Advocating for Abused Women

Vol. 21 No. 2

By

G.M. Filisko is a lawyer and an award-winning, Chicago-based freelance journalist who covers legal, real estate, business, and personal finance topics for such publications as the ABA Journal, Consumers Digest, REALTOR Magazine, AARP.com, and Bankrate.com.

 

The effects of sexual abuse can devastate long after the physical acts have ended.

That’s a fact Elly Kugler is reminded of all too often in her advocacy on behalf of women who’ve suffered sexual abuse in the military. Recently, while representing a homeless veteran seeking disability benefits after being repeatedly sexually assaulted during her military service, Kugler’s client landed at a Veterans Affairs hospital on suicide watch because the medical exam required for her claim had so retraumatized her.

However, in February 2012, Kugler’s client was ruled disabled because of post-traumatic stress disorder and cognitive processing issues caused by the sexual assaults. She’ll now receive monthly payments of more than $2,500 for life and nearly $30,000 in retroactive benefits. Both will help fund the personal assistance the veteran requires to remember basic functions like eating, seeking medical attention, and attending to other fundamental life activities.

How do women who advocate on behalf of sexual-abuse victims land in this field, and what advice do they have for others considering the niche? It’s all about expecting that your clients have suffered the worst while staying focused on achieving the best for them.

“You spend an enormous amount of time hearing about the worst times in people’s lives,” explains Kugler, a lawyer for the Inner City Law Center in Los Angeles, a position funded by an AmeriCorps fellowship. “But because of the longer-term nature of my work with my clients, I also get to celebrate their victory when they get things like a public housing voucher.”

Following Their Calling

Lawyers who have devoted their careers to sexual-abuse survivors often start out looking for trial experience but end up realizing they’ve found their calling.

That’s how Jill Starishevsky became a New York City prosecutor. She was weighing two options: using her minor in Japanese in corporate law or pursuing a job that enhanced her trial-practice skills. She was told she would get great trial experience in what was then the domestic violence and child abuse division of the prosecutor’s office—and that she’d be doing important work. She was sold.

“From day one, it was like you were on the front lines,” Starishevsky says. “You find out really quickly that you’re handling misdemeanors, but any of these cases could at any time become a homicide or some other horrible situation. Each case has to have your full attention, and you have to be on your toes.”

Starishevsky found her passion handling child abuse and child sexual abuse cases. “When you’re talking to victims who’ve been sexually abused and you’re in charge of seeking justice and getting them services they need,” she explains, “it’s a tremendous responsibility.”

Stacey Honowitz started in the Broward County, Florida, State Attorney’s Office 24 years ago. She quickly began handling felonies and now supervises the sex crimes and child abuse unit. “I was always fascinated with sex-abuse cases, and I had a knack for talking to kids,” Honowitz recounts. “In court with other sex-crime prosecutors, I realized it was important to represent these people, and I felt like I could do it. I also found the facts interesting. When my tenure handling felonies was over, I came to sex crimes for the duration of my years here. It felt like it was a natural progression.”

The Burden of Advocacy

It takes a certain mindset to handle sex-abuse cases. “My vocabulary every day consists of words like penis, vagina, anus, and saliva,” Honowitz says. “It’s easy for me to discuss those things, but my daily world is a lot different than [that of] most people.”

It’s critical to have excellent client management skills. “It’s really about being able to connect to people on a very human level,” Starishevsky observes. “You can’t just say, ‘This woman was raped; let me sit and cry with her.’ You have to be objective and say, ‘What steps do I need to take to achieve justice for this person?’ You need a balance.”

By far, the toughest part of the job is the mental toll. “You’re not just a lawyer when you’re dealing with cases like this,” according to Honowitz. “You’re a therapist, a friend, a psychiatrist. You’re dealing with true victims whose lives have been shattered. It’s very emotional and very draining, and you have to have a thick skin.”

Working in this field requires developing your own way of letting go of the bad cases and bad days. “It’s called vicarious trauma, and it’s almost like you’re exposed to so much trauma that you start to feel it,” Starishevsky explains. “You have to have an outlet. I have colleagues I’ve worked with for years, and we come together to let go of that negative energy. It needs to be done, or you burn out.”

You also need to accept your own limitations. “There are certain things I can’t do,” Starishevsky acknowledges. “When I was a junior assistant, I’d look at prosecutors who had shaken-baby syndrome cases and think, ‘Why can’t I have one of those cases? They’ve got really challenging medical issues, and you’re putting experts on the stand.’ But once I started having children, it was the first type of case to go. I couldn’t look at a homicide picture of a baby without being brought to tears.”

Honowitz also admits to still occasionally being sideswiped by her own emotions. “I don’t think you’re a good prosecutor and advocate if you just keep it at the office,” she says. “If you think in those terms, you become very hardened to people and just kind of call the next case. Do some things keep me up at night? Absolutely. Even after 24 years, it takes a toll. I had a recent case where I’d heard about the facts and read the police report, but when I saw the pictures of a 50-year-old adult male lying in the arms of his 15-year-old daughter, it was repeating in my head the entire night.”

Policymakers Have Emotions, Too

Even lawyers who work on the policy side can be surprised by the emotional weight of their work. “For me, it’s obviously going to be different from someone who represents victims,” says Meliah Schultzman, a lawyer for the National Housing Law Project in San Francisco who works on local, state, and federal policies affecting the housing rights of sexual-abuse survivors. “But for every regulation and piece of legislation, we have to collect data. It hits you hard when you review the stories of someone who wasn’t allowed to move elsewhere after being sexually assaulted by a neighbor or someone who was told to move because she refused to provide the name of her daughter’s rapist for fear of retaliation. It’s hard to take all that information in and tell yourself, ‘I need to be levelheaded and figure out the best remedy for these victims.’”

Another challenge you may face? “I’ve had countless people disclose to me,” says Starishevsky, who’s written a book, My Body Belongs to Me, to teach children about sexual-abuse prevention. “I meet people all the time, and the first thing they do is tell me about their sexual abuse—and I see a difference when it happens to lawyers. Women have feelings of shame and embarrassment, and they often second-guess the circumstances of their abuse: ‘Should I not have been there at that time?’ But when it comes to educated women like lawyers and doctors, it’s often, ‘I know this type of thing happens, and it shouldn’t have happened to me because I should have known better.’

“I treat all victims the same,” Starishevsky adds. “No one should feel guilt or shame. It’s not their fault, and that’s the first thing victims have to hear. From there, I direct them to the right area, whether it’s seeking legal support, contacting the police, or connecting with groups of people like them.”

Dipping Your Toes in the Water

Whether you’re beginning your career or looking to transition into this specialty, you can begin gaining valuable experience immediately.

“Do what I didn’t do—volunteer,” Starishevsky advises. “There are different types of sexual abuse. There’s intimate-partner abuse; there’s stranger abuse; there are women who’ve been sexually abused as children and are starting to deal with the issues now as adults. Figure out which area you’re drawn to and volunteer at places like Stop the Violence (www.stoptheviolenceinc.org) or RAINN [Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network] (www.rainn.org). Put yourself in a situation where you’re surrounded by it, and see if you can go home at night. It’s a good way to test yourself.”

Schultzman also recommends volunteering. “Contact your local legal aid agency to see whether there are opportunities to represent victims,” she says. “Also call your local rape crisis center and ask if it has clients with unmet legal needs. Given all the needs these women have, their civil legal needs for things like housing and employment are often left behind. They may even have a tort law remedy against the perpetrator.”

Similarly, Honowitz suggests working with a civil lawyer who advocates on behalf of sexually abused women. “There’s a planet of civil lawyers who handle cases like this,” she says. “Ask for an internship or to shadow them.”

The more experience you gain, the more you may come to view women harmed by sexual abuse the way Kugler views her clients. “I don’t think of them as victims, but as survivors,” she explains. “They’re not coming to me on their knees, hands outstretched saying, ‘Help me.’ The more I treat my clients as strong and empowered women who are having a hard time, but who also have a lot of tools to survive and heal, the more sustainable and enjoyable my work is.”

How You Can Make a Difference

Whether you’re looking to represent sexual-abuse survivors or seeking opportunities to aid victims, your efforts can help women turn a corner in their lives. In addition to volunteering, there are several ways to get involved:

  • Donate. The array of organizations to which you can donate money is vast, ranging from local legal clinics and women’s shelters to national organizations like Stop the Violence (www.stoptheviolenceinc.org) and RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) (www.rainn.org).
  • According to RAINN, a $10 donation provides help for one survivor through the National Sexual Assault Hotline (online.rainn.org); a $50 donation educates more than 2,100 people about sexual violence risk and recovery; and a $180 donation operates the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline for an hour.
  • Know how to find immediate help. Have at your fingertips the phone number (800/656-HOPE [4673]) and URL (www.online.rainn.org) of the National Sexual Assault Hotline, both of which allow victims immediate, confidential, and free access to a RAINN staff member.
  • Don’t overlook your state bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP). “We assist with recovery from any experience that creates emotional trauma,” says Richard Carlton, acting director of the State Bar of California’s LAP. “Sexual abuse can certainly lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, as can sexual harassment under some circumstances. Many of our participants have experienced sexual abuse, either as children, adults, or both. Also, a high percentage of people who become chemically dependent experienced abuse early in life.”
  • Spread awareness. Connect with advocacy groups on social media through Facebook and Twitter, and share their messages and requests for help with your social networks. RAINN’s Twitter feed: @RAINN01 and Facebook page: www.facebook.com/RAINN01; Stop the Violence’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/pages/STOP-THE-VIOLENCE-INC/123216654359803.

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