Equal Justice at Work: April 2012
Sexual Assault Awareness Month
Sexual assault can take many forms and affects people of every gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation or ability. Sexual violence is a public health, human rights and social justice issue. Throughout April, organizations, government agencies, businesses, campuses and individuals will host events and forums to bring sexual violence to the forefront of conversation.
In conjunction with Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), we want to highlight a few Fellows who are on the front lines of the work to protect victims of sexual violence. In this issue of our newsletter, you will learn about the work of Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow Elly Kugler, who works at the Inner City Law Center in Los Angeles representing female veterans who have experienced sexual trauma during their military service. Elly ensures these women receive the help and compensation they need to recover. Additionally, you will read about 2007 Equal Justice Works Fellow Andrew Sta. Ana, who focused on domestic violence among same-sex partners and continues to work on LGBT issues.
As stated in President Obama’s 2012 Proclamation of April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, “it is up to all of us to ensure victims of sexual violence are not left to face these trials alone. Too often, survivors suffer in silence, fearing retribution, lack of support, or that the criminal justice system will fail to bring the perpetrator to justice. We must do more to raise awareness about the realities of sexual assault; confront and change insensitive attitudes wherever they persist; enhance training and education in the criminal justice system; and expand access to critical health, legal, and protection services for survivors.”
For 20 years, we have funded hundreds of Fellows who have worked on violence perpetrated against women. I am so proud of the Fellows and Alumni working with survivors of domestic violence, assisting children coping with abuse and fighting for veterans suffering from military sexual trauma. Sadly, there are few systemic solutions, and each year I meet Fellowship candidates with new and horrific stories of abuse.
Raising awareness and early education are some of the most promising strategies to break the cycle of violence. Take a look at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s 2012 SAAM campaign, ”It’s Time… to Talk About It.”
While there is no single solution to this problem, we can see change start to take effect through awareness, education, and open communication. Equal Justice Works is committed to doing our part to reduce the prevalence of violence, and we hope you will join us in this crusade.
Working with victims of military sexual trauma
Editors note: On the morning of April 17, 2012 an outdated version of this article was published in error. The following version is the corrected article. We apologize for this error and any misunderstanding it may have caused.
Equal Justice Works has been on the forefront of the current veterans crisis in America. Servicemen and women return home with a myriad of issues, including mental and physical disabilities, which create boundaries to smoothly transitioning into civilian life. Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow Elly Kugler is serving at the Inner City Law Center to provide legal assistance and support to those dealing with mental health issues and physical disabilities caused by military sexual trauma (MST), defined by the Department of Veterans Affairs as “sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that occurred while the Veteran was in the military.”
“Veterans who have survived MST often experience other issues stemming from the assault such as homelessness and mental health issues,” said Elly. “And what is especially difficult is the fact that many times these instances of assault are not recorded even when reported, making it very difficult for the survivor to prove that the assault occurred in order to receive the services needed to recover.”
The courage of those suffering from MST to seek the services and help they need continues to be an inspiration to Elly. For the last year and a half, she has been working with “Mary,” a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and cognitive processing issues that were a result of numerous brutal sexual assaults she experienced while serving in the military. After decades of being homeless, Mary was admitted to a special Veterans Affairs (VA) program to treat those suffering from MST; however, she still desperately needed additional VA benefits as disabilities caused by her MST left her unable to work or care for her basic needs such as remembering to eat, obtaining medical attention and accomplishing daily tasks.
Elly was able to develop a claim for veterans’ disability compensation benefits for Mary’s PTSD due to the sexual trauma she experienced. The extensive application required reviewing thousands of pages of military and healthcare records; finding multiple forms of evidence of behavioral changes following the incidents to support Mary’s claim of sexual assault; and working with Mary’s family members and doctors to obtain additional statements in support of her claim. Because of Mary’s cognitive disabilities, Elly also submitted a separate claim for aid and attendance in order to obtain additional money for Mary to employ a caregiver to help her stay safe and housed in her apartment. This process was extremely difficult for Mary, who has a difficult time talking about the assaults and still receives intensive treatment for her disabilities. Nearly a year after the claim was submitted, Mary was granted approval to receive $2,673 a month for the rest of her life in addition to approximately $24,000 for the waiting period from the time the claim was submitted to being granted. This tremendous victory ensures that Mary will be able to receive the disability benefits and services that she needs to live her life.
Mary’s case is a single example of the many barriers U.S. service members face when making claims and seeking treatment for sexual trauma experienced during service. Of the more than 40 military sexual trauma cases that the Inner City Law Center has handled for veterans who served from the 1970s to the present, not one case has had copies of paperwork directly related to the attack — even for those who say they reported it to military authorities. However, there is growing concern and pressure on the military to document and report sexual assaults more carefully. Changing attitudes can be seen most recently when a group of eight current and former service members filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. military for suffering retaliation after reporting sexual violence.
“Survivors of military sexual trauma often feel as though they have nowhere to turn,” said Elly. “Many of my clients feel re-traumatized by the process they’re required to go through in order to obtain benefits, and most had given up or never bothered to try to get these benefits until we met them. I’m very proud of the fact that my colleagues and I at the Inner City Law Center are working to provide these brave veterans with the chance to rebuild their lives.”
Working to stop intimate partner violence in LGBT communities
When Andrew Sta. Ana began his Equal Justice Works Fellowship in 2007, he hoped to address the needs of a population that were not yet being met: providing legal assistance to survivors of domestic violence in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) communities. Focused on providing education, legislative advocacy and direct legal services, Andrew's project at Sanctuary for Families, a domestic violence service provider that addresses the needs of survivors and their children, was the organization’s first dedicated and intentional effort to work directly with the LGBT communities.
“When designing my project, Sanctuary for Families and I discussed the fact that there was emerging recognition of a need– that traditional services and the legal systems were simply not working for survivors in the LGBT community,” said Andrew.
Throughout Andrew’s two years of service, he joined others in advocating for a number of legal changes to New York State law, which resulted in stronger protections for his clients. In 2008, the Family Court Act was amended to be inclusive of ‘intimate relationships,’ which for the first time allowed many individuals in same-sex relationships to seek civil orders of protection against their abusers. Additionally, in 2009, the law changed to specifically allow survivors to articulate instances of sexual assault, so that pleadings could accurately reflect a survivor’s actual experiences of sexual abuse. Although difficult for some survivors, articulating offenses like continued sexual abuse and sexual misconduct can now establish a legitimate basis for legal action and protection. These documented instances of misconduct are essential when working toward gaining independence from an abuser, such as when Andrew advocates for survivors seeking custody, child support, divorce and special immigration remedies.
One of the most difficult issues facing LGBT survivors of domestic violence is fear of facing traditional gender-based stereotypes throughout the system. As survivors of domestic violence, they must often reveal painful histories of physical, emotional and psychological abuse to judges, police, lawyers and medical professionals. Due to a history of discrimination, many LGBT survivors fear that they may experience additional hostility from those with a limited understanding of LGBT experiences of intimacy and violence.
“There are still misconceptions about what a victim looks like or how that person must behave,” said Andrew. “For a male survivor, there is often a stigma about reporting domestic violence if the abuser is another man. In addition to overcoming the fear and doubt of reporting abuse, an LGBT individual may worry about facing negative gender stereotypes that contribute to biases against the LGBT communities.”
Today, Andrew continues his work at Sanctuary, expanding services, increasing education and adjusting to address new legal needs of the LGBT communities. With the passing of marriage equality in New York, Andrew has seen an increase in the number of survivors seeking to dissolve their marriages and other partnerships. By continuing to form community partnerships and alliances, Andrew also hopes to inform young adults and teenagers entering into intimate relationships on how to develop and maintain healthy, safe partnerships. Additionally, he hopes to foster conversations in the LGBT communities about sexual violence, sex trafficking and the particular needs of young people.
“The most rewarding aspect of my job is working with individuals and seeing daily victories. It is thrilling to win an order of protection for someone that I know only a few years ago would not have qualified for the order because of their type of relationship or sexual orientation,” said Andrew.
For his continued work and efforts in establishing a free legal clinic for LGBTQ Survivors of Domestic and Intimate Partner Violence, Andrew was a recipient of the New York City Anti-Violence Project’s Courage Award in 2011. He and his colleagues at Sanctuary continue to raise awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault issues in the LGBT communities through a number of initiatives, including marching in the New York Pride Parade each June.
“We have a lot of fun, and by bringing together clients, staff members, families and friends to march, we are able to show that we are standing up for this issue,” said Andrew. “We talk to people, get the word out about our work and let those in the community know we are here to support their choices and protect their rights.”
Learn What the Student Loan Forgiveness Act Could Mean for You
On March 8, Congressman Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.) introduced H.R. 4170, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012. The act would create a new 10/10 Loan Repayment Plan (with new forgiveness provisions for students who make payments on their loans for 10 years), cap interest rates for all federal loans, greatly improve Public Service Loan Forgiveness, and convert some borrowers' private loans to federal loans. Get all the details in our Student Loan Ranger blog and learn the latest on student debt relief like Income-Based Repayment, Public Service Loan Forgiveness and Loan Repayment Assistance Programs at one of our free educational debt relief webinars. For more student debt news and tips, follow us on Twitter @EJW_org and use #studentdebthelp.
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