Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow: A Conversation about Domestic Violence with BFC Managing Attorney Tracy Davis
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. And while we talk about this issue regularly, we wanted to take this time out to highlight one of our own who advocates for survivors everyday.
Managing Attorney Tracy Davis was recently honored by DC SAFE as this year’s Outstanding Partner for her work with our Domestic Violence Community Legal Services Project. We sat down with her to learn more about Bread for the City’s domestic violence practice and what an ideal legal system looks like for survivors. Because there’s power in first person narratives, we’ve decided this is best presented in Tracy’s own words.
Tell us a little about the work Bread for the City does with domestic violence survivors.
TD: We represent survivors of domestic violence in family law matters. Divorce, custody and child support. We also represent them in civil protection orders and public benefits, and we’ve recently added an attorney to specialize in immigration issues.
This has been a very difficult few weeks for survivors; does this environment impact the work?
TD: More survivors are speaking out and sharing their stories. That’s validating and empowering. It’s also an important educational moment – for people to know the prevalence of this problem. But we’re also facing a backlash and the perpetuation of many myths that lead people to incorrectly conclude that survivors aren’t telling the truth or are trying to manipulate a system. We’ve witnessed on a national stage how terribly a survivor can be treated by systems of male white privilege and power, and I am deeply concerned about the message this sends to survivors.
The stats tell us that the stories are most likely true. We know that a ⅕ to ¼ of women are sexually assaulted. We know that over 80 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment. In D.C. alone, 39 percent of women have experience sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner. If we just wanted to look at it from a purely scientific approach, the numbers tell us that sexual assault, sexual harassment, and domestic violence are widespread problems. Unfortunately, racism and sexism and unchecked unconscious biases get in the way of believing survivors.
What are some of the biggest challenges of representing survivors in court? If society has issues, the logical conclusions is those issues come to the courthouse as well.
TD: What happens in society is unfortunately played out in the courtroom. Sometimes credibility determinations are made without an understanding of trauma and how trauma impacts a person’s memory. Or a survivor is determined to be less credible because she didn’t immediately leave the abuser. Sometimes an incorrect assumption is made that if a survivor didn’t contact law enforcement, then the assault or abuse didn’t occur. In those circumstances, there is a failure to understand why survivors often don’t report to law enforcement. It’s a failure in understanding why a Black woman or an immigrant woman experiencing abuse might not trust law enforcement or court systems that have historically and systemically destroyed their communities.
This is a question so many people ask: What prevents victims from leaving?
TD: Sigh, I find it frustrating that we are still having to answer this question. That being said, I’m still willing to have a discussion about all the answers to that question. There are dozens of reasons why survivors stay. They may love the abuser and want the relationship to work. They may just want the abuser to change and for the abuse to stop. Or maybe they have children together, and the survivor is trying to keep the family together. It’s hard to end those relationships. It could be financial reasons, especially in a city like DC where there is a declining supply of affordable housing. They might get emergency shelter for 30 days, but then have no other options except to return to their abuser. Often abusers have made threats to harm or kill a survivor if she tries to leave. Studies tell us that leaving is the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship.
As many times as someone wants their abuser to be punished, there are as many times that someone doesn’t want that. They don’t want the abuser to have a criminal record or to lose a job. Often survivors are dependent on their abuser’s income for child support. We don’t have a system that offers accountability options outside of jail.
What kind of system do you think would be ideal for dealing with domestic violence?
TD: Something outside of law enforcement and the legal system, like the work Men As Peacemakers is doing in Duluth, MN that provides an option of community-based responses to domestic violence. Such responses help equip communities with the resources and skills they need to support accountability and healing within their own communities. For me, creating this system would first require having several discussions. What’s behind abusive behavior? What does the survivor want? What are her wishes for accountability and safety that are not about putting someone through the criminal justice system? How can survivors feel supported and heard by their community? And how can that community also develop processes for abusers to account for their abusive behavior and learn healthy behaviors? This approach also needs to include a discussion about the political systems that perpetuate oppression and violence.
In my ideal world, it’s also a legal system that understands individual and community trauma. Our legal system is adversarial by design, and I think that encourages an aggressive style of communication that is rooted in toxic masculinity. Not everyone is able to communicate in this manner and often people shut down or are silenced by such a system. The legal system also assumes that people can come to court and tell their story in a linear, chronological way and remember details with precision. It doesn’t allow people to tell stories in a way that’s natural to them and still seen by the court to be credible. I don’t think our legal system is well set up for understanding how trauma and the adversarial system might impact the ability to tell a story and thereby impact the ability of a factfinder to gather information needed to make appropriate legal decisions.
How can policy makers and others in the legal field help survivors?
Affordable housing, always. People need more housing options.
For custody cases, there needs to be a deeper understanding of how having an abuser as a parent impacts children. Judges will too often focus on whether the child has been directly hurt by an abuser without understanding the psychological impact of witnessing abuse or having an abuser as a parent.
From a policy perspective, I’d love to see the laws consider a broader definition of domestic violence. For example, the statute that governs protection orders is limited to considering behaviors that are criminal acts like assault and threats. It doesn’t consider other types of abuse rooted in power and control, like financial and emotional abuse. As we have seen, sometimes when you focus only on one incident, you don’t know or appreciate the entire story of how an abuser has exercised power and control over a survivor. These days I find myself repeating the phrase “context matters.” Context tells us why a survivor might not report, context tells us why focusing on one incident of assault might not tell us the myriad of ways an abuser has practiced power and control, and context matters when we talk about what justice looks like for each survivor.
These past few weeks have been incredibly difficult, exhausting both spiritually and physically. But I’m inspired by survivors who bravely step forward, despite all that society throws at them, to share their stories. I know the strength it takes to share these stories, and I know the strength my clients muster when they come to court to face their abusers. Their resilience and courage is truly remarkable. I’m inspired by them and their willingness to keep fighting. And I’m inspired by the goodness of my coworkers. I’m not so naive to think that this won’t be a fight. I remind myself what Rebecca Solnit writes about hope, “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.” That’s my kind of hope.