The freedom to be safe

A group of students in Northeastern University’s School of Law have crafted—and helped pass—a resolution making freedom from domestic violence a human right in the city.

The School of Law joins about a dozen other law schools across the country whose students have helped pass similar motions.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Boston City Council unanimously passed Northeastern’s resolution, which was designed by six students working in the university’s Domestic Violence Clinic. The resolution not only makes freedom from domestic violence a human right in the city, but also includes a provision to design a resource guide for victims of domestic violence.

“What is interesting with this resolution is that its sponsor, councilman Charles Yancey, made the language of the resolution very strong,” said Margaret Drew, a visiting professor in the Domestic Violence Clinic who helped the students with this project. “They wanted to make sure something is implemented that has consequences, that is going to see practical results,” she added. “This is the first city council considering an issue that has taken an interest in ensuring that practical results flow from implementation.”

The resolution arose from the result of a domestic violence case in Colorado in 1999. Jessica Lenahan’s three young daughters were abducted by her estranged husband and were later found dead in the back of his pickup truck after he drove to a local police station and opened fire. Lenahan had a restraining order against him and repeatedly called the police for assistance, but they failed to respond.

Lenahan filed a suit against the police and in 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled she had no Constitutional right to police enforcement of her restraining order. She then filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, saying the police and the Supreme Court’s decision violated her human rights, which the commission agreed with.

“The shift we want to make is that people understand they have a right to be safe and that it’s not something they need to ask for,” Drew explained.

Two law school students drafted the resolution and four others presented the resolution to Yancey, who serves on the city council’s Committee on Human Rights and Civil Rights.

Chris Confrey, L’14, who served as a student supervisor at the clinic, noted that the draft included a fact sheet showing domestic violence crosses all social and economic barriers. “We wanted to try and look at domestic violence from a proactive stand point and see what we could do to make it not something victims have to overcome but can be free of,” Confrey said.

Students in Northeastern’s Domestic Violence Clinic work with domestic violence victims at Dorchester District Court, where they help them obtain emergency restraining orders and one-year extension orders. In addition, the students help domestic violence victims find resources in other areas such as family law and housing.

With the help of the city council, the clinic will seek to draft a resource guide to help survivors and service providers find help in their own neighborhoods as well as throughout the city. Building on work done by former students in the clinic, the guide will include basic information on how to obtain restraining orders while its resources will be organized by neighborhood for easy use.

“So often we think of our base needs as human rights, such as shelter and food, but our safety is tied to that and that is what we are saying with this resolution,” Confrey explained. “You have a right to be and feel safe.”