By Emily Witt
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and this year’s theme, “No Survivor Justice Without Racial Justice,” seeks to uplift and amplify the voices of Black survivors of domestic violence. The stigma surrounding domestic violence is often compounded by a lack of racial equity within the criminal justice and child welfare systems, an intersection we know all too well at CASA. As we seek to address the disproportionality issues within the child welfare system, this month serves as an important time to look at how racial inequality affects the parents of the children we serve who have experienced family and domestic violence.
This year’s theme, “No Survivor Justice Without Racial Justice,” seeks to uplift and amplify the voices of Black survivors of domestic violence.
We are grateful to have had the opportunity to sit down with Erin Martinson, the Director of the Special Victims Unit at the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. During our interview, we discussed the common misconceptions about domestic violence that harm all survivors, as well as the particular experiences of survivors of color traversing the criminal justice and child welfare systems.
Erin’s passion for advocating for survivors began at UT when she took a class called “Domestic Violence and the Law,” during her last year of law school. After graduating, she went on to work for the Texas Advocacy Project where she worked on a domestic violence hotline where she gave legal advice and resources to victims of domestic violence, but soon found she wanted to work more closely with survivors throughout the life of their case. This led to her working in private practice, and since then, she’s held positions at the County Attorney’s Office and Texas Legal Services Center. Most recently, Martinson was asked to run for Travis County District Attorney, and during the campaign, became aligned with José Garza, our current District Attorney, for whom she now works as the Director of the Special Victims Unit.
Erin has had a wealth of experience working with survivors, but she’s also had the opportunity to connect to people within the general community, the criminal justice systems, and child welfare systems.
In her decades-long career, Erin has had a wealth of experience working with survivors, but she’s also had the opportunity to connect to people within the general community, the criminal justice systems, and child welfare systems. This has given her the ability to understand the common misconceptions that span across every realm touching the lives of domestic violence survivors.
The most common one: “Why don’t you just leave?”
Domestic and family violence situations can be incredibly nuanced—victims are in the most danger when leaving, and for parents, staying might seem like the most protective action they can take for their children.
"The common question we all hear is people not understanding why victims stay. It’s so important that people understand that victims usually stay to save their children’s lives."
“The common question we all hear is people not understanding why victims stay. It’s so important that people understand that victims usually stay to save their children’s lives. Most of the women who are killed by their partners are killed when leaving, and that’s the reality. We all play a role in holding offenders accountable. So, it’s essential to educate people that it’s not that the victims choose their abusers over their children. A lot of people try to imagine how they would respond, but only the victim can understand how complicated these decisions are,” says Martinson.
Even for criminal justice and child welfare specialists/experts, their best intentions in helping those they serve can be marred by the perceptions we’ve all been conditioned to believe.
Similar to the misconceptions held by the general public, Martinson states that “I often hear that victims choose to stay in violent situations, and there’s a lack of understanding around what those decisions look like. I also hear a lot of questioning about a victim’s ability to parent while being abused. We need to do a lot to educate about how protective victims can be.”
The system is not always a trusted resource for victims seeking safety, and in fact, it can present a lot of barriers, Martinson says.
"We haven’t done a great job of listening to victims historically. They’ve been isolated from family and friends, often have no access to money, and if there are immigration consequences, that’s always a barrier."
“People hear stories about really bad experiences with the system. We haven’t done a great job of listening to victims historically. They’ve been isolated from family and friends, often have no access to money, and if there are immigration consequences, that’s always a barrier. Pro-arrest policies and the perception that we will prosecute or arrest without the victim's cooperation certainly haven’t helped. I have an appreciation that these policies were created because perpetrators weren’t often held accountable, but somewhere along the line, victims really lost their voice in the system.”
Martinson is trying to shift these practices within her own office, however.
“We center the victim, their experience, their wants, and their needs. And we understand that we can’t help them find safety or healing if we don’t also address the other needs, like making sure they have food, shelter, and other necessities. We’re not truly able to help victims if they’re forced to stay in that relationship to have these needs met.”
As Martinson works to address these issues within her role at the District Attorney’s Office, the intersections between the lack of understanding within the criminal justice system, the child welfare system, and systemic racial inequality are often glaring.
"There’s a lot of victim-blaming, and you’ll see neglectful supervision cases because the abuser hit mom in front of kids, for example. She’ll then become the focus of the case, rather than her abuser because she’ll stay engaged in services to get her kids back. Meanwhile, the abuser has checked out of the process."
“I think there’s a huge lack of understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence. There’s a lot of victim-blaming, and you’ll see neglectful supervision cases because the abuser hit mom in front of kids, for example. She’ll then become the focus of the case, rather than her abuser because she’ll stay engaged in services to get her kids back. Meanwhile, the abuser has checked out of the process.
I’ve seen how racial inequality factors into this scenario. One young Black mother I worked with had tried everything to shake her abuser, and each time that he was released from jail and hurt her again, the system blamed her for not being a protective parent. The client was eventually connected with the SAFE Futures Program, and they helped her furnish her apartment, find formula resources, and other vital wraparound services. I hope the child welfare system partners with more resources like that. Until they do, we're going to continue to take children away from protective mothers.
We’re not serving victims well when we refuse to look at the bigger picture and we don’t look at cases through a racial justice lens. And if we don’t understand that culture, we need to connect to those resources.”
At CASA, and within the larger community, there’s a lot that we can collectively do to ensure that Black women and survivors are truly heard, not further harmed, when seeking help. As said by the Domestic Violence Awareness Project, “domestic violence is linked to all forms of violence. To end domestic violence, we must dismantle anti-Blackness, other types of racism, discrimination, & structures that perpetuate oppression.”
Particularly in Travis County, our first step is “to listen first and hear from the Black Community. Our entire community cannot be safe until we collectively get on board and become passionate about these issues,” says Martinson.
"We have opportunities to stop behaviors and to heal. Our system isn’t currently set up for a lot of these practices, and that’s going to involve the entire community to help us move forward."
“I think we have great leadership in the DA’s Office, and we’re committed to looking at things through a race equity lens,” says Martinson. “I would like to see some more holistic responses, and we’ve got some tremendous resources for more partnerships. For many people, that may not look like jail. In the DA’s office, we’re really looking at Restorative Justice as an option in domestic violence cases, as well as in the juvenile system. We have opportunities to stop behaviors and to heal. Our system isn’t currently set up for a lot of these practices, and that’s going to involve the entire community to help us move forward.”
As Erin stated many times throughout our interview, EVERY member of our community must be invested in centering the needs of domestic violence survivors. To learn more about this year’s theme, head to www.dvawareness.org.
Domestic Violence Resources:
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Support domestic violence survivors and their families as a CASA volunteer! Learn more here, or apply directly today.
2021 Advocacy Domestic Violence Awareness