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San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin Hosts Summit on Centering Survivors of Interpersonal Violence in San Francisco

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Sara Yousuf, (415) 603-9696 / Sara.Yousuf@sfgov.org, Deputy Director of Communications / Assistant District Attorney  

San Francisco—Today, on the eve of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, San Francisco District Attorney Boudin hosted a live summit, “Centering Survivors of Interpersonal Violence: Creating Interventions that Heal, Not Harm.” The event featured survivors of interpersonal violence, researchers, practitioners, and community leaders to explore interventions to interrupt cycles of violence while centering the ongoing needs of survivors. District Attorney Boudin moderated the event and delivered opening remarks, in which he spoke of addressing the root causes of interpersonal violence while also holding those who use violence accountable. 

“As District Attorney, I work to ensure that we are using the most effective interventions available to address interpersonal violence,” said District Attorney Boudin. “On the eve of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we hosted this convening to highlight the voices of survivors and experts to develop interventions to end the cycles of violence and to instead foster long lasting healing.”  

Professor Donna Coker’s Keynote Address 

The summit’s keynote address was delivered by University of Miami Law Professor Donna Coker. She described how her perspective has changed after more than five decades in the field of interpersonal violence.  She identified her concerns over policies that promote punitive responses instead of addressing the structural conditions that cause violence. 

Professor Coker examined the shift to increasingly “crime centered” responses to interpersonal violence.  She spoke of the impact of the collateral consequences  of domestic violence convictions, which cause economic harm to survivors and their families. The carceral approach, in Professor Coker’s view, has compromised the ability of many survivors to stand with racial and social justice leaders to combat police bias and violence. More importantly, she described the ways in which victims can often be retraumatized by the legal system and can make it harder to develop responses that address economic justice, racial justice, and trauma.  She advocated for the removal of collateral consequences to convictions and supported mandatory police intervention responses, but not mandatory arrest policies.

First Panel Explored How Traditional Approaches to Interpersonal Violence Have Failed to Center Survivors  

Following the keynote address, District Attorney Boudin moderated two panels.  The first panel, “Centering Survivors,” included several speakers who are themselves survivors of interpersonal violence. Featured on the panel were: Kelli Dillon, Founder and Executive Director, Back to the Basics Community Empowerment Non-Profit Organization; Aminah Elster, Campaign and Policy Coordinator, California Coalition for Women Prisoners; Kasie Lee, Assistant District Attorney and Interim Chief of the Victim Services Division, San Francisco District Attorney’s Office; Pauletta Perez, Domestic Gun Violence Survivor and Board Member, Voices Against Violence for Women and Children, and Paméla Tate, Executive Director, Black Women Revolt Against Domestic Violence. 

Kelli Dillon, Founder and Executive Director of Back to the Basics Community Empowerment Non-Profit Organization, shared her gripping story of being incarcerated for killing her abuser. She remarked on the complicated predicament that many survivors face as a result of their abuse. “Survivors of domestic violence can find themselves trapped between the danger of being killed by their abusers, or the risk of spending the rest of their lives in prison,” said Ms. Dillon.  “When I went into prison and was sitting in the holding tank, all the women heard that’s the girl that killed her husband.  All the women began sharing their stories,” added Ms. Dillon.  “Not one woman in there did not share a story of molestation, incest, abuse, rape, and domestic violence.”

Interim Chief of Victim Services and Assistant District Attorney Kasie Lee spoke powerfully of the need for improved language access to center survivors.  She described representing AAPI survivors who did not speak English, and, as a result, responding police listened only to the stories of their abusers.  She also explained how the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office’s Victim Services Division helps connect victims to services regardless of whether there is a criminal case pending.

Second Panel Discussed Improved Responses to Interpersonal Violence

The second panel, “Creating Interventions that Heal, Not Harm,” explored responses to interpersonal violence ranging from criminal prosecution, treatment programs for those who use violence, restorative justice, and a broad range of services for survivors. Included on the panel were: Juan Carlos Areán, Program Director, Futures Without Violence; Jacquelyn Campbell, Professor and Anna D. Wolf Chair, Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing; Jessica Nowlan, Executive Director, Young Women’s Freedom Center; Evanthia Pappas, Managing Attorney of the Domestic Violence Unit, San Francisco District Attorney’s Office; Beverly Upton, Executive Director, San Francisco Domestic Violence Consortium, and Julia Weber, Implementation Director, Giffords Law Center. 

Several panelists described community-based responses to interpersonal violence designed to serve survivors regardless of their desire to participate in criminal prosecution. Juan Carlos Areán, Program Director, Futures Without Violence shared his approach to providing treatment and services to people who use violence.  He emphasized that services to people who cause harm should go beyond batterers’ intervention courses.  “There are things like unemployment that can make things more dangerous and more lethal,” said Mr. Areán. “How can you learn in a group if you haven’t eaten in three days?”

Evanthia Pappas, Managing Attorney of the Domestic Violence Unit for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office spoke about her experiences intervening on behalf of survivors as a veteran prosecutor.  “This is a learned behavior that can be unlearned,” said Pappas.  “But the first thing is that the abuser needs to take accountability.”  Pappas also explained that reunification between the victim and the person who caused harm can happen through the criminal legal system and that criminal orders can be modified after an individual has engaged in treatment. 

Panelists Shared Compelling Personal Stories 

Several panelists shared their deeply personal experiences as survivors of interpersonal violence.  Pauletta Perez, Board Member, Voices Against Violence for Women and Children spoke candidly of the tragic 2010 incident during which her husband shot her five times, four in the head, before he committed suicide. She described the difficulty of coping with her unmet ongoing needs after being discharged from the hospital.  “They gave me a few bus tokens and wished me well. I still had surgeries and health concerns to be dealt with.  I had no identification, no nothing.” 

Ms. Perez emerged from the ordeal not only as a survivor, but also as an advocate. “I decided that I am just going to do the best that I can to stop this from happening.  Because my abuser is deceased, fortunately enough, I don’t feel afraid to speak out. I feel that I can, so I will.”

A local resource guide for survivors of interpersonal violence is available here

The entire convening, including both panels, can be watched at: https://www.facebook.com/SFDistrictAttorney

To learn more about the District Attorney’s Victim Services Division and the services it provides to crime survivors, please visit: https://sfdistrictattorney.org/victim-services/.