Lawyers, Legislation, and Lived Experience

Noah Mattapallil is the Victim Legal Network of DC Summer 2018 Intern at NVRDC. He is an undergraduate student in the honors program at Notre Dame and is majoring in Philosophy. 

Room 123 of the John A. Wilson building was silent. The chairs stood in attentive rows, the microphones at identical height, and the documents perfectly aligned on their gleaming tables. Impeccably-dressed women and men began to file in. Their eyes reflected purpose, their postures the confidence of experience. Among them were attorneys, officials, and ordinary citizens. They had come to speak their piece in the dominant item on today’s legislative agenda: the DC Council’s hearing on proposed amendments to the Intrafamily Offenses Act (IFOA).

The IFOA was passed in 1970 in the wake of many highly publicized domestic abuse cases. It defined an intrafamily offense as a criminal act that is committed or threatened against an individual by an offender related by blood, adoption, custody, marriage, partnership or shared parenthood. The IFOA also enabled survivors of such acts to petition for one-year civil protection orders (CPOs) against offenders. CPOs, similar to restraining orders, establish a legal mechanism to protect survivors from threats, stalking, harassment and assault. In years following, amendments were introduced that expanded the application and power of the act. These updates included allowing minors, domestic partners and stalking victims to file for CPOs, state-sponsored remedies for petitioners, sanctions for violating protection orders, and more.

In 2017 nine legal service providers and a handful of university legal clinics from around the DC area convened to review the IFOA. This newly formed Legal Advisory Work (LAW) Group was tasked with developing revisions to the statute that would help it to better reflect the modern realities of domestic violence survivors in DC. These revisions are among the most comprehensive changes to date. Today’s hearing gave members of the LAW Group the opportunity to publicly propose and defend those changes.

  • A CPO may not be filed by those in a landlord/tenant relationship

  • Individuals 12 to 16 years old can file for a CPO on their own behalf against intimate partners

  • Temporary protection orders (TPOs) can be extended to 28 days

  • CPOs may be filed for up to two years

  • More consistent staffing of a special unit within the MPD that processes CPOs

  • Adds an anti-stalking order

Representatives of several organizations cited the insidious ways domestic violence has made such changes necessary. Network for Victim Recovery of DC (NVRDC) Legal Co-Director, Kristin Eliason, testified against the current TPO duration of fourteen days, using her experience to argue for an extension that would keep the best interests of survivors in mind. Kristin told the Council,

“In Maryland, TPOs can be extended for a period of up to 6 months in order to effectuate service or for good cause. I saw first-hand how this law made a difference in keeping my clients safe and providing them peace of mind during the pendency of the case. Unfortunately, right now, DC petitioners aren’t as fortunate and must repeatedly return to court every 14 days when they are unable to effectuate service.”

Kristin also shared the story of one of her clients who was persistently stalked by an unknown woman for over three years where an extension of CPOs would have ensured more sustained protection while limiting time consuming legal complications. Particularly thought-provoking testimony came from Aubrey Edwards-Lucey, a senior policy attorney at the Children’s Law Center, who revealed that young adults often do not feel comfortable making an adult aware of the violence they experience. Fear of bringing shame on their family or revealing an unapproved relationship was an impediment to self-defense. To circumvent this, minors would need the ability to file for protective orders without parent/guardian consent. Dena Shayne of Amara Legal Center shed light on the unique predicament of sex workers in DC. Abusers often completely control every aspect of the survivor’s life and thus can interfere with, if not outright prevent, the filing of a CPO. Shayne argued that extending TPOs would give sex trafficking victims a more practical weapon against offenders by greatly reducing the need for frequent court appearances while providing instant protection in case of immediate threat. Further support came from attorneys at Ayuda, Legal Aid Society of DC, Break the Cycle, Bread for the City, DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and the DC Volunteers Lawyers Project.

The attorneys dissected the IFOA with technical precision. To the public witnesses, however, legal jargon and the turning of legislative gears were not all this hearing was about. The extraordinary women who came to speak did not represent any organization. Rather, they were the spokespeople for many victims of intrafamily offenses who could not be present to tell their stories. They bravely shared the trauma they experienced at the hands of those they trusted. Every terrifying detail of the almost omnipresent stalker, or the husband that took any opportunity to attack his wife, reminded all present that laws impact real people in a sometimes dysfunctional world. The emotion of lived experience that the survivors brought to the testimony is what most captivated Councilmember Allen.

In an era when legislative progress is a somewhat distant ideal, the IFOA hearing was a refreshing look at how coalitions of service providers, experts, and citizens can inform policies that affect thousands at what is often the most dangerous time of their lives. Lawyers and public witnesses alike brought the issue of domestic violence into the spotlight with eloquence. Many of the survivors that spoke were still working through the trauma of these past experiences. Yet despite their fear, compassion and courage brought them into Room 123 to testify. Survivors of crime need not be mere subjects to the justice system. They can speak, rally, and change it. They can proudly stand by the knowledge that their actions will not only improve their lives, but those of generations to come.


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