Tag Archives: abuse

Shifting Directions: Human Rights Watch Now Following an Inclusive Path

For more than 40 years, Human Rights Watch has enjoyed an international reputation for taking on and often accomplishing its mission to scrupulously investigate abuses to widely expose the facts and then relentlessly press those in power, ranging from governments to armed groups to businesses — all in the name of change.

Its ability to effectively employ researchers, lawyers, and others functioning as investigators, journalists, and advocates — roughly 450 people of 70 different nationalities in some 90 countries around the world — has been the envy of rights organizations dating back to 1997 when HRW shared in the Nobel Peace Prize as a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.

Santa Barbara is the site of one of four local committees in California among 23 around the world that make up the expansive reach of HRW, and our hometown office works on issues both international and California-centric, including climate change, immigration rights, and juvenile justice.

HRW Santa Barbara Director Lis Leader has only been here since 2014 — taking on the position at the urging of Montecito writer-activist-philanthropist Victoria Riskin — and has adjusted direction in response to the needs of the community that proved to have desires to have more hands-on involvement in human rights.

“One of the things we have found is our committee members get very frustrated because they don’t want to just be writing checks. They want to be feeling like they’re having an impact,” Leader said of the local Santa Barbara committee members who are part of the international network of dedicated human rights supporters that drive the activities of the HRW Council.

“So, we try and help initiate advocacy issues on topics like poverty and immigration.”

But those opportunities aren’t always available directly through HRW, she said, so the solution was to look at other local nonprofits that might meet that need.

“We’ve started to partner with local grassroots organizations to whom our community members can be introduced,” she explained. “Then they can be involved with a much more hands-on organization that is smaller and more local.”

Directing supporters and sharing donors with other nonprofits might seem disingenuous, as HRW, like just about all NGOs, can always use more financial help. But to Leader, where that money and energy goes doesn’t matter as long as it’s headed in the right direction.

“Ultimately our goal is to uphold human rights and to fight against human rights abuses,” she said. “There’s no conflict of interest, because other nonprofits need money too. And my feeling is that seeing it as a problem is not how people work, especially in this community. People give to the organizations that matter to them and that are doing the work they care about.”

Indeed, Leader doesn’t see fundraising as a zero-sum game in Santa Barbara. 

“It’s actually a win-win situation all around. These organizations are supporting our advocacy efforts. We’re trying to support them with their local efforts and we’re getting in return some hands-on opportunities for our committee members.”

Recently, Leader spearheaded an even greater shift in direction for the Santa Barbara committee, largely in response to heightened awareness about access in the wake of race issues and the pandemic’s hitting poorer communities harder. 

“We have often been regarded as an elitist organization because it’s run on membership, and every city has a different policy and how they determine what the base fee is to join,” she said, explaining that Santa Barbara’s minimum contribution was $2,500 a year.

“We realized, especially with Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, and Asian issues, that we need to be as diverse, inclusive, and equal as the people that we benefit all over the world. We hadn’t been doing that with our committee here.”

So, at the beginning of the year, Leader and the committee’s chair and vice chair met and jointly decided to eliminate the membership policy entirely.

“It was an obstacle to being inclusive,” the director said. “And we also recognized the fact that people’s lives have changed, and their finances may have changed since the pandemic. We can’t assume that we should just keep doing business as usual. It was important to have a really positive change on a local basis, as well as on the international arena. We made every effort to reach out to all organizations in this community to create a committee that is a more diverse reflection of who we are.”

The upshot is that anybody who self-identifies as a supporter of human rights is now welcomed to join the HRW-Santa Barbara committee. What does that mean for the nonprofit’s finances?

“From my perspective, it is still a group of people who can support us financially with whatever they can afford,” Leader said. “If it’s nothing, that’s fine, because their voice is equally valuable and they can support us by promoting our advocacy work and helping us when we need letters written, petition signed and bodies showing up on the steps of City Hall. And they can gain information by joining our presentations and helping more local grassroots organizations that they are interested in. If they’re self-identifying an interest in human rights, that’s good enough for me.”

To be clear, opening up the local committee was just a small response to recent social change movements in the United States, Leader said, noting that HRW has been focused on the Black Lives Matter movement for more than a year.

“A lot of the reports you see in newspapers lately about (the anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre) have originated from Human Rights Watch. We have had a crisis and conflict department and researchers who are in that division every time there’s been a riot at a BLM protest. Our researchers make sure that the police are acting appropriately and that crowds are acting appropriately and that the information that’s coming out of those instances is accurate.”

Leader said the pandemic itself induced an increased HRW focus on abuse that was either exacerbated by or endemic to lockdowns.

“We realized at the beginning that it would act as an excuse for a lot of administrations to crunch down on human rights and for other organizations and people to further human rights abuses across the board,” Leader said. 

“There has been a huge rise in domestic abuse in this country, and a huge increase in sex trafficking and a huge rise in poverty, and the list goes on and on and on.”

All of which resulted in HRW having more work than ever before, Leader said, while at the same time suffering a decrease in financial support that afflicted just about every other nonprofit organization in the world. But while funds were fading, Leader said she felt “honored to work for this organization because the first thing they said is we need to safeguard our most valuable asset which is our staff. “

She said that instead of furloughing employees or making jobs redundant, the executive team took salary and benefit cuts while at the same creating a resilience task force to help struggling employees, including with psychologists and other support.

“The support from HRW mirrored the kind of care and consideration it gives its work,” she said.

The pandemic also solidified Leader’s desire to continue to think globally and act locally when necessary.

“We recognize that we can’t operate in isolation from everybody else. The pandemic has taught us that this time is a time when we have to unify, we have to work towards common goals. We have immigration issues here,” Leader said.

“We have juvenile justice problems here. We have sex trafficking in California — Sacramento is the country’s sex trafficking capital. We have so many problems here that we can focus locally and help small organizations and get involved at a much more grassroots level. We shouldn’t be intimidated by the prospect of losing funds, but I don’t think we will. Why shouldn’t we shout out about the great organizations that are doing fantastic work. The bold change is to take the risk and make a difference in people’s lives here.”

To that end, Leader’s personal passion project started two years ago is a Human Rights Watch club at UCSB, where she’s helped them with support for advocacy efforts on issues that matter to the students, such as monitoring the Isla Vista Foot Patrol who, students say, were walking through the tiny district like “a little gang of police” and approaching people without wearing masks during the height of the pandemic. There are concerns about their attitude towards students and student attitudes towards police, Leader said.

“These kids, they just devour topics that are relevant to them and ask great questions and pursue finding out how they can help,” she said. “It’s really wonderful to see them just be interested and enthusiastic and passionate about things. The little club is expanding and they’re making presentations to other clubs.”

Maybe the students won’t be able to afford to attend HRW-SB’s Voices for Justice Annual Dinner when the benefit finally gets rescheduled for later this year. But they’re making the kind of grassroots difference that forms the heart of Human Rights Watch.

For More Information

Website:
www.hrw.org/about/get-local/santa-barbara
Phone: 310-477-5540
Email: sb@hrw.org

‘A Caseload of One’: CASA Puts the Focus on Individualized Attention for Children

The mission of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Santa Barbara County is to assure a safe, permanent, and nurturing home for all abused and/or neglected children by providing a highly trained volunteer to advocate for them in the court system. When a child is removed from their home due to abuse or neglect, they are faced with something no youngster should ever have to go through: Navigating a confusing world of court proceedings amid competing interests with their future hanging in the balance.

The children are provided a lawyer, but their attorney likely has hundreds of other cases to handle simultaneously. The child’s social worker is also burdened with a full caseload that prevents much focused attention, and even the judge — whose goal is to issue ruling that is best for the child — sees the child too infrequently and only in a courtroom setting.

That’s where CASA volunteers come in. The advocates — who are paired with just one child at a time, or perhaps a couple of siblings — have one simple goal, which is to make sure the child is getting everything they need to survive and thrive during the transition period after being removed from the home, whether they eventually end up back in their biological parents’ home or elsewhere.

It’s a system that fills a hole in children’s lives right when they are most vulnerable, having had to be removed from the home in order to be protected after all other efforts had failed.

“The volunteer advocates develop the type of trusting relationship that comes from spending time with and getting to know the child. They really become the expert on the case,” explained Kim Colby Davis, CASA’s executive director. “The beauty of CASA is that our volunteers have a caseload of one.”

They work with child welfare and the child’s attorney to collect information and make sure that the court knows everything that might be helpful to determine what’s in the best interest of the child to keep them safe and help them thrive. The child might need anything from tutoring to clothes while they’re in care — “the things we advocate for just runs the gamut.”

The county’s CASA has done a remarkable job in caring for the kids as they endure the tough time that comes after already undergoing abuse or neglect. Indeed, in the decade between 2009-19, the nonprofit tripled in size in both volunteers and children served. But even before the pandemic hit, the need had outgrown CASA’s current capabilities, leaving up to 200 kids without a court-appointed advocate.

“There’s been a real increase in the number of children in need,” Colby Davis said. “We are serving more children than ever, but we still have far too many on a waiting list because there aren’t enough volunteers.”

Not surprisingly, the pandemic provided even more challenges as increases in both domestic violence situations and drug abuse among parents coincided with closures of schools, churches, and other places that would normally report abuse situations before they escalate, Colby Davis said. At the same time, CASA volunteers were hesitating to take on new cases to protect their own health.

“The kids lost their safety net, so the cases that were coming in were really the scary ones, the worst-case scenarios,” she said. “We didn’t stop operations, but given the uptick in cases, we just couldn’t keep up with the pace. We kept working all the way through the pandemic, but we had to slow the pace of training new volunteers. It was like a perfect storm — an increase in the number of children we needed to serve while we had a temporary decrease in the number of volunteers.”

CASA, like everyone, did its best to adapt, pivoting to an online platform for the majority of volunteer training — a protocol that might continue in part even after the pandemic comes to a close.

“It’s actually been such an improvement in our overall training efficieancy that we’re keeping it,” Colby Davis explained. “But we still have to do some in-person training because you just can’t bring a person who you don’t know and never met and place them so deeply into the life of a fragile child. So, we decided to simply do whatever size class we can safely handle through the pandemic, which meant we had to cut down on the numbers, maybe just six as an average.”

More funds and more volunteers are needed as CASA anticipates expanding to training 12 volunteers at a time in June, putting it on the path to pre-pandemic size classes.

The numbers don’t lie: The average CASA volunteer spends about 52 months working with the nonprofit — which translates to more than four years. 

“What that means is that most volunteers stay and take at least a second or third case,” Colby Davis said. “That’s been part of our success on our strategic plan for growth. And it’s not surprising, because it is just so dramatic to see the difference it makes on a case when they’ve got this person who’s deeply invested in this one child’s wellbeing.”

But lest she lose any potential volunteers, Colby Davis wanted to bust a couple of myths about serving as an advocate to make sure nobody unnecessarily disqualifies themselves from participating in the program. First is that just because the number on CASA’s website of children in need of an advocate in Santa Barbara is often at zero, it doesn’t mean that every local kid has an advocate. It’s more that the children are being housed in Lompoc or Santa Maria, which means the advocate has to be willing to make the drive.

“But you can take the 101, put your car on cruise control, and listen to a book on tape while you drive,” Colby Davis said, noting that CASA is expanding its Lompoc office to create a kids hangout room with crafts and games or simply a quiet place to do homework in a really nice environment as well as an upstairs “coffee bar” for the older kids to meet with their advocate.

Another misnomer is the belief that you need to speak Spanish to get assigned as an advocate.

“We always appreciate our bilingual volunteers because there are certainly cases in which that’s helpful, but the majority of our cases are for English-speaking kids and usually even their parents speak English, too,” Colby Davis said. “That’s definitely not a barrier to serving as a volunteer.”

Also inaccurate is the thought that it’s better to wait until retirement to serve as an advocate because of the time commitment. While training does take some focused attention over a six-week span, the average amount of volunteer time is 10-12 hours per month, maybe 15 at the most, Colby Davis said.

“It’s a very doable role for a community member who works full time — so you don’t have to wait until you’re not working. I think half or even more of our volunteers work full time. We’re always willing to give people the information and show how it could work within your schedule.”

Perhaps the biggest fear among potential volunteers is the idea that they aren’t up to the task, the executive director said. 

“It is a very complicated system to work through, but the important thing is that you’re not in it alone,” Colby Davis stressed. “That is what our professional staff is for. They come alongside you, as your assistant in a sense as you work with that child.”

In other words, the desire and willingness to be of service is the most important thing. Which also holds true even if a commitment to volunteering isn’t in the cards, especially through CASA’s Sponsor a Child program that asks for a donation commensurate with CASA’s cost of a single case — including keeping donors connected with the progress of an individual case as it works its way through the system.

“We’re up to about 75 people who aren’t quite ready to volunteer, but they’re thrilled to be sponsoring a child,” Colby Davis said, who added the program provides frequent updates and regular conversations with staff “where they can actually learn how their donation works in real time and hear about everything that’s going on with the child.

The myriad ways to support CASA include helping to arrange corporate support, donating gift cards to retail outlets that can help provide birthday gifts for the kids, or simply spreading the word about CASA at your place of business, church, club, or organization as well as on social media. Whatever the method, it seems it could hardly be more rewarding than to be a part of a program that serves abused or neglected kids whose ages range from newborn to 21.

“They’re just kids and they haven’t done anything wrong,” Colby Davis emphasized. “The babies who come from addicted mothers are so innocent, and even most of the older kids are just so normal. They just want to be a normal kid. We try to help that happen.”

What could be more important than that?

Guiding Survivors Out of the Woods

On the second day of her freshman year of college, Aspen Matis was raped. 

When “mediation” with her attacker failed, and the school inexplicably moved him into her dorm, Matis was traumatized, scared and left alone. Instead of moving him out, they moved her to a converted motel off campus, where she would sit, alone, staring at the cinder block walls. 

While there, Matis called the National Sexual Assault Hotline – created and operated by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. 

“The person I spoke with was so amazing,” Matis says. “She told me things that sound so obvious in retrospect, but at the time they were revelations to me: ‘This was not your fault. You didn’t cause this. Short shorts don’t cause rape. Weed doesn’t cause rape. Rapists cause rape.’ Talking with a compassionate professional from RAINN became the first step in my healing process.”

After a handful of more calls with RAINN’s highly trained support specialists, Matis decided to leave college. Her new plan: walk the 2,500 miles from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail to raise money for RAINN.

Beyond operating the hotline and providing other victim services that have touched more than 3.2 million survivors and their loved ones since 1994, RAINN works with national media and the entertainment industry to elevate sexual violence storylines across the country. RAINN also works to expand the use of DNA in unsolved rape kits, reduce the backlog of untested rape kits, reform statute of limitations laws, broaden survivors’ access to appropriate medical care, protect young athletes, and bring perpetrators to justice. 

“We founded RAINN more than 25 years ago based on the belief that no survivor should feel alone,” says Founder and President Scott Berkowitz. “While supporting survivors will always be at the core of what we do, we have become the leading voice educating the public and fighting for survivors’ rights in Congress and the states.” 

In 2015, Matis wrote a memoir, “Girl in the Woods,” about her epic trek and painful recovery, which was propelled into the spotlight as a part of Oprah’s Book Club. As a member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau, Matis travels the country spreading awareness about sexual assault and rape, and its frightening frequency. Nearly one in four young women will have such an experience before leaving college.

“The reality is that sexual assault and rape are happening every day and everywhere,” Matis says. “The most convenient thing to do is to pretend that they are rare, because acknowledging this epidemic is uncomfortable and it’s sad and it’s scary. But by denying reality, averting your eyes and just willing it away, you are denying the validity of the struggles of so many people, and also denying them resources that may help them to heal and live a fulfilling life after.

RAINN is doing a wonderful and admirable service for the people who have been through the trauma of sexual assault and for anyone who knows someone or loves someone who has been raped.”