards generally range from $10,000-$25,000.  Unlike the 9/11 Fund, state crime victim compensation programs are funded nearly entirely from a pool of defendants’ fines and fees; they draw on virtually no taxpayer funds. As I have previously described, programs are inadequately publicized, and often maintain eligibility requirements that restrict access.  Yet, domestic and sexual violence have marked economic effects; in addition to out of pocket expenses, economic ramifications drive victims’ options and strategies.  Programs and services receive decreasing funding while demands for services increase.

Recently, incidents of mass violence have given rise to new, albeit private, compensation schemes, notably, The One Fund, to serve victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and the Sandy Hook Victim Compensation Fund, for victims of the Newtown-Sandy Hook school shooting.  Both programs make philanthropic funds available for survivors and for victims’ families.

No doubt, there are manifold differences between the events giving rise to these respective compensation schemes and the structure of the schemes themselves.  But the outpouring of public sympathy for victims of these mass, public acts of violence, and the emergence of funding programs for particular groups of victims, is hard to square with the public’s approach to other victims of crimes.  The difference in rhetoric and support raise questions and concerns about whether the emerging scheme creates dual tracks, with accompanying notions of deserving versus undeserving victims.  Extending the compassion that provided the impetus for the 9/11 Fund and for the funds serving recent victims of mass violence, could go a long way to promoting healing, safety and community.


Gender neutrality and the “violence against women” frame

The many events associated with domestic violence awareness month, lead me to reflect on the state of the movement. As I argue in my forthcoming paper, Gender Neutrality, the “Violence Against Women” Frame, and Transformative Reform, advocacy to address and eliminate intimate partner and sexual violence is at a moment of challenge and potential. At the same time that global awareness, legal and policy responses have increased dramatically, intimate partner and sexual violence continue to be committed at alarming rates, and gender-based stereotypes still infuse legal doctrine, system responses and public discourse. Social and cultural norms condoning abuse remain a potent, underlying force. Despite the fact that the anti-violence movement’s roots in social change and anti-oppression organizing lay at the heart of its promise for transformative change, today’s service delivery networks suffer critiques as mainstreamed, bureaucratized arms of the state. The dominant policy emphasis on criminal justice interventions has alienated communities, particularly along lines of race, immigration status, gender expression and other marginalized identities, and has jeopardized the effectiveness of policy interventions. Survivors, activists and academics are responding, to build capacity for political mobilization and reform.

One way to address the challenge is to look at how domestic and sexual violence is framed. Social movement theory teaches that the way a movement frames its messages shapes both its organizing potential and its impact and reach. The widely accepted “violence against women” frame was developed in service of feminist goals such as foregrounding and challenging gender bias and fostering more inclusive delivery of social and other services. It increasingly is codified as a standard description globally for laws, programs, and services addressing domestic and sexual violence, as well as for the actual violence itself. However, the “violence against women” frame has evolved to become problematic empirically, theoretically, and practically. It implies that men are not also victims of abuse. It reinforces a binary view of gender that is inconsistent with queer, feminist and other critical theory. The “woman-specific” frame serves to erase the particular experiences of lesbians, women of color, immigrants and other survivors from marginalized groups. It fuels arguments by those who contest the connection between intimate partner and sexual violence and gender stereotypes. It produces awkward practical contradictions. For example, programs herald services addressing “violence against women,” while reassuring that those programs are available to men. These contradictions detract from a broad social justice analysis.

As Angela Harris has argued, shifting from “violence against women” to “gender violence” as a default frame would support a more comprehensive, intersectional analysis that takes into account the interplay of race, sexuality, class and gender. I agree, and expand on that suggestion by advocating the self-conscious use of frames in contexts such as public education campaigns, social service delivery and legislation, to advance both broad availability of services and transformative social change. The suggestion is modest, but can play a significant part in a shift toward progressive reform.


Domestic violence awareness month

I am delighted to be a guest blogger for Concurring Opinions this month and look forward to our exchanges.  I’ll be blogging mostly about issues related to gender and other forms of inequality, especially issues of gender violence and economic equality, which is the focus of much of my work.

It is auspicious to begin blogging here at the beginning of Domestic Violence Awareness month, which this year coincides with the government shutdown.  Of course, there is no shortage of examples of hardship wreaked by the shutdown.  But one of the less widely recognized effects is its impact on gender violence survivors.  Despite President Obama’s Proclamation, affirming the administration’s commitment to advancing policies that will better serve survivors and will help prevent abuse, the logjam in Congress jeopardizes safety and security on many fronts.  The shutdown imposes an additional challenge for social service providers, such as domestic violence shelters, who already have had to cut back programming and service capacity due to the automatic spending cuts imposed last spring that resulted from sequestration. These effects seem to escape much of the headline news.

The cutbacks are all the more problematic because the need for services, which was stark even in stronger economic times, increases during times of economic challenge.  As social scientists document, abuse tends to increase during times of economic insecurity, and service providers consistently report increased demand.  In addition, the cuts put survivors at increased direct risk, especially because safety net programs that have been available, such as TANF, may be threatened by a prolonged shutdown.

The challenges created during these times of fiscal constraint highlight the need to address economic equality and prevention more broadly.  As several colleagues and I previously have argued,  federal and other funding is disproportionately directed to criminal justice responses.  The 2013 VAWA, and related state initiatives, take some needed steps, for example, expanding services for LGBT survivors, enhancing remedies for survivors in Native American communities, and addressing survivors’ housing and employment needs.  But much more remains to be done.  I’ll be looking at tensions, challenges and opportunities for reform in my next post.