Alumni Short

The Human Right to be Free from Domestic Violence: Panel Discusses Advocacy Projects in Tompkins CountyIthaca, NEW YORK, Nov 5, 2015

On Tuesday, October 20, the Saperston Student Lounge was packed with Law School students, faculty, and members of the community, many wearing purple in recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. They had gathered for “#DVFree: Implementing the Human Right to be Free from Domestic Violence in Tompkins County, NY,” a panel organized by the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice and the Global Gender Justice Clinic.

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A similar panel had convened a year before, just as the Center and Clinic, in collaboration with the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County, had drafted a proposed resolution recognizing freedom from domestic violence as a human right. Through the collaborators’ advocacy, resolutions to that affect have now been adopted by six local governing bodies: the legislature of Tompkins County, the town board of Ithaca, the town board of Lansing, the board of trustees of the village of Cayuga Heights, the Tompkins County Council of Governments, and the Ithaca Common Council.

“It was really moving to be in those meetings and to hear legislatures and local county and town government folks say, ‘yes, but we want to do more,’” said Heather Campbell, executive director of the Advocacy Center, commenting on the enthusiastic reception received by the proposed resolutions. Campbell spoke on Tuesday’s panel, along with Global Gender Justice Clinic members Amanda Reynoso-Palley ’16, Alex Gutierrez ’16, and Carolina Morales ’16.

The event began with opening remarks by Elizabeth Brundige, executive director of the Avon Global Center and assistant clinical professor of law, who gave a brief overview of the collaboration’s successes in the past year and the “incredible” support of the community. “We recognize that this is really just a first step,” she said. “All of the resolutions and proclamations serve as a call to action.”

Next, Reynoso-Palley discussed some background of the project. She noted that in New York state, an estimated 2.5 million women and 2.4 million men will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, and that Tompkins County averages 147 reported cases of domestic violence per year (and likely an even larger number of un-reported cases). She also spoke on the national movement to frame freedom from domestic violence as a human right, now endorsed in resolutions made by twenty-six governing bodies throughout the country.

Having succeeded in getting resolutions passed in Tompkins County, the Center and Clinic will continue their advocacy efforts and focus on two implementation strategies, to be carried out in partnership with the Advocacy Center, the Tompkins County Office of Human Rights, and the Tompkins County Human Rights Commission. Gutierrez and Morales outlined these initiatives: in the spring term, a study to identify the gaps and challenges in the current landscape of county, local, government, and community responses to domestic violence; and currently, in the fall term, the creation of workplace guidelines for government employers in Tompkins County.

The workplace represents a crucial gap in domestic violence prevention, Gutierrez said, observing that in the United States, domestic violence causes the loss of eight million hours of work for its survivors each year and that an estimated twenty to sixty percent of survivors lose their jobs because of the domestic violence in their lives. Morales shared highlights of the guidelines, which address topics including nondiscrimination, confidentiality, workplace safety plans, and reasonable accommodation for victimized employees.

“This evolution to talking about and addressing [freedom from] domestic violence as a human right I think is such a fundamental shift.  . . .  it’s been a really exciting project for us,” said Campbell. The Advocacy Center has provided support, advocacy, and education for survivors of domestic violence since 1977, and its work includes a variety of prevention efforts. “What we haven’t had in the past is this cohesive policy that’s really crafted with a local focus,” said Campbell. The Advocacy Center provides services to around 800 domestic violence survivors every year. Campbell shared the stories of just two, a retail worker and a white-collar worker, examples that illustrated both how domestic violence can play out in the workplace and how differences in class and education can affect the kind of support that survivors receive. A best-practices policy like the one set out in the Clinic’s guidelines would, she said, help to equalize the treatment of survivors.

After presenting their topics, the panelists took questions from the audience, delving further into the details and implementation of the workplace guidelines. Responding to a question on how prevention efforts could be applied to domestic violence offenders, Campbell challenged the tendency to view domestic violence as predominantly arising from mental health issues. “It’s not about how [offenders] feel, it’s about how they think,” she said; the key is “addressing the underlying beliefs and attitudes that lead to that feeling of justification and entitlement”—and thus the problem calls not for treatment programs but for education and accountability.