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Candles are lit for domestic violence victims across the United States on October 2, 2017. Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Racism, Implicit Biases Negatively Impact Credibility of Domestic Violence Survivors

By Tuozhi Lorna Zhen
Bloomberg Law

The results of a report issued Oct. 15 that examined racial bias in New York courts were devastating, but they were also unfortunately unsurprising. The Report from the Special Adviser on Equal Justice in the New York State Courts found that courts are “under-resourced, over-burdened,” and have a “dehumanizing effect” on litigants, of which the majority are people of color.

Systemic racism is a stain in the fabric of our country’s history and its effects have a negative impact on those who rely on our legal system for justice.

This is especially true in New York City Family Court, where I navigate being an Asian woman that represents survivors of domestic violence who are predominantly women of color. Many also experience poverty. My clients survived unimaginable horrors and bravely chose to engage with our legal system as a means to achieve safety from an abusive relationship.

But there are compelling reasons why a survivor may not want to engage with our legal system.

My colleagues at New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), where I am a supervising attorney in the Domestic Violence Law Unit, and I often see that when clients of color report abuse to law enforcement—or engage with the legal system—they are more likely to risk being charged themselves (or mutually arrested with their abuser). They often feel unsafe or may be unwilling to report to police or our courts because communities of color have historically been overpoliced and overcriminalized.

Credibility Questioned

They are also less likely to be believed when they do come forward. A report published by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality found that “adults view Black girls as less innocent…than their white peers.”

Racist and implicit biases by judges, police officers, and other players in our legal system, impact credibility determinations, as well as the level of sympathy we have seen historically given to victims of color versus white victims.

Take, for example, a Black client of mine named Veronica (named changed for safety), who suffered years of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her children’s father. Finally, after speaking to domestic violence counselors, Veronica sought an order of protection from the court against her ex-partner.

During the trial, the judge questioned her credibility because she never called the police to report any of the incidents and chose to remain in her home despite her ex-partner continuing to harass her in her neighborhood even after their separation.

My client attempted to explain that as a Black woman, she was distrustful of the police, and that she was also scared of what the police may do to her ex-partner, who was also Black. She also tried to explain that as a single mother with young children, choosing to remain in her home, which was close to family that could provide child care, was more important than moving to a new neighborhood that while safe, had no family support.

The judge, ignoring the systemic racial and economic stressors that impacted Veronica’s decisions, found her not credible.

Important Changes Needed

Our system needs to change and it needs to change now. The report on New York’s courts has some important recommendations we need to dig into. But, I’d add that it’s time to rethink how our legal system assesses credibility when working with survivors of color.

As part of NYLAG’s #RethinkCredibility campaign, we’re advocating that:

  1. Law enforcement, judiciary, and court personnel on all levels must complete implicit bias trainings.
  2. Complimentary to the report, we need better diversity in the judiciary and the attorneys appearing before them to reflect the population the county serves.
  3. A system must be established through which survivors can report bias and prejudice in the court system through a transparent process accountable to community stakeholders.

These changes can transform the legal system to better help survivors of all backgrounds, but especially survivors of color for whom justice has for too long been elusive.

Originally published in Bloomberg Law on November 6, 2020.

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