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Rappaport Center Panel Discusses Domestic Violence and the Justice System

Beyond interpersonal violence, survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault also face systemic violence, according to Hema Sarang-Sieminski, deputy director at Jane Doe Inc.

“I was hearing survivors who were talking as much about their experiences of deep pain and harm and betrayal from people they loved, who caused them harm,” Sarang-Sieminski said. “But equally—if not more so—about the pain and harm of systems that they were interacting with.”

On Wednesday, Boston College Law School’s Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy hosted a panel to discuss past, present, and pending policies regarding domestic violence. 

As a survivor of domestic violence, panelist Emily Dillan, judicial law clerk for the Bristol County Probate & Family Court, said many instances of domestic violence go unreported.

“The reality is, I never reported,” Dillan said. “I was afraid of the consequences. I was afraid of the consequences that would be inflicted on me—socially, societally—and I was afraid of the consequences that would be inflicted on my abuser, criminally and socially, as well.”

Dillan said systems in place to help survivors of domestic violence are not alone sufficient—support needs to be extended to abusers as well.

“Hurt people hurt people,” Dillan said. “Had there been more, let’s say, systems in place that could have helped my abuser, perhaps that would have helped us get out of the dynamic that we found ourselves in.”

According to panelist Racel Biscardi, supervising attorney at Northeast Legal Aid, the current justice system sometimes fails to work in the interest of survivors of domestic assault when children are involved.

“The probate and family court was designed to look at the best interests of the child,” said Biscardi. “So, unless they can make the nexus between the domestic violence that occurred and how that impacts the child, it’s very hard for a survivor to be able to succeed in convincing the court of what it is that would be best for the children.”

Biscard also said lawmakers need to recognize that survivors of domestic violence do not always fit the stereotype of a white, middle-aged, wealthy, straight woman.

“I think there’s this perception that survivors should look a certain way and act a certain way,” Biscardi said. “We’re human beings. We just don’t. Until there’s a way that the law can recognize the ways, especially in the way people present in court, I think we’re going to have problems with there being any kind of justice.”

Restorative justice practices are used to facilitate communication between the victim and the perpetrator, according to Dillan.

“It gives a survivor an opportunity to tell their story, to be heard,” Dillan said. “Because in their relationships, whether that’s family or an intimate partner, they usually aren’t heard … [restorative justice] forces them to sit down and listen, and that right there is a very powerful thing.”

While restorative justice provides survivors with an opportunity to have a cooperative conversation with their abuser, it also poses the risk of retraumatization and manipulation by an abuser, Sarang-Sieminski added.

“What can we offer to survivors to create processes where there is some level of accountability and being heard and understanding about the impact of domestic violence and sexual assault on all of us?” Sarang-Sieminski asked.

Sarang-Sieminski said having experiences of domestic violence be invalidated in court leads many survivors to forego seeking justice altogether.

“How do we recognize the fact that if a survivor is not coming back to court because of how they were treated, that’s a problem, that’s a public safety concern?” Sarang-Sieminski asked.

March 3, 2024