Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) is an annual campaign to raise public awareness about sexual assault and educate communities and individuals on how to prevent sexual violence. On April 1, 2001 the U.S. first observed Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) nationally, and in 2009, President Obama was the first United States president to proclaim April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
On Lawyer 2 Lawyer, host Bob Ambrogi joins attorney Carly N. Mee, the interim executive director at SurvJustice and attorney Colby Bruno from the Victim Rights Law Center (VRLC) to spotlight Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and discuss creating awareness and assisting those who are victims of sexual assault.
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Sexual Assault Awareness Month
Colby Bruno: I think issues of consent people just don’t understand it well enough and that’s when the reasonable doubt is triggered.
Carly N. Mee: I think what we need to be talking about more is the fact that a lot of like these perpetrators who go on to be in positions of power and to abuse those positions of power they start out earlier in life and we need to be stopping them sooner.
Intro: Welcome to the award-winning podcast, Lawyer 2 Lawyer, with J. Craig Williams and Robert Ambrogi, bringing you the latest legal news and observations with the leading experts in the legal profession. You are listening to Legal Talk Network.
Bob Ambrogi: Welcome everybody to Lawyer 2 Lawyer on the Legal Talk Network. This is Bob Ambrogi coming to you from Massachusetts, where I write a blog called LawSites. I also co-host another Legal Talk Network program called Law Technology Now along with Monica Bay. My co-host Craig Williams is actually in court today and unable to join us, so we are going to go ahead without him.
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Sexual Assault Awareness Month is an annual campaign to raise public awareness about sexual assault and educate communities and individuals on how to prevent sexual violence on April 1st 2001, the U.S. first observed Sexual Assault Awareness Month Nationally and in 2009 President Obama was the first U.S. President to proclaim April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Today on Lawyer 2 Lawyer we are going to spotlight Sexual Assault Awareness Month by taking a look at two organizations that are working to create awareness and to assist those who are victims of sexual assault.
So, joining us today are two guests and let me introduce each of them in turn. First of all let me introduce Carly Mee. Carly is the Interim Executive Director at SurvJustice. Carly is an attorney who provides direct assistance to survivors in campus, civil and criminal systems. Her writing has been featured in The Washington Post and she’s provided legal commentary in CNN, the Independent, Buzzfeed, NPR, and various other media outlets, and now she gets to add Lawyer 2 Lawyer to her résumé.
So, welcome to the show, Carly Mee.
Carly N. Mee: Thank you.
Bob Ambrogi: Thank you for joining us.
Also with us today is attorney Colby Bruno from the Victim Rights Law Center right here in Boston, Massachusetts, where I am. Colby has represented victims of non-intimate partner sexual violence since 2003 in the areas of privacy, safety, housing, education, employment, financial compensation. Colby has specific expertise in the representation of college students utilizing Title IX and FERPA and trains nationally regarding the education rights of sexual assault victims.
Welcome to Lawyer 2 Lawyer, Colby Bruno.
Colby Bruno: Thanks Bob.
Bob Ambrogi: It’s great to have you here.
I want to just start by asking each of you to tell us a little bit more about your organizations and what kinds of work you do. So, Carly, let me just start with you and ask you to tell us a little bit more about SurvJustice and what its mission is?
Carly N. Mee: Sure, so SurvJustice is an DC based national non-profit and what we do is sort of three-pronged. First, we provide legal assistance at the campus level so that includes helping survivors from the stage of filing a complaint after school to representing them in a campus hearing to helping them in the appeals process and filing any federal complaints depending on how that process went. And we also do criminal advocacy as well as civil lawsuits in Federal Court of Title IX. In addition, we do some institutional trainings and we do policy advocacy.
So, sort of three-pronged and we take the approach that not so much focus on prevention but more focus on holding perpetrators and enablers accountable.
Bob Ambrogi: Colby Bruno, the Victim Rights Law Center, tell us about the work that you do?
Colby Bruno: So, we are Boston-based but we are also a National Law Center. We were actually the first National Law Center ever to focus exclusively on representing victims of rape and sexual assault.
It was a really unrepresented area of the law and we provide direct representation to victims of rape and sexual assault in a whole wide array of civil legal with their civil legal needs and that is distinguishable of course from the criminal case and the prosecutor’s job, but our main focus is the civil justice and keeping a victim on track with what their sort of previous trajectory was.
We also provide training and technical assistance across the country and all of our services are free in Massachusetts and in a few counties actually in Oregon.
Bob Ambrogi: And this is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, let me just ask if either of your organizations are doing anything around the observation of Sexual Assault Awareness Month in particular that you would normally be doing in the normal course of affairs. Carly, how about you?
Carly N. Mee: Yeah, we are actually hosting — we always have in April what’s called SurvJustice’s Spring Soiree and in that we honor a few select special awardees, one is a survivor of sexual assault who’s been very outspoken, her name is Chessy Prout. We are honoring a few other awardees as well.
So, this is a time for us to sort of gather as advocates and come together, mingle and refuel to talk about our support for survivors.
Bob Ambrogi: Colby, how about you?
Colby Bruno: So, it’s actually kind of a great — it’s a really cool year because of the Me Too movement which has really amped up all of the things that we are doing. So, to the extent that we are doing anything different than what we do day to day, it’s not so much, but now in Sexual Assault Awareness Month our organization is partnering with a bunch of Me Too movement folks and we are sitting on panels, we are doing plenary sessions, we are doing a ton of tabling events, we are doing a victim rights conference with the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance and it’s all coupled with their sort of in connection with the Me Too movement, which is really exciting and really raised a lot of awareness on this issue.
Bob Ambrogi: Well, I wanted to — actually wanted to ask you about this has been I think we mentioned earlier that Sexual Assault Awareness Month has been going on for a number of years but this is an unusual year in the sense that the Me Too movement has put a new spotlight perhaps on the issue of sexual assault. Colby, since you alluded to this, to what extent has this movement changed understanding around this issue?
Colby Bruno: Bob, what I would say is any movement that raises awareness about rape and sexual assault is welcome in this day and age. I think that there still exists a ton of myths and stereotypes about rape victims, about reporting, about whether or not rape victims are lying, and unfortunately no movement can fully erase those myths and stereotypes, but the Me Too movement has been so big and so well-received that a lot of people are taking notice and the amount of awareness that it has raised just in its movement alone I think is really astonishing. And I think it’s having a big effect across the country with survivors feeling more comfortable to speak out because they don’t feel like they are alone anymore, and that is a really big and important thing in the Victim Rights movement.
Bob Ambrogi: Have you seen an impact in terms of the people who were seeking legal assistance around sexual assault issues?
Colby Bruno: Absolutely, I think we have seen a very big uptick and it’s what we hear from all of our national partners as well and uptick in the amount of disclosures and also the amount of people who are seeking our services for help. So, all of our national organizations are asking for increased funding and asking for extra help because this Me Too movement has really brought to the forefront what I think has been relatively dulcimer in the past.
Carly N. Mee: Bob, I think one thing that’s really important to note is that I think it’s so wonderful how the Me Too movement has really highlighted sexual harassment and sexual violence especially within the workplace, but I have heard from some of my clients that they are at the college level and they are feeling a little bit left behind, so one thing that I hope is that we take this initiative and everyone’s talking about it and it’s so great. But I hope that we can take that and apply it to the college context a little bit more because perpetrators get their start in the college level a lot of times, they don’t just pop up in the employment context. So, I really hope that we can kind of shift it down and start focusing on prevention and response on an even earlier stage.
Bob Ambrogi: Why do you think that is that is not reaching to the same extent at the college level and what should be done about it? What can be done about it?
Carly N. Mee: I think it’s because what this all came from was a lot of people in Hollywood speaking out and that was the scope that they knew was sexual harassment, sexual violence within the workplace that’s what is an issue in Hollywood, but I think what we would need to be talking about more is the fact that a lot of like these perpetrators who go on to be in positions of power and abuse those positions of power, they start out earlier in life and we need to be stopping them sooner.
So, it’s really important to have prevention initiatives that are focused on the college level and to make sure that the conversation with just college students and that we want to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions.
Bob Ambrogi: Colby, since you are in Boston, you may be aware, I think just this week there was a case of an MIT student who broke into, I think the dorm room of a woman and sexually assaulted her while she was sleeping, and the judge I think with this week was sentenced.
Some people might think it was a pretty light sentence, not sent to prison at all but I think put on a five-year probation with an ankle bracelet perhaps, I think was the sentence, something like that.
What’s your perception of how these cases are being handled? I mean, did that student get off light? Should there have been a heavier sentence in that case?
Colby Bruno: Well, I mean, yes, for sure. I think the punishment needs to fit the crime. I mean, this person regardless of how old he was or what school he was at or how smart he is in his academic realm, broke into someone’s room and raped them, sexually assaulted them, while they were sleeping, that to me does not deserve five years of probation. That to me deserves incarceration. That is a sexual assault in the most traditional way of defining sexual assault.
Bob Ambrogi: One of the issues that I think gets maybe debated more in light of the Me Too movement or that certainly I’ve heard debated over the last few months is the question maybe of what really constitutes sexual assault? How do you define it? Is there a line that gets crossed that suddenly it becomes sexual assault? How do you — in your own minds, Carly, let me ask you, in your own mind, how do you define what constitutes sexual assault?
Carly N. Mee: I think it all comes down to consent and that’s the state definition, so it can vary, but it ultimately comes down to whether or not a person agreed to engage in sexual activity and then we’ve come past those myths that make it seem like a person has to be physically fighting back. We know now that a person can say no or a person can be intoxicated to consent. So, there’s different levels of it that apply.
Bob Ambrogi: Colby, do you see it that way as well?
Colby Bruno: Yeah, I absolutely see it that way, with the one addition which is that I think that’s what we all know and that’s what a reasonable person might think, but I do think that those myths and stereotypes unfortunately really play out in the criminal justice system, which is why so few victims get any justice from the criminal justice system because those myths and stereotypes really add into and play a big part in beyond a reasonable doubt.
And I think issues of consent, people just don’t understand it well enough, and that’s when the reasonable doubt is triggered.
Carly N. Mee: The other issue is that it really relies on the fact that sexual assault is by its very nature a crime that has no witnesses. There’s often no physical evidence and so it often relies on the credibility of the parties. And we’ve seen in cases like in the Yale case where the survivor was just brutally attacked, her character was — she was questioned about what she was wearing, and that’s a really big problem in the criminal process as well.
Bob Ambrogi: All right, well, we will continue this discussion in just a moment. We’re going to take a quick break to hear a message from our sponsor and stay with us, we’ll be right back.
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Bob Ambrogi: And welcome back to Lawyer 2 Lawyer. This is Bob Ambrogi and with us today is attorney Carly N. Mee, the interim Executive Director at SurvJustice in Washington, DC; and attorney Colby Bruno from the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, and we are spotlighting Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Carly, I wanted to ask when a sexual assault victim contacts SurvJustice, comes to you, what are the legal issues — outside of the criminal process, what are the kinds of issues that they face that a lawyer can help with it?
Carly N. Mee: So a lot of what we can help with is figuring out how to best frame the complaint. So, a sexual assault often can occur like I was mentioning when someone’s intoxicated and they will say to us, there’s no point in reporting, I don’t remember a lot of it. And so a lot of it is us showing them, no, that’s okay, we can still move forward.
There’s ways to gather other types of evidence, there may be text messages, like I said earlier there’s credibility determinations that factor in, so sort of teaching them how to advocate for themselves and then assisting them throughout the campus hearing, which is very daunting; especially, since there’s usually a defense attorney sitting on the other side.
In addition, your _______00:15:34 to help with. A lot of students right now I think are facing a trend of retaliation by a few students whereby they are students’ friends. So that’s popped up as a huge issue and something that is prohibited by Title IX and the Clery Act that we constantly see and we’re helping to try to protect students who do come forward from frequent retaliation.
Bob Ambrogi: Colby, let me ask you, I mean outside the campus context, when say, a victim comes to you, what are the issues that you are looking for, how do you see yourself as being able to help them deal with these situations kind of outside of the criminal process?
Colby Bruno: We do a lot of different areas of the law as we talk about housing, education, financial concerns, but certainly two of the biggest ones that I think we help out with are safety and privacy, and safety for a victim could mean a restraining order in a college context, a stay-away order in an employment context, reporting to HR and making sure that people’s schedules are changed so that they don’t run into each other.
And in the other piece is privacy, and those are two very big issues for victims of rape and sexual assault. The privacy aspect is how can I disclose without everyone knowing or can you help me evaluate, can I disclose without everyone knowing, and can you tell me what my legal rights are if I disclose this to police?
If I decide not to go to the police, if I go on social media and disclose there, can you tell me what my legal rights are in order for me to do this? Or it’s, what if I report to the police, can they keep that secret, will my name get out, will I be tagged as a victim for the rest of my life?
And I think those are two of the main areas that I think cut across every single one of the civil legal needs that we see safety and privacy, those are the two big ones.
Bob Ambrogi: We’ve talked about different types of victims and I am wondering what are the particular issues that come up when the victim is a minor? Do you deal with those cases differently than you would when the victim is an adult?
Carly N. Mee: Yeah, well it implicates different rights, first of all. So certain laws don’t apply, what apply to the college context. But it also implicates the parents, so there’s this really tough way that we have to navigate so that we’re keeping parents informed but also respecting a victim’s right to autonomy and to privacy.
So, it is very tricky to navigate, they’re young, but they do have right through Title IX and they you have a right for those to be upheld in their high schools and in various levels in k-12.
Bob Ambrogi: Colby, anything to add to that in terms of looking at these cases when the victim is a minor?
Colby Bruno: Yeah, I mean, I would give you the traditional lawyer answer, which is it depends. For us, it depends on how young the minor is. There’s a big difference between 16 or 17 and _______00:18:37 than there is in 8-year-old. And so I do think that Carly spotted exactly the issues that I would say in terms of parental consent and parents being involved, but the Victim Rights Law Center is very committed to working in the empowerment model and that is that if a student comes to us and they are 16 or 17-years-old, we say, you are our client, we have a mature minor rule and you are our client. So, we will ask your parents to step out of the room for right now and we’ll bring them back in when you’re ready to disclose what you need to disclose.
But our clients understand very well that the attorney-client relationship belongs to them and us and we take that really seriously and we find that that has worked really powerfully with our younger survivors, because they really start to trust us and they tell us everything which is always a bit of a minefield with younger kids because they worry about the blame, and they worry about getting in trouble. So, this kind of really opens up the line of communications with them; but again, it depends, big time.
Bob Ambrogi: We talked to you earlier about the fact that the Me Too movement has changed the conversation over the last year. Another area in which perhaps the conversation has changed quite a bit over the last year is with regard to the status of undocumented immigrants in this country. And I’m wondering whether you are seeing any kind of impact on the fact that a number of immigrants are concerned about their status and whether that plays into this issue of sexual assault at all in terms of either their willingness to report it or how you deal with it when it is reported.
Colby Bruno: Absolutely, I think that, first of all, oftentimes what we see is that immigrants because of their status, whether documented or undocumented are vulnerable to these kinds of attacks because perpetrators will prey on someone who doesn’t have as much power as they do. So, they will be put into these situations, and in employment context it’s someone who is a minimum wage worker maybe and they need that job, and they can’t risk losing it, so they won’t report, and I think a lot of times people will rely on that.
So, with the Me Too movement it has brought a lot of awareness particularly in the employment context obviously to how prevalent that is, whether it’s in an immigrant community or even in Hollywood where you would have thought that everybody was equally as glamorous and as rich as the next person, but I think the way that we saw it play out with the Me Too movement is a lot of these celebrities and someone like a farm worker found a lot of similarities between the two of them because the whole crime is about power and control, and who is most vulnerable and who can be taken advantage of.
So, I think for sure we have seen a big uptick in the numbers of reporting and people coming to us with undocumented, immigrants coming to us and saying what can happen, and at the Victim Rights Law Center, I mean, not just at the VRLC but we will help them gain status if they cooperate with the police. There is a particular type of _______00:21:44 and if they are cooperating with law enforcement they can become eligible for Green Card and status in the United States because of their cooperation with the US Government.
Bob Ambrogi: President Trump recently issued a proclamation supporting National Sexual Assault Awareness Month; President Obama of course was the first president to do that. Some might see it as hypocritical that President Trump is supporting this issue. Can I ask you without putting you too much on the spot, what is your view of the current administration’s track record with regard to the issue of sexual assault?
Carly N. Mee: Sure, SurvJustice and Victim Rights Law Center are actually clean in this current administration for rescinding Title IX guidance, so that acknowledgement of Sexual Assault Awareness Month really rang hollow for me first of all because of his own actions, but second of all because of the absence of individuals like Betsy DeVos who has taken steps to only protect accused students and repealed protections for survivors.
So, we don’t have a great view of this administration’s efforts to protect survivors because they just haven’t been a priority, their voices have not been listened to when they’ve been making decisions, and ultimately, it’s been clear that the goal is to tip the scales much further in favor of accused student.
Bob Ambrogi: Colby, anything to add to that?
Colby Bruno: No, what I mean, I would say exactly the same thing. I was going to quip that certainly we missed the Obama administration. I think it does wonders for campaign awareness when the President of the United States is the first president to proclaim April Sexual Assault Awareness Month and when his Vice President comes out and says, Rape is rape is rape is rape, there’s no two ways about it and I think that those types of strong voices whether they were in public service announcements or in college introductions or at the White House, those are the kinds of messages that victims need to hear and I think that that has largely been turned off if not entirely turned off in this administration.
So, I feel like we miss them very dearly for nothing else then, I guess, maybe even giving credence to this issue or giving value to this issue as opposed to doing what people did for decades and decades which is sweeping it under the rug and pretending like they are addressing it when they are looking the other way and just protecting the accused students.
Bob Ambrogi: We have been talking to some extent about how victims can respond to sexual violence, sexual assault, what more could we be doing either as a nation or as lawyers even to prevent the sexual assault from happening in the first place?
Colby Bruno: I was just going to give my own personal story, which is that, I worked at a large law firm for 11 months and when I wasn’t loving it, I decided to pick up a ton of pro bono work because I knew that I love that and I started work pro bono with the Victim Rights Law Center.
And then one day I met the Victim Rights Law Center’s Legal Director and I said, geez, I suppose you have a job open and she said, yeah, do you speak Spanish? And I said, I do, and she said, come down and interview, and for me I think the way that we changed the culture is by taking on that pro bono work. If you are an attorney and you are in the Massachusetts area you can take on pro bono work for the Victim Rights Law Center.
We have a terrific program, the Rape Survivors’ Law Project, we make sure that each of our cases don’t go more than 20 hours, so you can really do it there discrete issues and I think that all the attorneys that I have met, I mean, I was a complete convert, ended up having a job there, now it’s like 15 years later, but I think that the stories that we hear from attorneys who are in large law firms in solo practices is that this is the most meaningful work that they have ever done.
So, to me for attorneys to be involved in to understand what the issues are, certainly if you are in Massachusetts, if you are down in DC, do it, reach out to our organizations. I think that SurvJustice has some pro bono attorneys as well. So, I think really be involved and call up the organization just like SurvJustice has a gala, an event we also have one that all attorneys are invited to, to see what the work entails.
We also have trainings for pro bono attorneys. It’s really a robust program in Massachusetts. So, I would say to any attorney if you have an even the slightest of interest in it, just give us a call or go on our website and I will see you when the next training is.
Bob Ambrogi: All right, Carly, anything to add to that?
Carly N. Mee: I think just to echo the need for pro bono work, we see a lot of now a trend of defamation cases being brought up by accusers against survivors who are speaking now suing them for defamation simply for going to the police or simply for filing a Title IX complaint and that’s the thing that’s so costly to survivors and we really need experienced defense attorneys to do that work. So, it’s needed at big law firms, they have resources, they have the knowledge, and I hope that they can start to get involved and reach out to us.
Bob Ambrogi: Alright, well, that about does it for our time for today, but I wanted to give each of you an opportunity to kind of give your closing thoughts on this topic, and also to let our listeners know how they can learn more about the work that you are doing.
So, Colby Bruno, Victim Rights Law Center, let me start with you.
Colby Bruno: I mean, there’s not enough air time for me to fill all the things. I would say if you’re interested in doing more work than our website is, www.victimrights.org, and it’s the victim, it’s singular and the rights is plural, like one victim multiple rights, so it’s HYPERLINK “eee.victimrights.org” victimrights.org. We are on Twitter, we are on Facebook, we are everywhere that there is. If you have an interest I think in doing this work, if you are a lawyer or if you have an interest in finding out more about it, give us a call, I don’t think we have ever turned anybody away who is interested and shows at least some investment in the topic.
For me — the reason why I do a lot of these media calls is because for me the biggest thing is to make the public aware of the right things and not only my issues but the right kinds of issues and the right way of looking at it and the right lens with which to look through this, and I think a lot of people still think, when a victim is raped they have to go to the police, and that’s the only option. And I think that is probably — quite honestly I think that is the majority of people in our country, and that is absolutely not the case.
And it’s not that I think anything negative per se about the criminal justice system, but there are so many other ways of helping victims. The very first of which is, if you are on the receiving end of a disclosure, you say to that person, what can I do? I believe you. And that is the first of many of steps in order to validate someone’s claim that they felt and that they were violated in one of the most horrific ways that someone can be violated.
Bob Ambrogi: Thank you very much Colby, and Carly Mee of SurvJustice, your closing thoughts.
Carly N. Mee: I think I’d just like to focus on the fact about how important it is to have an attorney throughout this process; historically, the focus has been on defense attorneys for accused students and only now our people are starting to realize that victims have rights and those rights can be so much better enforced if there’s an attorney present. So, I hope to convey just the importance of an attorney being by the side of a survivor throughout this process whatever that process may look like them since they do have so many different options.
And I also want to emphasize that especially since this is listened to by lawyers that Title IX isn’t the antithesis of due process that most of us are just as made in favor of due process ad anyone else that I don’t want something being overturned on appeal because there wasn’t proper process but victims do also have rights, and that’s just really important to acknowledge.
So our website is HYPERLINK “http://www.SurvJustice.org/”www.SurvJustice.org, and I am happy to have anyone reach out whether that’s just the questions or to do some pro bono work.
Bob Ambrogi: Well, thanks so much, and I think Colby kind of summed up a lot of what you both said. When she said one victim multiple rights, there are lots of rights that victims have in these situations, and hope, they reach out for legal help if unfortunately something happens.
We’ve been talking today with Colby Bruno, a Senior Legal Counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, and Carly Mee, the Executive Director at SurvJustice.org in Washington, DC. Thank you so much to both of you for your time today.
Carly N. Mee: Thank you.
Colby Bruno: Thank you.
Bob Ambrogi: And that brings us to the end of our show. If you liked what you heard today, please rate us in Apple Podcasts. You can also visit us at HYPERLINK “http://www.legaltalknetwork.com/”legaltalknetwork.com where you can leave a comment on today’s show and sign up for our newsletter.
This is Bob Ambrogi. Thanks for listening and join us next time for another great legal topic; when you want legal think Lawyer 2 Lawyer.
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