Summarize your idea/solution

This project seeks to address the barriers to the legal system and freedom from an abusive situation for survivors of domestic violence. The goal of this project is to enable survivors to take control of their futures in the United States by providing the tools and resources needed to understand the legal landscape of the Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”) and knowledge of the filing process. The solution will provide immigrant survivors of domestic violence with a pre-screening tool to determine eligibility for VAWA self-petitions, coupled with web pages providing information on the stages of the petition process and pop-up lists of the types of evidence that survivors need to gather ahead of filing a petition.

Describe your idea and how it addresses the challenge

This project aims to address one facet of the domestic violence issue in the U.S. According to the CDC’s 2018 “Preventing Intimate Partner Violence” Factsheet, 1 in 5 women experience severe physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. According to the NYPD's Domestic Violence Complaints by Precinct Report, 86,184 complaints were received across all boroughs in 2018 alone; this does not account for the high percentage of unreported incidents that occurred. During my time interning for the Queens DA’s Office’s Domestic Violence Bureau, I witnessed firsthand the extent of the issue in just one borough of NYC. Each Assistant District Attorney I worked with had over 100 cases on their dockets, and the majority of these survivors were immigrants. Given the current political climate surrounding immigration, it is becoming even more difficult for these survivors to gain legal status in the U.S. and pursue a life free from their abusers. With this challenge in mind, this project aims to bridge the gap in knowledge and resources that these survivors need to determine what options they can pursue legally. The process of filing a VAWA self-petition is long and complex. As someone currently working on a VAWA self-petition case, I can attest to the complicated nature of the process. This project would enable survivors to determine for themselves whether they meet the baseline criteria for a self-petition, before beginning the arduous process of gathering the evidence needed to complete the filing. Although this solution does not completely eliminate the need for an attorney to complete the process, it will enable the survivors to save time by gathering the information they need ahead of seeking legal counsel and it will empower them to understand the process for themselves. Many immigrant survivors are fearful of approaching attorneys regarding their legal issues. This tool will allow them to seek assurance that they qualify for the self-petition before consulting an external party. Importantly, no personal or identifying data will be collected in the process, so the survivors will be protected by anonymity. Finally, by providing survivors with all of the up-front information regarding the evidence needed to file a petition and the forms that need to be completed simultaneously with the petition, this tool will streamline the filing process when a survivor does seek an attorney so that they do not have to wait months, or up to a year, to file. When I initially designed this project, the goal was to develop a tool that was completely autonomous, almost akin to a TurboTax for VAWA self-petitions, that would allow the survivors to fill out their own petitions and file them without an attorney. However, after much thought, this plan was rejected. This would have led to potentially serious privacy violations and could backlog an already clogged immigration system with frivolous petitions, if the tool was to be abused.

How would your idea serve a local community?

This project could serve domestic violence survivors in any local community. Domestic violence does not discriminate; it is a prevailing problem in the United States and VAWA is a federal law available to survivors across the country. Any survivor in any jurisdiction could use this tool. This legal technology tool would enable immigrant survivors to understand their rights, determine whether they qualify for VAWA relief, and find extensive information on the forms they need to complete, the evidence they will need to support their petition, and access to local legal service providers. Further, it will enable local legal service providers to better assist survivors of domestic violence, by having access to all of the survivors' information and evidence when they arrive for the first meeting fully prepared and aware of the process.

Who will use the solution?

This tool will be used by survivors of domestic violence seeking legal immigration relief in the United States while remaining free from their abusers. Too often, victims of intimate partner violence do not leave their abusers, because they cannot legally find work to support themselves, and potentially their children, independently without legal permanent residency and employment authorization. This tool will enable survivors to discreetly begin the process of freeing themselves from their partners and gaining the legal status they need to pursue a life in the United States free from harm.

As someone who experienced intimate partner violence in a former relationship, I went into law school knowing that I wanted to commit a significant portion of my extracurricular activities and pro bono work to bridging the justice gap for other survivors. In my two years of law school, I have worked on a multitude of domestic violence cases. As a 1L, I worked with my first client on an uncontested divorce case. I then enrolled in an internship to work with the Queens District Attorney’s Office’s Domestic Violence Bureau, where I prosecuted 20 of my own domestic violence cases. This summer, I am actively working on my first VAWA self-petition case. The survivors I have worked with throughout these experiences, mostly immigrant women, inspired this idea and solution. Speaking openly about and seeking help to be free from an abusive situation is terrifying, and the women who have shared their stories with me have spurred me to want to do more to ease the legal processes for them. Technology has the power to make escape from abuse an easier reality for many of these survivors, and I am dedicated to doing what I can to make that happen.

What makes your solution unique, innovative, and impactful?

Currently, there is no legal technology available for survivors of domestic violence, and particularly for those seeking immigration status in the United States. Domestic violence is a pervasive problem in this country, and especially harms immigrant victims who do not have the legal security to pursue exit options from the abusive relationship in the same manner that citizen survivors might. The process of obtaining immigration status through a VAWA self-petition is complex and timely, and this tool will provide the information and screening needed to streamline an arduous process. There are many legal service providers who work with domestic violence survivors, and the goal is not to eliminate them from the solution, but to lessen their under-funded and clogged caseload by empowering survivors to take a part of the process into their own hands. In the next stage of the project, the goal is to collaborate with legal service providers in NYC who work with survivors daily to ensure that the information provided on the web application and the questions asked in the pre-screening tool are functional, user-friendly and efficient. If possible, the ultimate plan would be to consult with survivors who have completed the VAWA self-petition process to determine the elements of the web application that they deem would have been useful for them, and tailor the application to their feedback.

I anticipate that the final product will be a javascript application that will be accessible on all browsers and be both desktop and mobile-friendly. Because there is no data collection or persistent state required, no backend is necessary, making for a very light-weight and portable app. Although my prototype is very basic in its current stage, the final product will be professional and highly functional. When I move away from using Typeform for the pre-screening tools, I plan to design them with logic that will present the user with different outcomes depending on their answers to the Yes/No questions (the option to use logic was only available with Typeform PRO). Additionally, I would like to develop pop-up “Help” windows throughout the pre-screening tools to provide users with clarifying information when answering the questions, similar to TurboTax. Ideally, I would like to build my own technology and not rely on either Wix or Typeform for my tool. I have taught myself some programming and would like to build as much of this product on my own (with the help and guidance of legal service providers and survivors of domestic violence), but I have a team of two engineers willing to join my team, consult with me, and assist me should it become necessary. I have done three pro bono projects with the organization, Sanctuary for Families, based in NYC, and would approach them for my first round of consultations.

Eventually, the goal is to make this tool available in multiple languages so that it can be used by survivors with limited English proficiency.

Sponsoring Organization

Sanctuary for Families

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