No More Stolen Sisters: Violence Against Indigenous Women and the Fight to Raise Awareness

From almost nonexistent media attention to jurisdictional neglect, Indigenous victims of gender-based violence are often overlooked despite being grossly overrepresented as victims of violence.

Molly Simons is an Institutional Giving Intern at Sanctuary for Families. A senior at Trinity College, she is writing a thesis about violence against Indigenous women. ________________________________________________________________________________

While only referencing the U.S., this blog post will use Indigenous to refer to American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities and members.

Sometime before 2016, a young Indigenous woman—let’s call her Rose—was strangled by her husband (for various reasons involving the privacy of victims and minors, the woman’s name and age remain confidential.) Rose was an enrolled member of the Yaqui Tribe of Arizona; her husband, Frank Jaimez, was 19 years old and non-Indigenous. Frank was prosecuted for the strangling and convicted of a crime, but he still returned to the house with Rose. And the abuse continued (ADI).

Indigenous women (and two-spirit people) are grossly overrepresented as victims of violence

Frank’s abuse toward Rose reflects a larger historical trend of violence against Indigenous people that stems from an invasion of Indigenous space—both Indigenous land and bodies. In particular, Indigenous women and other gender and sexual minorities are grossly overrepresented as victims of violence.

Rose is part of the more than 4 in 5 Indigenous women who have experienced violence in their lifetime, and the scale of this problem is immense: over 5,700 Indigenous women and girls are considered to be missing or murdered. Over half of Indigenous women have also reported experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime, 96 percent of which has been at the hands of non-Indigenous perpetrators. And these statistics are deadly—for Indigenous women and girls, the homicide rate is over six times higher than it is for their white counterparts.

Similarly to Rose, more than half of Indigenous women have experienced physical violence by intimate partners in their lifetime. Again, these statistics are fatal. Indigenous women victims of intimate partner violence lose an average of 38.3 potential years of life per death in a study of 16 states.

Indigenous people who identify as two-spirit, a blanket term often used to describe queer and LGBTQ+ Indigenous people, similarly face heightened levels of violence. One recent report found that nearly all participants who identified as two-spirit had experienced sexual assault, with almost 90% experiencing two or more forms of violence.

These statistics are staggering and yet still relatively unknown to the public.

This is because Indigenous women are at the crossroads of oversight

From almost nonexistent media attention to jurisdictional neglect, Indigenous women who experience violence are often overlooked and left to advocate for themselves and their family members and friends alone.

According to a report released by the Urban Indian Health Institute in 2017, of about 500 cases of murdered Indigenous women and two-spirit people, 95 percent were not covered by national or international media. Media response is drastically different for missing and murdered people of other races, especially missing upper and middle-class white women and girls whose stories often garner the attention of the nation.

Jurisdictional oversight continues to plague federal and state court systems that should assist Indigenous women in winning convictions over their abusers, many of whom are not Indigenous. This oversight is a lasting impact of a 1978 decision in which the Supreme Court held that tribal courts had lost the authority to try non-Indigenous perpetrators when the tribes had become dependents of the United States. As a result, many crimes against Indigenous women simply went unprosecuted. Tribal courts often lacked the resources to try non-Indigenous people, and the federal government often lacked the resolve to pick up those cases, so Indigenous communities became playgrounds for crime and violence.

Steps in the right direction

In September 2016, Frank Jaimez, the defendant from above, came home to find that Rose had propped the door to their house open, waiting for her daughter to come home. Frank demanded that Rose close the door, and the couple began arguing. During that argument, Frank picked up Rose’s property and smashed it on the ground. Fearful, Rose called the tribal police, who arrested Frank. This time, Frank was not only prosecuted, he was sent to prison by the Pascua Yaqui tribal court (ADI).

Until 2013 and the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), that prosecution in tribal court would not have been possible. But after advocacy from Indigenous activists, VAWA 2013 authorized tribal courts to prosecute domestic violence cases even when the abuser was a non-Indigenous person.

In the legal sphere, this increase of jurisdiction is crucial to helping women like Rose, but media attention for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls still falls short of adequate.

Thus, Indigenous advocates have turned to visual activism

The REDress Project by artist Jamie Black calls attention to the ongoing crisis of violence against Indigenous women. Black, a Métis and Finnish artist committed to raising awareness of the Movement for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, created a display showing empty red dresses hung from tree branches. The REDress Project garnered attention, and the movement grew, expanding to most of North America. This display of red dresses of all shapes and sizes hung in the trees has become a recognizable symbol in the fight against violence.

Another distinct symbol in the fight against violence against Indigenous women is a red handprint painted over the mouth. Seen first on Boston marathon competitor Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel (Kul Wicasa Oyate, Lower Brule Sioux Tribe), she painted the red handprint on her face to “break the silence of the violence happening on our Indigenous womxn and peoples“. The red handprint has gained recognition and has now been featured on billboard campaigns and in the first season of Canada’s Drag Race.

The fight continues

There is much to be done to continue the work of this political and artistic activism. Subsequent VAWA reauthorizations have awarded expanded jurisdiction to tribal courts, but there are still restrictions that infringe on tribal courts effectiveness.

Working to further these expansions through state government is LT. Governor Peggy Flanagan (White Earth Band of Ojibwe) of Minnesota. Flanagan recognizes that the necessity for electing Indigenous women and people to positions of power saying, “When we are at the table, the conversations change“. These conversations have helped turn attention and resources to the issue, highlighting the need for more Indigenous women and people in power.

A continual push from both Indigenous activists and non-Indigenous people can emphasize the importance of expanded jurisdiction. Promoting and talking with Indigenous activists, as well as calling members of Congress, are all ways to amplify Indigenous voices and issues.

Indigenous space has long been infringed upon, but continued legislative advocacy and visual activism will help tribes in their fight to regain long overdue jurisdiction and sovereignty.

You are not alone

For Indigenous-centered resources:

If you or someone you know is experiencing abuse, please do not hesitate to reach out to us for help. Sanctuary’s services are free and available to all survivors living in New York City, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, marital or immigration status.

Our services include:

Depp v. Heard Trial: Media Coverage

A collection of powerful articles that elevate survivors’ voices and discuss the severity and long-term implications of the Depp v. Heard trial and its verdict.

Watching the Depp v. Heard trial turn into a spectacle of misogyny has been demoralizing and triggering for many of us, especially for survivors of gender violence.

Whatever the facts, we know that there was a concerted effort to use this trial as a means to discredit the #MeToo movement, minimize the severity of violence against women and girls, and force survivors back into silence.

To counter the aggressive levels of misinformation that have, sadly, shaped public discourse, we wanted to share a collection of powerful articles that elevate survivors’ voices and discuss the severity and long-term implications of the trial and its verdict.

The New Yorker | The Johnny Depp-Amber Heard Verdict Is Chilling

Many victims of domestic violence who watched this trial will likely conclude that, if they share their experiences, they will be disbelieved, shamed, and ostracized. [READ MORE]

The Cut | How Did Johnny Depp Become the Good Guy?

Depp v. Heard put the actor’s misogyny on full display. For his fans, he still walked away the hero. [READ MORE]

VICE | The Daily Wire Spent Thousands of Dollars Promoting Anti-Amber Heard Propaganda

The conservative media outlet ran Facebook and Instagram ads for stories backing Johnny Depp, an investigation by media non-profit the Citizens for VICE World News found. [READ MORE]

The Cut | The Inescapable Horror of Depp v. Heard

The Depp v. Heard trial has revealed a collective lack of empathy for survivors and an ignorance of the very real effects that public discussion of abuse has on some people who’ve lived through it. [READ MORE]

TIME | Depp v. Heard Reminds Us That the Legal System Is Still Stacked Against Survivors

Online, Depp’s supporters are rejoicing, insisting that his victory serves as proof that the #MeToo movement went too far. But the verdict is actually proof the #MeToo movement hasn’t gone far enough. [READ MORE]

TIME | The Depp-Heard Trial Perpetuates the Myth of the Perfect Victim

Perpetuating the “perfect victim” myth will have long-term consequences. Already, women are expressing trepidation about coming forward with allegations of abuse following the Heard-Depp trial. [READ MORE]

NBC News | Johnny Depp’s Amber Heard trial verdict will have a devastating chilling effect

As a Black woman, survivor of domestic abuse and writer who has penned work detailing my abuse, I will be haunted by this verdict and its implications for years to come. [READ MORE]

19th News | Johnny Depp trial unlocks new way for abusers to exert power over survivors, experts worry

Experts say that the amount of attention on this trial is offering abusers a look at a whole new way of potentially exerting power over a survivor. [READ MORE]

USA Today | What the Amber Heard, Johnny Depp trial didn’t cover: The violence bisexual women face

Heard’s sexuality was not an explicit part of the trial, and while experts say they were glad to see that her bisexuality wasn’t used against her, they wished coverage could have done more to address the ways in which a person’s sexual identity can contribute to vulnerability. [READ MORE]

The New York Times | Amber Heard: I ‘Stand by Every Word’ of Testimony in Defamation Trial

In her first public interview since losing a defamation case brought against her by Johnny Depp, her ex-husband, Ms. Heard said she had told the truth when she accused him of abuse. [READ MORE]

The Daily Beast | Unsealed Johnny Depp v. Amber Heard Court Documents Reveal Shocking New Claims

More than 6,000 pages of docs were unsealed in the Depp v. Heard defamation saga, including Heard’s worry that Depp would use her nude pics and the exclusion of Marilyn Manson. [READ MORE]

Vulture | Could Amber Heard Win Her Appeal Against Johnny Depp?

For Heard, an appeal reflects her insistence that her allegations of abuse are true. An appeal also provides an opportunity for Heard’s case to be argued more thoroughly on First Amendment grounds. [READ MORE]


Amber Heard photo modified from author gdcgraphics. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Johnny Depp photo modified from author Harald Krichel. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. 

Hogan Lovells Successfully Defends Domestic Violence Survivor

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of Hogan Lovells attorneys for their pro bono work on behalf of Sanctuary client “Lin.”

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of Hogan Lovells attorneys for their pro bono work on behalf of Sanctuary client “Lin,” a Malaysian mother of a toddler boy. The Hogan Lovells team of partner Gary Serbin (currently at Kofsky Schwalb LLC), counsel Andrew Behrman (currently at Baker Botts LLP), and associates Nicole Schiavo, Anjum Unwala, and Jordan Estes (currently at the U.S. Department of Justice) fought hard and successfully to reverse a  federal court judgment ordering Lin to pay nearly $300,000 to her abusive husband.

When Lin came to Sanctuary she had already endured years of severe and repeated physical, sexual, and psychological violence in Singapore at the hands of her husband, a wealthy Iranian businessman.  Some of the incidents took place when she was holding her little boy.

Although Lin repeatedly reported the abuse to the police, sought medical treatment for injuries her husband inflicted on her, and attempted to obtain a civil protective order, she was unable to obtain the protection she and her baby needed. Fearing for her life and her child’s safety, she fled to New York with her son.

Lin’s husband filed a petition in the U.S. District Court in New York, demanding that the son be returned to Singapore pursuant to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. Granting his attorney’s ex parte application, the District Court judge ordered the child to be seized by federal marshals and given to the father.

Going to trial

At trial Lin testified in detail about her husband’s abuse and the grave danger that she and her child would be in if forced to return to Singapore, and the court admitted into evidence multiple police reports and hospital records documenting the violence. Although U.S. District Judge P. Kevin Castel found that the father perpetrated multiple acts of domestic violence against the mother, some in the presence of the child, he ordered that the child be returned to Singapore.  The appellate court affirmed this decision.

Lin was heartbroken, but her husband was not through with his abuse.  He asked the District Court to force Lin to pay him $618,000 in legal fees and expenses for costs he incurred in litigating the Hague Convention case. Knowing this would financially devastate their client, Sanctuary turned to Hogan Lovells to fight the fee motion.

An uphill battle

The Hogan Lovells pro bono team rose to the challenge, arguing forcefully to Judge Castel that requiring Lin to pay her husband’s expenses would be “clearly inappropriate” given his history of domestic violence against her and her limited financial means.

Judge Castel rejected their argument that the domestic violence rendered a fee award inappropriate.  Although the team succeeded in reducing the fees by more than half, Judge Castel ordered Lin to pay nearly $300,000 to her abusive husband. 

“We advised Sanctuary that there were grounds to appeal the fee award, but it was highly unlikely that the appellate court would eliminate the fees entirely,” said Nicole Schiavo, a senior associate at Hogan Lovells.

“Nonetheless, we felt very strongly that a victim of abuse should not have to pay her batterer’s expenses, especially when those expenses resulted from the batterer’s own actions that caused the victim to flee.”

Knowing they faced an uphill battle, the team nonetheless filed a notice of appeal and took the fight to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

Shortly before New Year’s Eve, Lin’s husband launched a surprise procedural attack on the team’s notice of appeal.  “We got a call from opposing counsel claiming our notice of appeal was defective in that it was filed too late,” said Nicole. “He threatened that he would file a motion to dismiss our appeal as untimely if we didn’t voluntarily withdraw it.”

The Hogan Lovells team worked around the clock over the holiday weekend to respond to the emergency motion to dismiss the appeal.  The motion was ultimately defeated and the appeal was argued by former Hogan Lovells partner Gary Serbin in January 2015.

In March 2016, the Second Circuit issued a ruling that happily surprised everyone – the Court completely reversed Judge Castel’s order and eliminated the fee award in its entirety

Setting a new precedent

In an opinion written by Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann, the Second Circuit found that awarding fees to Lin’s abusive husband was “clearly inappropriate” given his “multiple, unilateral acts of intimate partner violence” against her.  Chief Judge Katzmann stated that,

“intimate partner violence in any form is deplorable. It can include a range of behaviors, from a single slap to a lethal blow. However, we need not determine in the matter at hand what quantum of violence must have occurred to warrant a finding that fees are ‘clearly inappropriate,’ given the repeated violence established in the record here.”

“We jumped for joy after reading the decision, which sets a new precedent in the Second Circuit,” explained Nicole. “This decision makes clear that domestic violence alone can make a fees award to an abusive partner clearly inappropriate under the International Child Abduction Remedies Act.”

Reflecting on her experience working on the appeal, Hogan Lovells associate Anjum Unwala said, “We are so pleased that our team’s perseverance and expertise in international law achieved this favorable outcome. Most of all, we hope this decision helps our client move away from an abusive situation and go forward with her life.”

“Working with Sanctuary for Families gave me a true understanding of the tireless work they do as an organization to help those in need,” added Andrew Behrman, former Hogan Lovells counsel and now a partner at Baker Botts. “It was a privilege to play a small part in this case with them.”

For Lin, the Hogan Lovells victory ensured that she will not be impoverished and indebted as she struggles to reunite with her little boy in Singapore.

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Hogan Lovells’ outstanding pro bono work.  Learn more about the event here.  If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.

Erin Meyer is the Pro Bono Manager at Proskauer Rose LLP and was formerly a senior associate at Hogan Lovells US LLP.  She is also a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and Co-Chair of this year’s Above & Beyond event.