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&Me: Spotlighting Carrie Bettinger-Lopez

December 5, 2017

Inspired by our “Feminists&Me” tee, the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) continues its “Spotlight on Feminists” series by highlighting and honoring individuals who work to make a difference every day through our “&Me” series of interviews. NNEDV previously honored the women featured in this design: Sojourner Truth & Susan B. Anthony bell hooks Gloria Steinem & Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Read the rest of our &Me series here.

NNEDV: First, tell us about yourself – who are you and what do you do?

Carrie Bettinger-Lopez: I am currently transitioning out of an amazing two-year position as White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, where I served as Senior Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden on all issues related to violence against women. I also acted as a liaison between the White House, federal agencies, and advocacy groups on violence against women and gender violence-related issues. Now that I am resuming my “normal life” as an academic and practitioner, I’m returning to teaching the practice of human rights law. I’m the founder and director of a human rights clinic at University of Miami School of Law, where I teach students how to practice social justice and human rights advocacy through law. I also have a special focus on women’s human rights in my clinic.

I will also be working with the Bringing Human Rights Home Lawyers’ Network, a project that I’ve been a part of for the past decade and helped coordinate when I taught at Columbia Law School. The project created a network of lawyers who believe we need to practice what we preach in the United States and ensure that we observe our own human rights obligations within our borders and internationally.

NNEDV: What are you currently working on related to nonviolence and/or gender equality?

CBL: Well, lots of things! I’ll tell you about four of them. The first is a new documentary film called Home Truth. The documentary tells the story of my client, Jessica Lenahan, and her struggle for justice. Jessica is a courageous domestic violence survivor from Colorado whose three children were killed after her husband abducted them in violation of a domestic violence restraining order. Despite the fact that Jessica contacted the police nine times, her requests for help were ignored. Jessica’s husband opened fire on the police station at 3 a.m. using a gun he was not legally permitted to own. After he was shot and killed by police, the officers found the bodies of Jessica’s three young girls inside his truck. Jessica sued the police and the case made it to the Supreme Court, where the justices found that Jessica had no legal right to enforcement of her restraining order and that the police had no legal duty to enforce it.

I was working at the ACLU at the time and, at the urging of Jessica and her mother, we took the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Jessica wanted to take the case to the international community, as she felt that her local government, police,  and the federal court systems had failed her and she had nowhere else to turn. In 2011, we received a huge victory from the Commission, which found that the U.S. was responsible for committing human rights violations against Jessica and her children. Jessica’s case was the first case to be brought and won by a domestic violence survivor against the U.S. in an international court.

If Carrie Bettinger-Lopez could sit down for a cup of coffee with any person, living or dead, she’d pick Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

After the landmark decision was issued, we shifted our focus to our next challenge: its enforcement. That’s what we’ve been working on ever since. When I was at the White House, I was not able to work on the case, but now I’m back on it and focusing much of my energy on Home Truth. The documentary has been in the works for nine years and just had its world premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. The film truly captures Jessica’s struggle; it’s raw and not easy to watch, but it does show her victories and offers a broad depiction of a survivor’s life and her quest for justice. The filmmakers are currently arranging private screenings and the film will be aired on PBS next spring.

The other three projects I’m focusing on stem from my work on the Lenahan case. In order to enforce the Inter-American Commission’s decision, we encouraged the Department of Justice (DOJ) to develop guidance on gender bias in policing and how police can appropriately enforce restraining orders. In December 2015, the DOJ issued “Identifying and Preventing Gender Bias in Law Enforcement Response to Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence,” which was a huge success in our advocacy. Even earlier, the DOJ began investigating individual police departments for gender bias in their responses to domestic violence and sexual assault. The DOJ has put about $10 million into enforcement of the gender bias guidance and is funding pilot projects in police departments nationwide. Additionally, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and other organizations will be actively involved in providing training and technical assistance regarding how police can reform their policies and practices to improve their response to DV and sexual assault survivors. So, broadly, my second project is getting the DOJ’s guidance implemented at the local level in police jurisdictions across the nation.

My third project is one that was also developed after the Commission’s decision came down. Searching for ways to implement the decision, we came up with an idea to make it meaningful at the local level. Our plan centered on the creation of domestic violence resolutions that local governments could adopt to recognize freedom from domestic violence as a fundamental human right. To date, there have been around 30 such local resolutions passed around the country in towns, cities, and counties, and we are working to get more municipalities to adopt them. We’re also really focused on ensuring that the resolutions result in actual policy changes. We hope to pair the resolutions with resources like the DOJ’s gender bias and policing guidance so that local municipalities can launch city-wide initiatives as they adopt their own domestic violence resolutions.

Carrie Bettinger-Lopez asks whether equality can be achieved until violence has ended.

The fourth project stems from the recent global push for countries to adopt national plans of action to combat violence against women and gender violence. UN Women has endorsed the creation of these plans and countries such as Australia, Spain, Tanzania, and many others have adopted them. The United States, meanwhile, has never formally adopted a national plan of action. Many argue that the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) constitutes America’s plan of action; however, plans of action are goal-oriented and are associated with concrete benchmarks for progress, while VAWA is mainly a funding mechanism that is largely reactive rather than proactive in this way. In my mind, VAWA would be an essential element of our national plan, but would not constitute our plan itself.

Though creating a national plan is the main goal, we also recognize that it may not be a viable option under the current administration. A more feasible direction could be to develop local plans of action in a coordinated manner, so that municipalities could join together to eventually develop a plan of action rooted in these local plans. Though it will take some work to figure out our national goals, localities and municipalities should develop plans of action that delve deeply into the specifics and manifestations of gender violence in their communities.

NNEDV: What inspired you to do this work? What inspires you to continue it?

CBL: I always like to give credit to my mother, who was the first feminist in my life who really inspired me to pursue social justice work. Besides that, it was when I returned to my hometown of Miami and worked in domestic violence and dating violence that I truly became motivated to make this my life’s work. I worked with children at the Miami Beach public schools and saw the tremendous issues they faced due to family and dating violence. That experience grounded me in gender violence work in a very profound way, and the children I worked with continue to inspire me.

I also draw inspiration from the students I taught in Haiti a couple of years after I worked in Miami. In Haiti, I taught in a secondary school for poor children who were academically gifted. I worked on a program called Celebrate Women, the goal of which was to help girls understand their worth, as many young girls had not been valued by their community and Haitian society. Those girls also motivate me to continue this work today.

NNEDV: Let’s say you woke up this morning and gender-based violence had been completely eradicated. What are you going to do now?

CBL: That’s good question. And the first thing I think when I hear it is “Well, does that mean that we have true equality?” The real question, of course, is whether equality can be separated from violence. Gender-based violence seems to be such an inherent part of stratified societies, and that violence begets stratification and inequality – they are mutually reinforcing. However, if we really lived in a society without violence, I would look for other forms of inequality and, if they continued to exist, tackle those. If all of those forms of inequality were eradicated as well, I would go on a nice long run and start marathon training again.

NNEDV: If you could sit down over your beverage of choice with any person – living or dead – who would it be and why?

CBL: This is a tough one. I’ve thought a lot recently about the women’s suffrage movement and the struggles of the original suffragists in this country. And as we’re seeing a profound change in our country politically, rhetorically, and socially, I feel like I’m getting a glimpse into some of the challenges that those suffragists faced. I can never truly understand those challenges, but I feel like I have more of a sense of them now than ever before. I would love to sit down for a cup of tea with some of our original suffragists, Sojourner Truth and Harriett Tubman and ask them – How on earth, given the profound impediments they faced, did they have the fortitude and tenacity to forge ahead with their visions of justice? What were their strategies? How did they measure success? How would they advise us to navigate the complexities that vex us today in this country? And what does Harriett Tubman think about Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin declining to endorse the plan for a 2020 redesign of the $20 bill that would feature her on it? That is what I would love to know.