Unsafe at Home

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Imagine that you live in a place where, if your husband beats you, there’s no law against it. Or maybe there is a law, but nobody tells you about it. Imagine that there’s no place to go for help. Or actually, there are places to go, but you can’t find out where they are. Imagine that the doctors can’t help you: you sense that they want to, but you can’t make them understand what you’re saying. Imagine getting kicked out of your apartment, with your kids, because the landlord won’t tolerate domestic violence on his property; imagine being scared to go to the police or apply for a job, because you might lose your kids or get kicked out of the country.

All too often, this is reality for immigrant and refugee women in the Twin Cities. Although the rates of domestic violence aren’t believed to be any higher in the immigrant and refugee communities, these women suffer more severe consequences because they lack access to services and protections that should, by international human rights standards, be available to them.

This was the finding of a report published by Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. That report, “The Government Response to Domestic Violence Against Refugee and Immigrant Women in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Metropolitan Area: A Human Rights Report,” also appears to have sparked a movement to improve the situation.

A Catalyst for Change
The authors of the report, who worked on it for two years, were bowled over by its reception. “I knew that there was a big need, but I didn’t expect to be quite so overwhelmed by the interest,” said Cheryl Thomas, director of Minnesota Advocates’ Women’s Human Rights Program and one of the report’s authors.

Even before it was published in December 2004, the report had generated considerable buzz among local agencies, said Thomas. The city attorney’s office called and wanted a presentation last fall. Since then, Thomas and her small staff have given almost two dozen presentations on the report to a variety of different audiences, from police to health professionals to community groups. “It’s peaking in the last two to three months,” she said, “but still going strong.”

Although Minnesota Advocates has published several reports on government response to domestic abuse in other countries, Thomas said, their work has never met with such positive and immediate interest. “I just am really heartened by the community response to it,” she said. “We haven’t had this kind of response ever, in any country where we’ve worked, since 1993. It’s really been a very positive response within agencies. I really am hopeful about it.”

Thomas hopes that the 81 recommendations that conclude the report—addressed to the governor, the Legislature, law enforcement, prosecutors, courts, judges, shelters and others—will be implemented, so that abused immigrant and refugee women will be able to get the services they need (see sidebar for excerpts of recommendations).

Someone to Tell the Story
The single most critical service for these women is an interpreter, said Thomas.

“We need more certified interpreters. We’re in desperate need of that in this state,” she said.

Co-author Molly Beutz, who worked on the report while she was on a legal fellowship at Minnesota Advocates, agreed. “I think that language accessibility is really important. The language barriers that face women in the courts and in the hospital and when the police arrive on the scene—it has such an effect on whether they’re able to access resources. It compounds things in so many different ways.”

“All kinds of things can happen to derail what happens in the justice system,” Thomas explained. “When that woman stands in front of them, [judges] may not have understanding of the immediate consequences. If they can understand the whole picture … they may change what they do in the courtroom.”

Women don’t just need more interpreters: they need trustworthy interpreters. As the authors of the report explain, bad interpreters can impede an abused woman’s access to justice through intimidation and unethical behavior. Partly in response to the report, Minnesota’s Supreme Court has redrafted the rules that deal with complaints against and discipline for interpreters, said Thomas. The new rules should make it easier for a victim (or court personnel) to file such a complaint and to see action taken, if the complaint is justified.

The Right to Security
This report is Minnesota Advocates’ fifteenth on government response to domestic violence, and it is by far the most complicated, said Thomas. “Minnesota has a 30-year history of response to domestic violence. Contrast that to Armenia. [That report] was very short. This is an analysis of laws, gaps and nuances, misapplication of laws and policies.”

Using a human rights framework allowed the authors to structure the report around the government’s responsibility to abused immigrant and refugee women. Their position is spelled out at the beginning of Chapter 3, International Human Rights Law Obligations:

“To the extent that government authorities in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area have not taken adequate steps to prevent, prosecute, investigate, punish and redress acts of domestic violence against immigrant women, they are not in compliance with international human rights standards.”

The authors stop short of saying that local government is in violation of international law. “If I were writing it like a legal brief, I might say it that way,” said Thomas. “There are certain areas where women are seeking certain services that are guaranteed by law, and they’re not getting them.”

But Minnesota Advocates didn’t set out to bring a lawsuit, which would have required a different approach, she explained. “This was not that situation. We tried to get a sense of what was happening with women in general.”

It’s not hard to imagine, in this political climate, people who would insist that the premise of the report is faulty: why should the Twin Cities care about international law?

To this, Thomas responds: “International human rights standards are reflected in our federal Constitution and in the Minnesota state constitution and our laws and policies. These laws are our very own, here in Minnesota—all those basic human rights principles are reflected in our own state and national law.”

As for the topic of their next report? As bad as things are in the Twin Cities, they’re even worse in rural Minnesota, said Beutz.

“We weren’t looking outside the metro area,” she said, “and if anything it only gets more and more difficult in rural areas. There are more services here, even though there are gaps.”

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