Enabling Justice: The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Conference

For the last 24 years, anti-domestic violence experts have gathered every other year at the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence conference to share insights and experiences about working to end domestic violence. Sakhi has been a long-time member of this national coalition, with staff regularly attending and presenting at the conference. This year, Purvi Shah, Sakhi’s Executive Director, and Catherine Shugrue dos Santos, Deputy Clinical Director for economic empowerment programs for Sanctuary for Families, presented on best practices and lessons learned from the Justice Speaks advocacy project to ensure language access in the justice system.

This year’s conference took place in Washington, D.C. at the Omni Shoreham Hotel from July 18th through the 23rd. The conference was filled with workshops and enrichment sessions, with various professionals in the field presenting on their work.

“We talked about the things that helped us and things that we did wrong in order to foster advocacy knowledge and help build our movement so that we can all better serve survivors and end abuse,” Purvi said. The presentation began by explaining the barriers immigrant survivors of domestic violence face such as fear around cultural stigma and loss of economic security. Purvi and Catherine, who co-chair the Justice Speaks Initiative, explained the role of court interpreters and the impact they have on court proceedings and survivors’ lives.

Catherine observed, “Domestic violence occurs in the most intimate of relationships – it has its power rooted there. Yet the systems with which domestic violence survivors interact — and must contend — often reinforce trauma by denying access to healing, to pathways to economic independence, and to justice.”

The results of a Justice Speaks convenient sample survey gathered in 2007 demonstrated a deep need for legal and interpreting services. Out of the 171 survey participants, 77% did not have a lawyer, 26% did not feel comfortable speaking English, and 40% of participants who did not feel proficient in English did not know that the courts could provide an interpreter.

Purvi and Catherine shared steps that played instrumental roles in the success of the Justice Speaks project. “Coalition-building was key,” Purvi said, as she and Catherine explained how to recognize natural allies and understand the difference between allies and partners.

Catherine added, “It is essential that we as domestic violence advocates think about how we can identify ways in which to make social change, to further the aims of the movement, find partners in the community and in government, and carve out common goals towards which we can work collaboratively. It is also important to recognize the times and places in which collaboration is not appropriate or possible if there are not those common goals or a common vision of how we get to a common goal.”

The co-chairs highlighted some of the partnership-based successes of the Justice Speaks project. For example, in 2006, members of Justice Speaks co-authored an article that appeared in Proteus, the newsletter of the National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (NAJIT). Though court interpreters and domestic violence advocates are not natural allies, this partnership enabled court interpreters to gain more information on domestic violence issues and led to change from within the system. One major success includes Justice Speaks’ work in mobilizing the New York State Office of Court Administration to release a work plan to improve the court interpreter system. The plan implemented mandatory testing for interpreters in English, mandatory training and the first pay increase for per diem interpreters in a decade. Finally, in October 2007, New York State passed Court Rule 217, obligating civil and criminal courts to appoint interpreters for Limited English Proficient court users.

“I think it was a productive conversation,” Purvi said. “A lot of agencies focus on direct services only so it is important to have a conversation about how macro-level change happens when rooted in experience which comes from day-to-day service delivery.” She explained that given the troubled economy, funding has become an even larger issue for agencies and that many organizations don’t have the resources allocated to address policy issues. “Sharing our learning and paths to success is a nice way to give back to the field,” she said.