Halting the Clenched Fist of Abuse
Sarah Buel wages a multifaceted war on the problem of abused women
OPENING one of several folders she carries with her, Sarah Buel thumbs through the contents to find heart-stopping photos of a battered woman's face and neck. "These are good photos," she says, meaning they are irrefutable evidence gathered by the police to be used against the abuser.
It's trial day in the Quincy District Court. For the next nine hours or so, Assistant District Attorney Buel moves quietly through a headlong, chaotic day of court appearances, meetings, negotiations, and quick discussions with her staff.
She has a singular and passionate purpose: to defend battered and abused women. In Massachusetts this year, 11 women have been killed as a result of domestic violence. According to a recent congressional report, the severity of domestic violence in the United States has reached the point where four women, on average, are beaten to death every day.
Outside of court, Buel is a community activist, a spark-plug leader who has started many advocacy groups to meet the needs of the victims of domestic violence as well as the abusers.
Here in Norfolk County, she has been instrumental in creating a domestic-violence intervention program recognized by officials and foundations as the most effective in the state. At law school in 1988, she founded the Battered Women's Advocacy Project at Harvard University, a project that continues today.
As a former battered wife who escaped her marriage with her young son, Buel lived on welfare in the early 1980s while she stabilized her life. Self-described as "tenacious, tremendously optimistic, and driven," she sometimes cleaned houses to earn living expenses while she attended law school on a scholarship. Eventually she graduated with high honors.
She has testified before Congress and addressed dozens of conferences on the horrors of, and solutions for, domestic violence. This year the American Bar Association named her one of the nation's top 20 young lawyers.
"The FBI says now that one out of every two women in the US will be in a violent relationship in her lifetime," says Buel, moving from the scruffy District Attorny's office in the courthouse to a small, private office to meet with a young woman who was stalked for weeks by her former boyfriend. "Domestic violence is now the No. 1 cause of injury to women in this country," says Buel.
In the small office, she dumps the folders on the desk and sits down opposite a young, dark-haired, neatly dressed woman fidgeting with her hands. Buel gently questions and listens to the woman. Repeating what she told the police, the woman says she received dozens of threatening phone calls from her ex-boyfriend at all hours of the day and night. At one point he called her every 10 minutes to harass her. Once he came to her house and stood in the backyard, staring at her. A restraining order didn't stop
Later, Buel says this case is the first application in Norfolk County of the new "anti-stalking" state law, which forbids the hounding and harassment of one individual by another. Twenty-one other states now have similar laws.
Buel says, "My job is to seek justice. I'm not a fan of jail, and I don't hate men, but if we have to protect someone from them ...." She knows of hundreds of cases where men have beaten, humiliated, or terrorized their wives and girl friends. Or killed them.
"The typical response in the majority of communities around the country," she says, "is to tell the woman, `This is your problem; you figure out how to stop him from beating you up.' But God forbid that you don't look like the Betty Crocker victim in court, that you are of color, poor, don't dress appropriately for court, have tattoos on your arm, have a substance-abuse problem, or you are on your fifth marriage.
"Judges, and juries in particular, can be so righteous and judgmental," she continues. "But victims are like our relatives; we don't choose them, and the law should not distinguish between victims, the Betty Crocker kind and the other."
In the courtroom, Buel is disciplined and prepared. She is smallish with a clear, strong voice. She stands before a judge almost without moving, slowly weaving a summation. Few gestures, no histrionics. She knows the issues, the "culture," and the causes of domestic violence because she has been there.
Buel's boss, Norfolk County District Attorney William Delahunt, cites her passion and commitment as keys to her success as a prosecutor and a community leader.
"As much as anyone in the state," he says, "Sarah has been a catalyst for public awareness about domestic violence. She has established that violence in the home produces the people who rob, assault, steal cars, and beat and rape women. This is much more than a woman's issue."
A few weeks ago the Ford Foundation awarded Buel's domestic-violence program in Quincy a $20,000 grant, which qualified it to become one of 25 finalists to receive an additional $100,000. The foundation cited the program as "the most comprehensive intervention program in state."
THE keynote address Buel gave earlier this year at a conference cosponsored by the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute was a riveting, candid amalgam of personal experience, modest successes, horrifying statistics, and even more horrifying examples of violence. At the end, she said, "I implore you not to be silent about family violence in your community."
On Sundays, she often works or meets with victims at her office. If she loses a case in which she feels a double standard toward women was applied, she has been known to drive around in her car screaming and yelling in private frustration. Beth Ledoux, a victim witness advocate who works with Buel, says, "There is nobody like Sarah with her tremendous sense of caring."
Buel's concern is not just for the victims. "Sometimes defense attorneys will accuse me of hating their clients because I was a victim," she says. "But I try to have the batterers sent to programs, which is a ray of hope for them, and lets them know that they are capable of a lot better, of being responsible for their actions."
On this Thursday in court, it is not until late afternoon that the dark-haired young woman stands before the judge, Buel at her side. A few yards away, the husky young man who stalked the woman stands in handcuffs, a startled, almost defiant look on his face. The judge places him on probation, forbids him to contact or go near the woman, and mandates counseling.
Buel sees the effort to end domestic violence as a community responsibility. "In communities around the country," she says, "where we see a decrease in the instances of family violence, communities have made a concerted effort to stop it."
This means judges, police, district attorneys, volunteers, and others are made more sensitive to the causes and behavior patterns in domestic violence. The need for safe shelter, for child care, and counseling for both victim and abuser is critical, she says. Buel has spent many hours training police, students, and judges. A policeman, waiting to testify in the Norfolk courthouse, says of Buel, "She's great to work with. She'll take time to answer any question, any time."
In many states now, prosecution of the abuser can go forward even if the victim is too terrified to file charges. "This new approach involves training police departments to take photos, to have accurate witness statements, and good medical records," says Buel. "If I have all this evidence, it is generally enough for a judge and jury. And any message to the abuser that there will be sanctions is extremely effective."
At the end of her day, around 6 p.m., Buel responds to a question about leadership. "I never think of myself as leader," she says. "I think I'm a good lawyer, a good, tenacious advocate. I attribute all this to God. He blessed me with this opportunity to do what I want. People in the court think I'm nuts because I do client surveys and ask the victims what we are doing wrong. We may be doing a good job now, but we need to constantly evaluate what we are doing."
Buel and a battered-victim counselor recently launched a family-violence roundtable in Norfolk County, which meets regularly to improve response to domestic needs. "We pulled together anybody and everybody who has contact with dysfunctional families, from law officials to community workers," says Buel. "Our assumption is that within that family in crisis, chances are very high that either mom is being abused or the kids are being abused. They are in need of some kind of service, and we need to train ever ybody to ask the right questions."
Asked how she measures her success, she replies: "By the safety of women. You should assume that every single battered woman, given the right opportunity, will be able to achieve her dream.
"The perception is that battered women are these beaten down, meek, mild doormats and that somehow they bring the abuse on themselves. People can't say that to me, because I'll jump over the desk and say, `You're out of your mind!' "