This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Law school network fights domestic violence

Published: July 3, 2008

Contributing Editor

Two UB Law School faculty members have taken steps to make the school a world-renowned center for confronting what they call the epidemic of domestic-violence crimes, locally and internationally.

Isabel S. Marcus and Suzanne E. Tomkins have used their teaching positions at UB to coordinate a network of domestic violence advocacy that so far reaches from the classrooms of O’Brian Hall to at least two other continents.

Both recently have organized a network within the Law School of professors who share their passion for training professionals to address the widespread problem of domestic abuse, cultivate advocacy for victims, improve the legal system’s response to domestic violence and support research on related subjects, such as women prisoners returning to society.

“The issue of domestic violence is a very compelling one and it has international, as well as national and local dimensions,” says Marcus, who previously chaired UB’s Department of Women’s Studies. “If you start thinking about it as a framing category for work and for thinking about the world, then you can find people who suddenly say, ‘That’s a topic I should include in my studies.’

“Our work and advocacy are from the ground up,” adds Marcus. “We’re all grass-roots people, so we all believe you don’t take the structure from the top and then say, ‘How does everybody fit in?’’’

The informal group is called Domestic Violence: Different Voices. Marcus and Tomkins say it is an extension of an overlapping domestic violence advocacy network—at UB, in the Western New York community and at the national and international levels.

“We’re growing our program at the Law School to include not only more U.S. lawyers, but also young attorneys from around the world interested in violence-against-women issues. We work with our colleagues from other countries and share ideas. In that process, our law students are exposed to issues and solutions from other parts of the world,” says Tomkins, who directs UB Law’s Women, Children and Social Justice Clinic.

“What we hope to accomplish eventually is to build a network made up of attorneys in the public sector and in the nongovernmental organization sector who then use their knowledge and skills in creating an effective response to domestic violence in other parts of the world.”

The list of related activities organized by UB Law School professors include, but are not limited to:

  • The Women, Children and Social Justice Clinic. Students work in legal-service agencies, social service agencies, prosecutor or legislative offices and participate in a range of legal counseling, advocacy and research to address the problems of family violence. The clinic also serves as a resource throughout New York, assisting communities in creating a coordinated response to domestic violence.

  • The Domestic Violence Task Force, a volunteer organization open to UB Law students. Among the task force’s activities is an annual spa day for residents and clients of Haven House, a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Erie County.

  • Development of a new eight-week certificate program for international prosecutors. Participants will take UB courses on domestic violence, as well as meet with local professionals dealing with domestic-violence issues. Creation of the program follows the yearlong studies of Brazilian prosecutor Eduardo Machado, who came to UB last year to study strategies to increase the effectiveness of a recently adopted domestic-violence law in Brazil.

  • Tomkins traveled to Brazil in February for a series of presentations on domestic violence. An expected audience of several hundred people grew to 2,000, including legal professionals, law-enforcement officials, medical providers, law faculty, students and people from the community. “The response was overwhelming,” Tomkins says. “I went to the women’s police stations, to the slums, and met with people from the community. Everywhere I went, people would be lined up to tell me their stories or ask me whether I was aware of how many women who were victims of domestic violence were killed in a particular area. It was clear to me that the country is poised to create significant change in its response to domestic violence.”

  • Marcus has lectured extensively at Eastern European universities and has worked with nongovernmental organizations in that region. She established an International Visiting Scholar award for a women’s rights lawyer from the region, taking a salary reduction to help pay for the scholar to study domestic-violence issues at the UB Law School. The lawyer, Maia Jaliashvilia, 24, from the former Soviet Union Republic of Georgia, was “absolutely exceptional,” Marcus says. Upon her return to Georgia, Jaliashvilia began planning a Domestic Violence Clinic in a law faculty in her country. It will be the first in Georgia and the first in the Caucasus region. Shortly after her arrival, she was asked to assist the prosecutor in representing a Peace Corps volunteer in Georgia who alleged that she was raped.

“Rape and domestic violence are very subversive topics in patriarchal societies like Georgia because they challenge the way in which the state handles the most common forms of crime against women—by ignoring, dismissing or minimizing them,” Marcus says.

This year, Marcus is asking her colleagues at UB to contribute money to bring three women’s-rights lawyers who work with nongovernmental organizations to UB’s Law School as visiting scholars. They are from Azerbaijan, Poland and Serbia.

“When you bring people together,” says Marcus, “the vision expands exponentially.”

“We really don’t let anything stop us,” adds Tomkins. “This has all been built by sheer determination.”