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  • African Immigrants
  • Volume 13 | Winter 2009

get to know the commission

In this section of the eNewsletter, we introduce you to a member of the ABA Commission on Domestic Violence to increase an understanding of the Commission, its members, and its work.

Joan ZorzaJoan Zorza became involved with the Commission as a liaison in 1995 and was appointed as a Member almost 3 years ago.  One of the first projects she worked on was a joint conference on domestic violence with the American Medical Association at a time when both the legal and medical worlds were still relatively unaware of its existence or how to effectively deal with such cases.

In the late 1960s several intimate partners of men Ms. Zorza was counseling arrived on her doorstep seeking refuge from their battering.  Of course, she let them in, and moved by their plight, decided to go to law school to help them, this being before there were any domestic violence shelters or other help for them.  Since then she has represented over 2,000 of them, mostly at Greater Boston Legal Services, and worked on domestic violence legislation in Massachusetts.

In 1990 she started the National Battered Women’s Law Project at the National Center on Family Law in New York, which acted as a back up center for every domestic violence program in the country and provided help for policymakers in every state.  While there she provided support and often testimony in many states on many legislative issues affecting battered women. When it became clear that the program was about to lose its federal funding, Ms. Zorza became the founding editor of Domestic Violence Report, which is now 14 years old, and for 12 years was the founding editor of Sexual Assault Report.  She has written extensively on many aspects of domestic violence, and has served on the boards of many organizations working on behalf of victims of violence against women, including for 10 years the boards of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.  She is currently on the boards of End Violence Against Women International and the Legal Resource Center on Violence Against Women, and the advisory boards of the Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence and the Research Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

Ms. Zorza was attracted to the Commission on Domestic Violence because it was unique in promoting the extent of domestic violence in the legal community and in publicizing how every branch of law must deal with its victims and perpetrators in a sensitive and effective manner.  The Commission has also done much of the training that has enabled attorneys to become proficient in handling these cases and inspired new attorneys to work at programs handling these cases or to take pro bono cases.   As part of its effort to do these things, the Commission started a writing competition on domestic violence for law students.  Ms. Zorza is proud to have been a reviewer every year for the competition since its inception five years ago. 

Domestic violence victims have vast, unserved legal needs.  Few of them have funding to pay for lawyers, and those who do generally are eventually driven into poverty by their abusers, most of whom use the courts as another way to continue to harass and demoralize them.  While some courts are becoming savvy to their tactics, the majority blame victims or both parties instead of holding the abusers accountable.  In any event, victims are seen less favorably, particularly in custody disputes, when they become demoralized and frightened by abuser tactics.  Ms. Zorza knows that the Commission has been instrumental in helping to support lawyers handling these cases, in convincing Congress to fund legal programs to train and handle these cases, and in convincing many lawyers in private practice to take significant numbers of these cases.  In addition, the mental health professionals that courts use in many capacities as their advisors and assistants are still very uninformed about domestic violence, with the result that the vast majority of them fail to protect battered women and their children, and often add to their plight.  This is by far the largest challenge that battered women and their children face, and Ms. Zorza is proud of the efforts that the Commission is making to try to reverse this extremely serious problem.

The Commission has also enabled Ms. Zorza to meet and work with many professionals from across the country, both lawyers and others working on behalf of battered women.  She is sad that this is her last year as a Commissioner, though she will remain active writing about and doing work on behalf of victims of violence against women.