Helping Survivors of Sexual Violence and Intimate Partner Violence in the Time of #MeToo and COVID-19

While pro bono volunteers positively impact clients across all fields, pro bono legal services can make an especially strong impact on the lives of survivors of sexual violence and intimate partner violence. After Tarana Burke created the ‘Me Too’ movement and the popularization of the #MeToo hashtag spread virally on social media in late 2017, awareness and action towards sexual violence have increased in many spaces across the United States and the world. This post examines issues of sexual violence and intimate partner violence (“IPV’) and their relation to the field of pro bono legal services, touching on why access to legal services is important for survivors of this violence, what pro bono opportunities exist to address these issues, and how sexual violence/IPV and related pro bono opportunities have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is sexual violence and intimate partner violence?

To discuss these issues, it is important to understand a few key terms and statistics:

Sexual violence is an “all-encompassing, non-legal term that refers to crimes like sexual assault, rape, and sexual abuse.” Examples of forms of sexual violence include sexual assault, incest, intimate partner sexual violence, child sexual abuse, drug-facilitated sexual assault, sexual assault of men and boys, etc. However, other crimes and forms of violence often occur in conjunction with these things, including (but not limited to): stalking, elder abuse, sexual harassment, cyber harassment, human trafficking, abuse of people with disabilities, and abuse by medical or other helping professionals.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) refers to “any behavior within an intimate relationship that causes physical, psychological, or sexual harm.” While the term “domestic violence” is commonly used to refer to partner violence, the term “intimate partner violence” is used to acknowledge a broader understanding of relationship violence and how it can occur in partnerships of varying genders, sexual orientations, and marital statuses. IPV, like sexual violence, can also appear as many different forms of abuse within a partnership. Examples of IPV include:

  • Physical violence, such as beating, hitting, slapping, kicking, etc.
  • Sexual violence, such as forced sexual intercourse, unwanted/uncomfortable touching, repeated unwanted sexual advances, etc.
  • Emotional abuse, such as name calling, humiliation, brainwashing, screaming, etc.
  • Economic abuse/exploitation, such as restricting access to financial resources, taking money, etc.
  • Isolation, such as restricting access to family and friends, controlling who a person communicates with, taking away access to technology, etc.
  • Intimidation, such as stalking, threats, displaying weapons, etc.
  • Coercion and threats, such as sexual coercion, threatening to take away children/restricting visitation, etc.

“Survivor”/“victim” refers to people who have experienced sexual violence/IPV, but serve entirely different purposes. The term “victim” often refers to an individual who has been subjected to and harmed by violence, and is more often used within the context of the criminal justice system. However, the term “survivor” refers to an individual who is going through or has gone through the recovery process after surviving sexual violence/IPV and is more often used by community-based advocacy groups and service providers.

Additionally, sexual violence is an issue that affects members of different communities at varying rates. While approximately 1 out of every 6 women and girls and 1 out of every 33 men and boys in the U.S. have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, young people are the most at-risk for sexual violence, with the majority of sexual assault victims being under 30 years old. Other factors like race and gender identity also inform rates of sexual violence, with TGQN (transgender, genderqueer, nonconforming) college students being at a higher risk of sexual violence than their non-TGQN peers and Native Americans being at the highest risk for sexual violence compared to all races.

Why is legal assistance important for survivors of sexual violence?

Access to legal services is especially important for sexual violence survivors for a number of reasons. After medical services, legal services are the most-requested need for those affected by sexual violence and IPV. However, despite this large demand for legal services among survivors, approximately 64% of women report not receiving any kind of legal services after incidents of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner. This number poses a huge problem especially when considering the effectiveness of legal services on situations of sexual violence and IPV. As noted by Amy Farmer and Jill Tiefenthaler in Explaining the Recent Decline in Domestic Violence, legal services help survivors navigate practical matters like custody, child support, protective orders, etc., ultimately appearing to “present women with real, long-term alternatives to their relationships.” The relationship between access to legal services and protective orders is particularly strong, with approximately 83% of survivors represented by an attorney successfully obtaining protective orders compared to only 32% of protective orders issued to survivors without legal representation. Additionally, abuse has been shown to stop or greatly decline in 86% of cases where protective orders are successfully obtained for survivors.

What kinds of related pro bono programs exist for sexual violence/IPV? 

Many programs are available for attorneys and legal professionals wanting to volunteer to assist survivors of IPV and sexual violence. As types of cases for sexual violence and IPV range from focuses like immigration, employment, and family law to more specific matters like civil protection orders, divorce & property division, and child custody & support, there is a large demand for legal professionals across many different interests.

Legal opportunities in this sphere include:

  • Advice clinics and hotlines for those impacted by sexual violence/IPV
  • Legal representation
  • Impact litigation and policy advocacy
  • Community outreach and education
  • Litigation support
  • Mentoring other volunteers
  • Legal assistance for non-profit organizations

In the United States, many pro bono projects focused on tackling IPV and sexual violence exist at state-wide and national levels, ranging from opportunities by non-profit legal and advocacy organizations to projects organized by private law firms.

Many of the nonprofit organizations across the U.S. with sexual violence and IPV-related pro bono opportunities are often devoted to legal areas that intersect greatly with issues like sexual violence, such as immigration law, family law, civil rights, housing, employment, and many more. In California, the Immigration Center for Women and Children provides legal services to underrepresented immigrants in California and Nevada, with services including assistance with obtaining U and T visas (for victims of trafficking and violence), as well as SIJS status (Special Immigrant Juvenile Status), probate guardianships, and DACA status (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). The New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project (AVP) is another regional example of anti-violence services intertwining with related legal areas, as AVP provides free, holistic legal services to LGBTQ and HIV-affected survivors in New York City Family Court, Housing Court, and Civil Court, as well as assisting with immigration matters. Other nonprofit organizations, such as the Victim Rights Law Center, may focus specifically on issues of sexual violence and IPV, providing free, trauma-informed civil legal services to sexual violence survivors in Massachusetts and Oregon.

Coordinated initiatives may also exist at the state-wide and national levels to address sexual violence and IPV through the lens of pro bono. One example of pro bono legal services centralized at the state level is the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (ANDVSA), a nonprofit organization that works to support 21 domestic violence and sexual assault programs around the state of Alaska through legislative and legal advocacy, pro bono legal services, and statewide coordination for various types of advocacy and violence prevention programming. Through coordination between trained legal advocates statewide who refer cases to the legal program and their network of staff and pro bono attorneys, the ANDVSA Legal Program provides free assistance to low-income sexual violence survivors in civil proceedings as well as mentorship, resources, and training materials for new volunteers. The American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence also has a variety of initiatives and resources to address sexual violence and IPV through pro bono, such as their toolkit for implementing the Pro Bono Work to Empower and Represent (POWER) Act of 2018, the Survivor Reentry Project (SRP) to train and assist attorneys working with human trafficking survivors convicted of crimes resulting from their victimization, and the LGBT+ Legal Access Project to provide support, training, and technical assistance to address domestic and sexual violence in LGBT+ communities.

Individual law firms may also develop sexual violence and IPV-related pro bono opportunities such as the Domestic Violence Project at Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo*, an ongoing, nearly 30 year-long pro bono project comprised of firm attorneys, paraprofessionals, and staff members working on behalf of individual domestic violence survivors and serving as legal counsel for over 25 organizations devoted to combatting sexual violence. A program that continues to operate and expand across several of Mintz’s offices, Mintz and many of its individual attorneys have been recognized by organizations such as the American, Massachusetts, and Boston Bar Associations, National Network to End Domestic Violence, Victim Rights Law Center, and many others for their representation of sexual assault and domestic violence survivors through the Domestic Violence Project.

What are challenges and strategies for providing legal assistance to survivors during COVID-19? 

On top of the existing challenges of sexual violence and IPV for survivors and advocates, the COVID-19 pandemic has created many additional obstacles for these groups and larger organizations. Due to the CDC’s constantly developing quarantine and social distancing protocols, survivors may be forced into heightened contact with their abusers and experience increased levels of violence during the pandemic.

In addition to the devastating health effects of COVID-19, the pandemic has presented widespread uncertainty for many across the globe, with the existence of new difficulties related to decline in income, lack of access to healthcare and mental health services, food insecurity, loss of employment, among many others, creating or exacerbating potentially harmful situations. The National Women’s Law Center warns that the health and economic crises caused by COIVD increase the risk of domestic and sexual violence, and that many survivors of violence now lack a safe haven outside of the home. Concerns are not solely limited to the U.S., as the dramatic increase in suspected domestic homicides in places like the United Kingdom compounded with delayed government responses to abuse during the pandemic have raised concerns among advocacy groups and many Members of Parliament.

Fortunately, many organizations dedicated to fighting sexual violence and IPV have transitioned to remote services during this time while creating new services such as hotlines or virtual resource hubs with COVID-19-specific information. Listed below are a few examples of how the above organizations have adapted their services during the pandemic:

In addition to volunteer lawyers representing individual survivors during COVID-19, there are opportunities to work remotely on policy and advocacy to support survivors. Even while COVID-19 continues to devastate lives and disrupt societal systems and norms, it is critical to find ways to assist survivors and victims whose support systems have become complicated or are failing. As the Victim Rights Law Center says, a pro bono attorney is ‘a powerful legal ally in a sexual assault survivor’s recovery.’

*denotes a Law Firm Pro Bono Challenge® signatory

Hat tip to PBI intern Brooke Weichel for drafting this blog. 

Interested in learning more about #MeToo and TIME’s UP? Check out PBI’s virtual conference webinar, now available on demandUsing Media in Your Cases: Perspectives from the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund.