Written by Wemi Peters

Jul 31


Study Confirms Free Legal Services Critical for Domestic Violence Survivors

A report released last week and discussed in a recent compelling Huffington Post article entitled, “One Simple Idea that Could Reduce Domestic Violence,” highlights the importance of free legal representation for DV survivors. Prepared by the Institute for Policy Integrity at New York University School of Law, the report found that survivors of domestic violence who have legal representation when they seek protection orders against their abusers are significantly more likely to get the protection orders than unrepresented survivors. Notably, the report recommends that state and municipalities provide free or low cost legal services to survivors of domestic violence.
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Apr 23


Investigative Reporting on Domestic Violence wins Pulitzer

Earlier this week, the Pulitzer Prize committee awarded its prestigious Pulitzer Prize for public service journalism to the Post and Courier, a small Charleston, South Carolina newspaper, for its investigation series, “Till Death Do Us Part”. The seven part series, which provides an in depth examination of domestic violence in South Carolina, focused on the high rate of domestic violence related deaths in South Carolina, the impact of domestic violence on survivors, the impact of culture on domestic violence, the inadequate protections of the current laws, and the lack of resources for survivors in the state. Read more →

Jun 26


Complex Considerations for DV Survivors with Children

The high value that society places on two-parent households adversely affects survivors of domestic violence, a provocative New York Times Sunday op-ed piece asserts. This societal pressure leads some survivors to remain in or return to abusive relationships in an effort to maintain the two-parent ideal for their children, thereby endangering their own lives. At Legal Aid, where we represent hundreds of survivors of domestic violence each year, we witness—and help—our clients struggling with these and many other challenges day in and day out.
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Mar 13


VAWA Reauthorized – Legal Aid Clients Can Breathe a Sigh of Relief

Wemi Peters, Staff Attorney

Wemi Peters, Staff Attorney

On March 7, 2013, President Obama signed the updated Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”).  VAWA provides legal protections for survivors of domestic violence, human trafficking and child abuse.  Without such legal protections, it would be difficult for the Legal Aid to assist some of its most vulnerable clients in getting the Civil Protection Orders as well as the employment and housing that they need to escape violent and unsafe living situations.  VAWA also provides funding for programs that provide critical resources for survivors of domestic violence including emergency housing, legal services and counseling.  In particular, Sections 102 and 103 of the VAWA allow for specific grants for the enforcement of protection orders and pro bono legal assistance for survivors of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking.  The updated VAWA expands these  protections to include  immigrant, Native American and LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender) survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

The reauthorization of the VAWA could not have come at a more important time as domestic violence continues to impact the D.C. community.  A recent article in the Washington Post highlights the importance of the enforcement of protection orders and how quickly a domestic violence incident can escalate into a very dangerous situation.  Legal Aid has recently experienced an increased need for legal services related to domestic violence.  Between 2011 and 2012, there was a 19% increase in legal services provided to domestic violence survivors through the Legal Aid’s Southeast Domestic Violence Intake Center (DVIC-SE) project which mainly serves Wards 7 & 8 in the District of Columbia.    In addition, in 2012, the Legal Aid opened another intake center in the District of Columbia Superior Court to meet the needs of underserved populations in other wards.  Legal Aid provides free legal services for men, women and children within the District who are survivors of domestic violence, including immigrants and members of the LGBT community.  It is wonderful to see the VAWA reflect the realities on the ground by expanding its protections to all people.

Sep 10


Legal Aid Helps Sex Trafficking Victim Obtain Protection Order Against Her Abuser

Wemi Peters, Staff Attorney

Ms. Smith came to Legal Aid for legal assistance in obtaining a Civil Protection Order (CPO) against her abuser, a child sex trafficker who had trafficked her across state lines as a teenager and forced her to sell her body for his financial profit. (We have changed her name to protect her identity.) Although the intersection between violence and sex trafficking may not be that surprising, cases like these are particularly disturbing. It is rare that a young survivor of sexual and physical violence finds the strength to fight back.  

Ms. Smith met the abuser in her mid teens. By then, he was already in his late twenties. He convinced her to run away from home with him so they could pursue Ms. Smith’s artistic dreams together. Young and in love, Ms. Smith agreed. That was the beginning of the abuser’s reign of terror over Ms. Smith’s life. The abuser forced Ms. Smith to work as a prostitute, beat her when she refused or failed bring home enough money, and convinced Ms. Smith that she was worthless and no one would love her. Ms. Smith told me that she found it difficult to love herself. The physical and sexual abuse continued for two years until the abuser was arrested for exploiting another young teenage girl.

Even in prison, the abuser’s power over Ms. Smith was apparent, and out of fear, she fled the city. When she finally returned to rebuild her life, the abuser was out of jail. He found Ms. Smith and soon returned to his abusive ways. But Ms. Smith was not the same naïve teenager as when they first met. This time, she was determined to stand up for herself.  Unfortunately, Ms. Smith’s resolve further angered the abuser and resulted in more severe physical abuse.

One hot summer night this year, after a particularly brutal beating in an alleyway, Ms. Smith had had enough.  She ran away from her abuser, and she never looked back. She filed for a Temporary Protective Order and a year-long Civil Protection Order at the South East Domestic Violence Center (DVIC), where we met. Ms. Smith was homeless and looking for shelter housing; she had no phone because the abuser had taken it from her. But she came to the Legal Aid looking for legal assistance. The emotional and physical drain that the abuse had taken on Ms. Smith was apparent on her face as well as her body. It was clear that Ms. Smith would struggle if she had to confront her abuser on her own.  She needed an attorney willing to advocate on her behalf and help her tell her story to the Judge.    

The court process was difficult. At the first hearing, Ms. Smith came to court very nervous. We were informed that the abuser had not been served with the necessary paperwork for her request for a CPO. Ms. Smith and I found out where the abuser lived and requested that the Court order the police to serve him. The next time Ms. Smith came to court, the abuser was present. Ms. Smith did not flinch when she saw the abuser. By then she had told me her story more than once, and I had gone over the CPO process with her a few times. Now that she had an understanding about what could occur, she was much more confident. With a lawyer by her side, Ms. Smith was prepared to confront the abuser in open court if necessary.  Her determination and poise were a shock to the abuser, who had been used to controlling her. He paced back and forth when he was not seated and looked restless in the courtroom. After negotiations, the abuser eventually agreed to consent to Ms. Smith’s petition for a Civil Protection Order.  After the Judge entered the order, Ms. Smith left the court brimming with pride.

Legal Aid’s domestic violence practice has grown in recent months. The growth has been Legal Aid’s response to a visible need in the community for legal services and advocacy to help domestic violence survivors. And in our view, it couldn’t have come soon enough.

Feb 10


Unique Challenges and Solutions for Undocumented Immigrant Survivors of Domestic Violence


Wemi Peters, Staff Attorney

An article published in the Washington Post yesterday shed light on the challenges faced by immigrant victims and survivors of domestic violence.  For all too many undocumented immigrant women suffering violence at the hands of husbands, boyfriends, and partners, the added threat of deportation is often a part of the abuse. Fear of losing their residency prevents many of these women from reporting domestic violence to the authorites, leaving them feeling powerless against their abusers. The article highlighted two forms of relief, however, that specifically address the immigration problems faced by undocumented survivors of domestic violence: the “U visa” and Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).  Both laws provide avenues for survivors to acquire legal residency in the United States.   

Every day, Legal Aid provides legal assistance to survivors of domestic violence in need of civil protection orders in the District. Yet, on many occasions, these survivors are undocumented immigrants who have suffered domestic violence silently, reluctant to bring themselves to seek help.  Although Legal Aid is unable to provide legal assistance for immigration-related issues for the survivors it serves, Legal Aid attorneys refer undocumented immigrant survivors to organizations, such as Ayuda, which do.

Work permits and legal residency may do little to ease the pain and trauma of a violent relationship, but they do provide the stability necessary for survivors to begin their lives anew.  Legal Aid is committed to helping all survivors, regardless of their immigration status, build stable and safe lives for themselves and their families.