Q&A with the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women

By Hannah Myrick

“It’s like once you get arrested your experiences of abuse and your history of being battered completely disappears.”

Cindene Pezzell, Legal Coordinator for NCDBW

As an organization, the Post-Prison Education Program has often worked with The National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women (NCDBW), a national resource and advocacy center founded with the purpose “to work for justice for victims of battering charged with crimes where a history of abuse is relevant to their legal claim or defense.”

Their unique role is as the bridge builder between victims of battering charged with crimes, social scientists, prison advocates, criminal defense attorneys and community members. They help provide defense teams with defense strategies, locating skilled expert witnesses, providing support networks for victims of battering going through trials, and more.

“These partnerships can — and do — help develop broader and more active strategies that promote and increase safety and justice for battered women,” says their website. 

I sat down with NCBDW’s legal coordinator Cindene Pezzell to learn more about the importance of the organization’s work and the difficult and complicated world victims of battering accused with crimes face, all while navigating the legal system.

This interview has been edited and condensed

Q: Why did you start doing work at NCDBW?

While I was working at the public defender’s office I saw a lot of the ways that people’s oppressions launch them into the criminal legal system. Racism, poverty, any number of things. And sometimes it was because of somebody’s status as a domestic violence victim.

Abusers are so successful in leveraging the legal system as another tool against their abusive partners. Getting frivolous nonsense bullshit protection orders and then using them to haul victim’s into court over and over again.

When the national clearinghouse was hiring, I was really excited to have the opportunity to take this passion I have for criminal defense and narrow the focus and work on the kinds of cases I was seeing every single day in court. 

Q: Could you breakdown the layout of your team for me? Seems like you do a lot for the small number of people you have…

We are a tiny organization. Now there are three full time staff members, which includes our director Sue Othnoff, our Staff Attorney Quetita Cavero and me. In addition to me there are two senior legal consultants who both work part time and that’s it. 

Q: For a little background: What percentage of the incarcerated population in the US is women and of that percentage, how many are victims of abuse who have been charged with crimes?

When it comes to incarcerated women, there have been various studies done over the years, but when you look at different data sets you see a range. When you have the government conducting surveys of prisoners asking about their experiences of abuse you’ll get different answers than when you have trained, knowledgeable trauma researchers who are actually talking to prisoners.

The low estimates for the number of incarcerated women who have experienced abuse either as a child or an adult is around 50%.

The higher numbers (that come from a more nuanced look into people’s histories) ranges anywhere from 70-90%.

All those people that I’m talking about aren’t necessarily incarcerated as a direct result of their abuse (like the cases we work on). But still it’s there and a pathway for sure. [h1] 

Q: What are all the different ways that a battered woman’s situation is made more painful by the criminal justice process?

Anybody who gets charged with a crime is in the position to now have to navigate a very difficult system. But when you’re also trying to navigate and negotiate your own safety, it’s really important to have extra support in place because being a defendant makes victims even more vulnerable.

And there’s a lot of ways that happens. When the abusive partner is the complainant they’re going to have a lot of information and a lot of control over knowing where the defendant is or what they are or are not allowed to do on pretrial release. Having to report at a specific time, and a specific location, that little bit of information gives an abuser a lot of power. There’s also the power to threaten to make the case worse or to promise to not show up to court. 

Every time I talk to advocates about concrete strategies in advocating for victims facing criminal charges, knowing the little things is of incredible value to victims. Things like what door to go in, what to wear, where to sit in the courtroom, is the abusive partner going to be anywhere nearby, is the judge gonna expect them to say anything

Not having to seek out that information while you’re trying to survive day to day takes the survivors’ anxiety level down a couple notches.

Q: What is the perspective you’ve found as a national organization?

In light of the fact that we’re a national organization we work in all jurisdictions, but we won’t be the ones driving the bus because everything is local. You need to know what your courtroom is like, what your judge is like, what the local laws are like and that kind of thing.

But when we step back and look at a bigger picture you’re able to talk to attorney’s about trends you see. We’re able to share unique arguments that may have worked in one jurisdiction and seem like a good fit for another.

Q: Is there any building momentum behind NCDBW’s cause? Or more grassroots organizations popping up?

It’s kind of hard to get a fair picture of it in such an environment in scarcity of resources [h2] . I think it’s fair to say there’s a lot of advocacy organizations and others who would like to be doing a lot more of this stuff and I think the energy’s there.

I think what we’ve seen recently is really grassroots organizations who are really able to leverage social media to raise awareness and gather support and resources for some of the victims. There’s people out there, for example the organization survived and punished, who have really brought attention to and garnered support and advocacy in a really different way that maybe wasn’t possible 30 years ago. 

We’ve also been seeing efforts, mostly on state levels, to do some sentencing reform for victims of battering. In the wake of NY passing their domestic survivor justice act we’re starting to see a kind of ripple effect. We can start to see the ways not only that victims stay out of prison but that those who are already there have a way to mitigate some of the harsh punishments that they’ve been dealt.

Q: On your website you talk about creating a support network for the women you support, can you talk about what that network looks like and why that’s so important?

I think the heart of that support network is local community based advocacy orgs. Whether that’s peer support, resources or housing or safety planning, we try to make those connections when we can. And one reason that we’re able to help with that is because we’re at the national level. You can see the forest and not just the trees. 

When somebody’s a defendant, things that are resources for victims in some communities are often not identified as resources for people who get charged. We’re able to see past a lot of those assumptions about the support that’s available to defendants. It’s like once you get arrested your experiences of abuse and your history of being battered completely disappears. 

Q: Where do you look to create change?

One thing we do is talk with people who are considering policy implementation or policy changes, to help identify the needs in their communities and what can be done to make changes happen.

We’re connected with so many colleagues who are out there doing the work that we are not positioned to do, like preventing the arrests in the first place. We try to help to the extent we can, supporting work going on in individual communities around arrest protocols and decisions and education about victims of battering who are charged with crimes. I think that kind of local work then creates change from the people instead of top down.

 [h1] In Washington, from 2009-2015, Women’s prison population grew while men’s prison population declined (source)

 [h2] The 2018 federal budget severely cut the aid for federal programs assisting survivors of sexual and domestic abuse.

“Over the course of 10 years, funding for these programs will drop 93 percent, from $460 million to $30 million. Cuts to other social safety-net programs will also reduce funding for other domestic violence services. For instance, the elimination of the $68 million Social Services Block Grant means that New York City alone will lose $17.8 million for city-run domestic violence services, including domestic violence shelter programs for 840 families and non-residential services for 1,900 abuse survivors.”  (source)

I’m Hannah Myrick and I’ll be doing some writing for the Post-Prison Education Program (I also wrote this first Q&A). I studied at the University of Washington and while there took a class that went to the Monroe Correctional Complex to help create a reentry class alongside a group of prisoners. The class opened my eyes to how those in the prison system are distanced from society and how much empathy and understanding is left on the sidelines. A couple years later, after interviewing Ari for an article for Real Change newspaper based out of Seattle, we continued to stay connected. Ari and I have talked a lot about how often people’s stories are discounted for their actions. I’m really looking forward to seeing what we all can learn by highlighting and writing more backstories from advocates, lawyers, students and many others.