Weighing Strength: The Voices of Victims
Inspired by the courage of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, Professor Mary Schuster has been in this field of research for many years.
Her interest began when she volunteered with WATCH (We Are At the Courthouse), a Minneapolis nonprofit group established in 1992. “Their purpose is to observe the treatment of women and children in the legal process and give feedback to that legal system,” she explains.
On their website, WATCH describes itself as: “[working] to make the justice system more responsive to crimes of violence against women and children, focusing on greater safety for victims of violence and greater accountability for violent offenders.”
Where Words Matter
During her time in the courtrooms, Schuster began focusing on how the words of the victims could influence sentencing hearings. Schuster says, “I found that, at times, judges would rethink a plea negotiation or add conditions to a sentence depending on what the victim or an advocate said during that hearing.”
Out of those courtroom observations came a book, Rhetoric and Communication Perspectives on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault: Policy and Protocol Through Discourse, produced in collaboration with co-author Assistant Professor Amy Propen of UC Santa Barbara.
After observing the victims’ side of courtroom proceedings, Schuster and Propen then turned to investigate the other side, the perpetrators.
They investigated the Minnesota Sex Offender Program. This program “civilly commits sex offenders who are too dangerous to release into the community after they complete their prison sentences,” Schuster explains. “This program has been challenged in the federal courts for violating the constitutional due process rights of the sex offenders who often spend decades in the program without discharge.”
The goal of Schuster and Propen’s work is to show how different rhetorical, legal, and professional communication perspectives come into the debate of how we can best help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and how to manage the offenders.
Driven by her passion to continuously be involved with different local organizations that help victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, Schuster is currently volunteering as a legal counseling advocate for Tubman, an organization that helps victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in the Twin Cities.
She interviews women who have have been in abusive relationships or situations and lets them know about Tubman’s resources and services, such as safe housing shelters. The women meet with Tubman’s pro bono attorney at their legal clinic to discuss and get information about divorce, child custody, orders for protection, and all other related legal work.
“I am inspired by the courage of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault as well as the efforts of such groups as Tubman,” says Schuster.