Helping Others Feel Safe

My Summer at the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Ione Curva ‘07

D. C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence
My summer internship with the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence has been the most meaningful experience that I have ever had in a work environment. For the first time, I worked in a job that was not able to pay me for my assistance, and yet I have gotten so much more than money could ever provide me. When I was searching for jobs for the summer, I decided to go to www.idealist.org because a friend told me that I would be able to find a lot of opportunities with non-profit organizations. I have worked at corporate places before, as well some non-profit organizations. While I had a variety of different tasks, I never felt as though I was put to full-use and that my supervisors were taking advantage of all of my skills and capabilities. I attributed part of this to the fact that I was usually at the bottom of the food chain, so perhaps supervisors did not really trust that I could take on difficult tasks. I also thought that maybe my supervisors did not really understand that I wanted to make a long-lasting contribution to the organization. Perhaps they thought that to me, it was just a summer job, something to keep me occupied and off of the couch. But in every job that I have had, I have always come into it with a positive attitude that I would be able to not only learn something, but also be able to contribute and help somehow make the organization run more smoothly. I am just so thankful that I was able to give as much, if not more, than I was able to get out of this internship.
Starting my search for a summer internship was a somewhat long process. I initially applied for a similar position at Doorways for Women and Families in Arlington, VA. Upon doing my research, I found that Doorways was a non-profit organization that provided shelter to abused, homeless, and at-risk women and families. Its ultimate goal was to help clients develop abilities in order to become self-sufficient. I could definitely see the benefits of this environment on my goal to have a career in counseling, because I knew the types of stories and situations I would hear about would be emotionally and psychologically taxing and also would assist me in improving my communication skills. When I had my phone interview, both the organization and I were very excited to work together, but my dates conflicted with their starting date. Since Dartmouth runs on a quarter system instead of the semester system, I would not be able to be trained with other volunteers. However, the woman I spoke with me referred me to The District of Columbia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a similar non-profit organization in the heart of Washington D.C. My late start did not appear to be a problem with Nicole Smolter, the Volunteer Coordinator at the Coalition. And the position itself was more appealing because it not only psychological/emotional requirements but also some legal aspects, which seemed to be doubly challenging.
The D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence is the umbrella organization in the Washington D.C. area that deals with instances of domestic violence. The Coalition offers many different types of services, including aiding clients in obtaining temporary and permanent protection orders, providing referrals to other social services agencies for things such as food, shelter, etc., and raising general awareness about domestic violence. The Coalition was established in 1986 by women from local community groups whose goal was to eradicate domestic violence in the District of Columbia. The DCCADV’s mission is to eliminate all types of relationship violence, and to build bridges between organizations in the D.C. community to ensure safety, security, and justice to those dealing with violence and abuse both directly and indirectly. The DCCADV utilizes advocacy, direct services, public education, public policy, training, and research to achieve its goals. Each year it deals with about 7,000 clients directly who experience domestic violence. The Coalition has its headquarters in the Moultrie Courthouse in Northwest Washington D.C. but also has a smaller program in a Southeast office.
My position was called Court Advocate Intern. When I spoke with Nicky Smolter on the phone, she told me that I would be working for the SAFE (Survivors and Advocates for Empowerment) program of the Coalition. I would work at the intake center and help explain the process of obtaining a legal protection order, and also in Court, talking to clients before their hearings. I was ecstatic to know that I would be able to deal with clients directly, but also a bit nervous about how I would be received by them. I have not gone to law school or been trained in counseling. I knew that our job was as advocates, not counselors or lawyers. In fact, our organization often helps clients to find counselors or lawyers to help them along the process of fighting against domestic violence. But I knew that I would be drawing upon skills and tactics related to both the psychological and legal fields, and the prospect of having to develop these skills was both challenging and exciting.
I was starting my internship two weeks later than the other interns, and coming in on my first day to the fourth floor of the Thomas Moultrie Family Courthouse was a bit intimidating. A somewhat harsh African-American woman directed me to a door with a SAFE sticker on it. I knocked and crammed inside this tiny space were six other people, in a room a meant for four maximum. I introduced myself as the new intern and was told to wait in the waiting room while someone called Nicky, the woman I had spoken with on the telephone.
I followed someone downstairs to the first floor and met Nicky, a very cheerful 20something, and went with her to her office. For two hours, we went over the intern binder which contained a variety of information that I would later find I would have to refer to constantly. We talked a bit about the definition of domestic violence and the misconceptions that people often have about it. The challenge of our job was to help clients realize that the violence was not their fault. No one deserves to be abused by someone they love. After my mini-orientation, I sat in the courtroom with some of the other advocates and interns and watched the Civil Protection Order hearings unfold in front of me. There were four possible outcomes, and on my first day, I was fortunate enough to see each type. First, a case could be continued if the respondent (the person whom our client, the petitioner, filed against) had not been served with notice. The case could also be continued for other reasons, such as obtaining a lawyer or attorney. Secondly, a case could be dismissed without prejudice by the judge if the petitioner was absent or if the petitioner wanted to get rid of the case. Instances like the latter were often frustrating for us, since we often worried that perhaps the client was being intimidated into getting rid of the charges by their abuser. Thirdly, a petitioner could get their protection order by default. If the respondent received proper notice of the order being filed and didn’t show up to court, then the judge would issue the protection order after the petitioner swore that all the statements were factual and that she felt afraid for her safety. The judge would also issue a bench warrant for the respondent’s arrest for failure to appear in court. The last option was an actual hearing. If both the petitioner and respondent were at court, each would get a chance to talk to the attorney negotiator, a neutral party who worked for the court. The negotiator would first talk to the petitioner to make sure that her order was correct and to see if she wanted to modify any of the stipulations. He would then talk to the respondent to see if he would agree to the terms. Such agreement was called consent without admission. The respondent agreed to stay away but did not admit to the truth of the allegations. However, if the respondent contested the order and did not want to obey it, then both parties would go in front of the judge when the case was called. Each side would tell their side of the story, and had the ability to introduce evidence, witnesses, and other testimony. Usually cases were settled so a hearing would not have to happen, but when they did, it was interesting to see the range of stories and to hear both sides of a story. For the most part, petitioners were usually female and the respondents male, and during hearings, usually the judge would rule in favor of the petitioner and grant the Civil Protection Order. However, there were always surprises and exceptions. Sometimes there would be a cross petition with each party filing against the other and being filed against. Sometimes a male would file against an abusive female. Sometimes there would be multiple respondents being filed against. There were an endless variety of cases, all of which intrigued me because I’ve had a long-lasting interest in law. Most petitioners were in court pro se, defending themselves without a lawyer because of limited attorneys available to help. A lot of clients were nervous and scared to go before the judge by themselves, especially with other strangers in the courtroom having to hear their intimate stories of abuse and pain. I admired each and every one of our clients though who had the courage and resolve to stand up and get the protection and safety that they deserved and that we all take for granted.
The SAFE program is a relatively new one, having been established a mere ten years ago in 1986. The Domestic Violence Intake Center (DVIC), where we initially received clients, is a collaborative project of government and non-government agencies designed to provide coordinated services to domestic violence survivors in the District of Columbia. Some of the partners include the US Attorney’s Office, D.C. Office of the Attorney General, the Metropolitan Police Department, Women Empowered Against Violence (WEAVE), Crime Victims Compensation Program, Legal Aid Society, Ramona’s Way, Center for Child Protection/Victim Service Center, and the D.C. Superior Court Clerk’s Office. Despite our many linked organizations, I found out quickly that our office was quite small. There was the supervisor of the SAFE program, five full-time advocates, and five interns. One of the main problems over the summer became lack of space. Though not everyone was present each day, on the days when everyone was at work, we’d be scrambling from cubicle to office to cubicle to hallway, just searching for a place to go.
I was trained first in the Courthouse because it was easier to understand the Civil Protection Order process by watching actual hearings. However, the first step to the whole process was talking to clients at the Intake Center. When clients came in, their emotional state ranged widely. Sometimes clients would be very minimal on details and just say they needed protection without going too deep into their stories. We took down basic contact information and the name of the respondent, but we would never pressure anyone to tell us their stories. Some were much more talkative though, often getting emotional. The first client I had to deal with on my own was younger than me, a mere 18 years old. She started crying hysterically and it took a lot of self-control for me to not do the same. I am quite an emotional person and I cry easily, and to hear her horrific story of abuse really touched me and made me want to empathize. However, one thing I learned about my job is to try and not take things so personally. There were so many heartbreaking stories and situations that I got to hear about, but I knew that clients needed someone to be strong so that they could be strong themselves. After they spoke with us advocates, clients would talk to an intake counselor from WEAVE who would help type up the actual petition and incidents of domestic violence. Then clients would go to the clerk’s office and be brought down to see a judge for a temporary emergency protection order that went into effect from that day for fourteen days. In two weeks, clients came back to the Courthouse for their hearing for a Civil Protection Order, which was an order that lasted for twelve months.
Besides speaking with clients in the Intake Center and at Court, I had a variety of other tasks, some of which I had not expected. I indicated when I applied for this internship that I was a Spanish major and considered myself fluent. Though there were two full-time bi-lingual advocates, sometimes things got so hectic and busy that I would have to translate from Spanish to English and vice versa for clients who came in. The tricky thing about it was that I didn’t always know how to translate certain legal terms in Spanish, so I had to come up with simpler ways to explain some parts of the process. I also often had to sit with clients while they were waiting either in the clerk’s office or judge’s chamber because they were so frightened to be by themselves. It was often difficult because I didn’t want to talk too much and intrude on their privacy if they didn’t talk to me initially, but I also wanted them to know that I was friendly and available to listen if they had any questions or concerns. After we met with clients, we would have to call them up to follow up and make sure that they didn’t need help with anything else and they weren’t being bothered by respondents after they got their temporary orders. If the respondent was violating an order, we told our client to call the police to enforce it and/or to come back to our office to file a motion for criminal contempt.
I also had some less glamorous tasks, such as filing documents and entering data into the computer about client visits and court outcomes. I also often had to research resources for clients so that we could refer them to other social services agencies. Most often we had to help clients find temporary housing. We worked with a program called Crime Victims Compensation, which could help place victims in either a hotel or shelter, for up to 30 days, as long as they had a protection order. However, things became trickier if our client was a male or if the client did not have a temporary order or if they had been through the system before. Sometimes I was not able to do things on my own and had to confer with a supervisor to help deal with a specific situation. I also often had to write referral letters for food, counseling, child care opportunities, youth programs, job training, etc.
I also had a long-term project that I helped come up with. My supervisor Ileana asked me what I wanted to do, and I knew early on that there was a specific aspect of my job that I was interested in – effect of domestic violence on teenagers and college-age students. Since my freshman year at Dartmouth I have been a Sexual Abuse Peer Advisor (SAPA), lending myself out as a resource to peers on issues of sexual abuse. However, I don’t feel that the program quite adequately covers issues of general relationship abuse, not just sexual abuse. I wanted to create a brochure of information with resources specific for my age group and with information relevant to young relationships without coming off too preachy or condescending. After a few weeks of research and endless time on Microsoft Publisher, I created a brochure for our organization and our clients with resources in the Washington D.C. area. I also felt extra motivated and decided to create one for Dartmouth College with resources in the Hanover area. I e-mailed Dick’s House, Dartmouth’s student medical center, as well as the head of the Sexual Abuse Awareness Program and the Center for Women and Gender, to see if my brochure could possibly be circulated and distributed in various centers on campus. I was fortunate enough to receive a positive response, and in the fall when I return I hope that my brochure will be able to be passed around so that my peers can be more aware of relationship violence and get rid of certain stereotypes and misconceptions that such situations do not exist. Relationship violence is more than just a slap in the face or forced sexual encounters. Emotional and psychological abuse are so prevalent in many relationships that I have seen, either my own or my friends, and often they are ignored because students think that they don’t either have a right or need to do anything about them. I want to show my peers that relationship abuse is not normal and that there are measures one can take to deal with such negativity.

MENTORSHIP

I was a bit apprehensive about the mentor component of the DPCS grant. I thought it was a great idea to pair us up with Dartmouth alumni in jobs that were related to our interests, but I was not assigned someone early on so I was concerned that maybe it was difficult for Tucker to find a similar enough match for myself. However, I had a wonderful experience with my mentor and would even go far to venture and say that we even became friends.
I was paired up with Hope McGowan of the class of 1976. I e-mailed her prior to my arrival into Washington D.C. and we both shared similar feelings of excitement but also lack of knowledge of how this relationship was to work. We had our first meeting at the Women’s Museum in D.C. We had lunch and I learned a lot about how she got to where she works today at the Department of Justice Pardon Attorney’s Office. Like me, she was unsure during her senior year of what she wanted to do so she took a few years off to work for a judge, and eventually ended up going to law school in Colorado. She ended up in D.C. after passing the bar exam and has been working for the Department of Justice for many years. She started out as a trial attorney but eventually landed in the Pardon Attorney’s Office because she preferred to do more behind-the-scenes type of work.
Our second visit was much more informal. Hope invited me to her home in Bethesda and cooked dinner while we talked about a lot of different things, ranging from my career aspirations to how life at Dartmouth has changed in the past twenty years. Our third visit was lunch at the Red Sage followed by a personal tour of the Pardon Attorney’s Office. The Office wasn’t as large as I thought it would be, but it was a wonderful, close-knit environment. The type of work Hope did – reading applications of people seeking pardons for small crimes to crimes as large as homicide – was fascinating to me. Hope said if I were ever in D.C. again to call her up and she’d find a way to help me, either with housing or finding a job. It was so wonderful to get to know her and to find someone so accomplished and dignified, but who as an undergraduate wasn’t quite sure where she wanted her life to head.

LET YOUR LIFE SPEAK

After reading Let Your Life Speak by Parker J. Palmer, I feel a lot of encouragement about the revelations I had come to at the end of my experience. While Dartmouth is a liberal arts college, there is no doubt in my mind that it also breeds a culture of competition where students strive to get the best corporate job i.e. the one that will make them the most money. While obviously my peers have a lot of different career goals, there is a sense that we are meant to be great and to do great things, and that usually entails making a lot of money. I don’t want to generalize, but the majority of people I know want to get a job as an I-banker or consultant. While I don’t want to bash any of these choices, because each person has the right to do what he or she wants, I would not find a job personally fulfilling because the only person I see who really would benefit from it would be me. The book really hit home for me because Palmer talks a lot about how we can often lose ourselves because of others’ expectations. He writes, “As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern our selfhood but to fit us into slots” (p.12). Often there is pressure from outside forces, be it indirectly through peers or directly from parents, to do what people expect.
What I learned from my incredible job this summer is that you have to be true to yourself. Regardless of what others expect of you, in the end you must stay true to yourself and do what you really want. If your heart is not in the work that you do, it will show in the execution and results. Palmer says that being dishonest with the self is the most dangerous thing one can do, and that “the punishment imposed on us for claiming true self can never be worse than the punishment we impose on ourselves by failing to make that claim” (p.34). We are our own worst critics; at least I know I am. If I do things that go against my heart, I always mentally and emotionally berate myself more so than any other outside force could do. Picking a vocation is an incredibly complex task, for one could devote her whole life to something. In order to be happy and make a difference, one cannot just do a job that one thinks one should do. Your heart must be in it or the effect will not be as strong.
One controversial part of the book was when Palmer talked about the idea of limitations. He says, “One problem as Americans . . . is that we resist the very idea of limits, regarding limits of all sorts as temporary and regrettable impositions on our lives” (p.42). He goes on later to say, “Despite the American myth, I cannot be or do whatever I desire – a truism, to be sure, but a truism we often defy” (p.44). Palmer makes a large point early on the in the book by saying that we often do jobs that we think we should but don’t have a true investment in. Despite being capable of doing a job, that does not mean that one should do it. This may be what he means by saying he cannot do whatever he desires, because it’s not fair to him or to others for him to be doing a job that he does not really care about. I do disagree on his view of limitations. Like we have been trained from childhood in America, there may be physical, economic, or other types of limitations, but I do believe that with enough hard work and effort, one could do anything. Whatever one lacks, she may acquire either through learning, experience, connections, etc. This does not necessarily mean one should do something, but I do believe that one can do anything she puts her mind to. Overcoming challenges shows one’s true strength and determination. Working hard for what you want is something that everyone should aspire to do.
I have gotten so much out of my internship and I was quite sad when I had to leave. The other interns left two weeks before I did so the last two weeks of my job were quite busy, with me running up and down from the Courtroom to the Intake Center. However, I enjoyed not having much downtime because I had a lot more responsibility and dealt with a lot of clients. All the work I have done has definitely helped clarify some of my career goals for the future. I had previously been debating on going to graduate school for my PhD in psychology or to law school, and while I think those are still possibilities for far into the future, I have decided that after graduation from Dartmouth I would like to go to graduate school and obtain my Masters in Social Work. I want to specialize in Clinical Social Work so that eventually I may be able to have my own practice, but I am quite eager to work in a setting similar to the Coalition. I want to be able to help all sorts of people and I believe that the social work field is one where I am comfortable and also can make a difference. I am so thankful for my experience this summer. Not only did I meet some amazing co-workers and make new friends, but I have a greater insight into the type of work that I would like to embark upon in the future.