Speaking of Women's Rights: 2015

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Justice Kennedy and the Undue Burden

By Catherine Roseman

Next year the U.S. Supreme Court, or more precisely swing vote Justice Anthony Kennedy, will decide whether to defend safe, legal, and equitable access to abortion in the United States or to restrict its availability to wealthy women in blue states.

In its 2016 session, the Court will hear Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, a case that challenges the constitutionality of HB2, an omnibus anti-abortion bill passed in Texas in 2013. Wendy Davis blocked the first vote on this bill with her famous 11-hour filibuster in pink tennis shoes, but shortly thereafter then-Governor Rick Perry called a special legislative session and the bill passed. HB2 includes many provisions that restrict abortion access, including limiting the ability to administer medication abortion to physicians, banning telemedicine abortion, and banning abortion past 20 weeks gestation.

Two provisions will be considered by the Court: ambulatory surgical center (ASC) requirements, which mandate that any clinic providing abortions be built to strict hospital-like standards; and admitting privileges, which require that doctors providing abortions be able to admit patients to a hospital within 30 miles of their practices. Both of these provisions reflect an increasingly common legislative strategy called Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) to limit abortion access. Enacted under the weak guise of protecting women’s health, these laws are medically unnecessary and put women at greater risk for complications. Abortion is one of the safest medical procedures in the United States: fewer than 1% of all patients who undergo it have complications that require hospitalization.

Under the Supreme Court’s 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, states may impose a range of requirements on women seeking abortion, but they may not impose obstacles so great as to place an “undue burden” on women. The Court ruled that states are free to regulate abortion to protect women’s health, but not in order to hamper their access to abortion. In Whole Woman’s Health, the Court is expected to examine whether the admitting privileges and ASC requirements of HB2 constitute an undue burden on women seeking abortion.

Before HB2, there were 41 abortion clinics in Texas; there are now 17, which are almost all located in major cities. If the Court upholds both the admitting privileges and ASC requirements, there will be 10 clinics in the entire state of Texas. The average county in Texas is 111 miles from a clinic, nearly double the national average of 59 miles. Women in west Texas counties must travel an average of 250 miles. A fifth of all counties in Texas are over 100 miles further from a clinic today than then they were in 2012, before HB2 was enacted.

Seven additional clinics will close if the Court upholds HB2. These seven closures would not drastically change the travel distance for an abortion beyond the large increases wrought by the initial spate round of closures, but it would increase the average cost by 15% to an average of $701 per procedure (including travel costs but not accounting for expenses incurred through lost wages and childcare). This is because those seven clinics offer less expensive procedures than the clinics that are already licensed as ASCs. Converting a freestanding clinic to an ASC can cost over $1 million upfront and increase yearly operating costs anywhere from $600,000 to $1 million.

Furthermore, as the number of clinics decreases, the time patients must wait for an appointment increases. As women move later into their pregnancies, they pay more for the procedure. Some end up past Texas’ 20-weeks gestation limit and cannot obtain a procedure safely and legally. A recent study by the Texas Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Texas at Austin concluded that anywhere from 100,000 to 240,000 Texas women have attempted to self-induce abortion without medical assistance. The methods commonly used to self-induce are taking misoprostol, which is the second of two drugs used in a typical, legal medication abortion regimen in the U.S. (Texas women can obtain it in Mexico or on the black market); or attempting to use herbs, alcohol, illicit drugs or even a punch in the abdomen. Misoprostol is often an effective and safe method, but some of the others are neither effective nor safe.

The burden that HB2 places on Texas women is not only undue, it is unjust and unsafe. The purported purpose of HB2 is to protect women, but it does exactly the opposite. Because of dwindling clinic numbers, women are forced to travel long distances and take extra time off work, arrange and pay for childcare (a common factor given that 61% of women obtaining abortions already have at least one child), have the procedure later in their pregnancy than they wanted (appointment wait times in Texas have increased from average of 5 days to 20-30 days) or resort to unpredictable, unsafe and/or illegal methods of self-induced abortion. HB2 blatantly places undue burden on women seeking abortion. The real question is, to what extent will Justice Kennedy enable Texas (and other states) to continue to use TRAP laws to oppress a woman’s right to choose safe and legal abortion?

Catherine Roseman is an Administrative Assistant in the Healthcare Division at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The views expressed in this piece are solely her own.

Photo courtesy of RH Reality Check.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Leaving Didn't End His Abuse
One Woman's Battle Against Revenge Porn

She left him one afternoon, taking only her children and a basket of clothes.

But leaving didn’t end his abuse.

The threats began swiftly. He sent her an intimate video of them that she didn’t know existed—a video taken without her consent—and threatened to post it online, starting with the Facebook page of her employer. He also threatened to post explicit photos of her. Though some of the photos were taken consensually, they were never intended to be viewed by others.

“When a person takes photos in the privacy of her own home, with her husband, the father of her children, [she] is not being dumb or making bad choices,” says Karen.

He was arrested—not for threatening her, but for violating the protection order she had obtained against him. But she knew the video and photos would haunt her as long as they were in his possession. While he was incarcerated, Karen was granted an order from the court requiring his family to give her the computer with the photos, but she never received the device. As a single, working mother, she didn’t have the time or resources to fight him and his family in a civil suit.

By the following year, her life seemed to be turning around. She had moved her family to safety, was engaged to a caring, supportive man, and was on the job hunt. She had a job interview that went really well, and was all but guaranteed a follow-up meeting. She left full of promise, but the next day she received a suspiciously curt email declining her as a candidate for the position. Her heart sunk; she knew something was wrong.

It only took one Google search for her life to fall to pieces. The pages were full of intimate images of her, posted for the world to see.

“If anyone were to Google my name at that time, there is no way they would miss my naked body plastered all over the Internet,” Karen told Seattle Met earlier this year. “By a man I had trusted, that I had called my husband.”

Some of the images were taken with her consent, some were taken without, and some images featured her face on other women’s bodies. Her abuser had created a blog to share the photos, tagging her by name—including her maiden name, married name, and her fiancé’s last name that she would eventually take as her own—and divulging personal details of her life. She knew why she didn’t get that job. And she immediately feared for her safety.

“I had to remind myself to breathe,” says Karen. “I was so scared, and so overwhelmed. I had to remind myself to take breaths, and to be there for my children.”

She sought help, but instead found a cold truth: no one treated his actions as a crime. But we were working to change that.

Karen was referred to Legal Voice in her search for a family law attorney who understood domestic violence and abusive litigation issues; we connected her with an attorney, but her story stuck with us. We later invited her to testify before the Washington Senate in support of the nonconsensual pornography bills for which we advocated in the 2015 session.

“Being a survivor is a very lonely place,” says Karen. “But I am fighting to help pave the way for those who don’t have the support and strength to use their voice.”

Thanks in part to her testimony—and to our donors whose support funded our strong advocacy efforts—the Washington State Legislature voted unanimously to create both civil and criminal penalties for disclosing sexually explicit images of someone without her consent. Washingtonians now have clear remedies for this devastatingly violating crime. And we couldn’t have done it without you.

So today, on Giving Tuesday, Karen is asking you to continue your support of Legal Voice: “Legal Voice made me feel like my voice and my experience mattered. I’ve never felt so much true support and warmth at any point in my journey,” says Karen. “They are working on the things that will really, truly make a difference. That alone makes me want to support Legal Voice as much as possible—and I hope you will join me.”

Please join the Giving Tuesday movement and help us reach our $5,000 goal by making a gift to Legal Voice today. Your support allows us to continue making real, lasting change for women like Karen, and all women in the Northwest.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Another Hurdle:
Domestic Violence Survivors'
Battles in the Courts

By David Ward

“The most horrible sufferings have been not only physical, they have been emotional, psychological, and financial! He never stops
harassing me—the courts are his legal playgrounds.”

Have you ever thought of the court as someone’s “legal playground”? These are the words of a domestic violence survivor who, even after separating herself from her abuser, continued to face abuse in an arena she believed would provide protection: the courts.

And she isn’t alone. Domestic violence is about power and control, and the abuser’s need for those things doesn’t stop if and when a survivor chooses to leave. So it is often the case that abusers will try to use the legal system to continue exerting power and control over the survivor, often for years after the relationship has ended. We call this pattern of abuse abusive litigation—also sometimes referred to as retaliatory litigation, legal bullying, paper abuse, and stalking through the courts—and is pervasive in courtrooms across the country.

Abusive litigation can take many forms. The abuser can flip the story, portraying himself as the victim by seeking his own protection order against the survivor or her family out of retaliation. He can sue the survivor for defamation if she reports his abuse. Or, most commonly, he can use child custody or divorce proceedings to repeatedly force the survivor into court, seeking modifications to the parenting plan or filing frivolous motions to delay the process. Essentially, an abuser can turn the courts into another weapon against the survivor.

Legal Voice has worked tirelessly in courts and legislatures to ensure the law is on the side of survivors. We’ve secured workplace rights for survivors, helped to uphold and strengthen Washington’s domestic violence protection order (DVPO) process, and protected survivors from housing discrimination. But we know that changing the law is not enough. We need to make sure that our courts are also educated about domestic violence, including abusive litigation.

Over the past year, we have done in-person trainings with judges and attorneys on this problem, teaching them to recognize the patterns of abusive litigation and to address the issue within their courtrooms. We were especially excited to present a training on abusive litigation earlier this year to 140 Washington judges at this year’s Spring Judicial Conference. Additionally, the dedicated volunteers on our Violence Against Women Workgroup and I have written a chapter on abusive litigation that will be included in the new update of Washington State’s Domestic Violence Manual for Judges, an important guide that is distributed to every judge in the state. And I am currently writing an article on abusive litigation for the Seattle Journal for Social Justice, based on interviews our workgroup conducted with survivors and advocates.

This week concludes Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but we know that awareness of the many issues impacting the lives of survivors and their families must continue year-round. And you can be sure that we will continue our work to stop abusers from misusing the courts as their “legal playgrounds.”

David Ward is Legal & Legislative Counsel at Legal Voice, where his work focuses on gender violence, family law, and LGBT rights.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Standing (or Sitting!)
with Pregnant Workers

By Heidi Garcia

Being pregnant is hard. You’re tired all the time and are probably worried about what will happen next, constantly asking yourself things like: 
  • How much leave can I afford to take and will it be enough?
  • Will my partner have sufficient time off to bond with the baby?
  • How am I going to find and pay for childcare that I like?
  • What will my leave and new responsibilities mean for my career progression?
  • How am I going to pay for everything my child needs for the next 18 (or more) years?
Add to that the feeling that you can’t meet your employer’s expectations because you’re pregnant, and there's no question that pregnancy can be a very stressful time.

The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA) would help address this stress and ensure healthy pregnancies by requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations—much like they are already required to do for people with disabilities—for pregnant women. In most situations, being pregnant doesn’t mean that the woman can’t do her job. It just means that she can’t do it in precisely the way non-pregnant employees could. For example, she may need to sit down during her shift, alter a uniform, carry a water bottle with her, or get assistance lifting heavy objects. Around the country, pregnant women have been fired for requesting these kinds of accommodations, even when the affected activity was not a regular part of the woman’s job.

Sadly, these things continue to happen despite existing protections such as the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Young v. UPS. The Court held in Young that when an employer accommodates workers who are similar to pregnant workers in their ability to work, it cannot refuse to accommodate pregnant workers who need accommodations simply because it “is more expensive or less convenient” to accommodate pregnant women too. But the Young test isn’t very straight-forward, and that’s where the PWFA comes in: by taking the familiar framework from disability law that employers and courts are accustomed to applying—"reasonable accommodation"—and applying the concept to pregnant women. Because while being pregnant isn’t a disability per se, it can bring challenges and limitations. 

Legislation protecting pregnant workers will help level the playing field and ensure equal employment opportunities for more women. Women make up roughly half of all workers in the U.S., and more than 40% of mothers are the sole or primary breadwinners in their households. Ensuring that women who are physically able to work can continue to do so is in the best interest not only of the woman and her growing family, but also her employer (who will ultimately save money by not having to hire and train a new employee) and society as a whole.

Heidi Garcia, a member of the Legal Voice Board of Directors, is expecting her first child in early December. Although she’s grateful that her job doesn’t require heavy lifting or being on her feet all day, the amount of sleep she suddenly requires is often at odds with the expectations put on her at work.

Photo courtesy of hugrakka.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Turbulence in Tech:
How Women at Amazon Face Unjust Ultimatums

By Samantha Mahool

Thanks to the New York Times article “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” published in August, it is no secret that the demands made of Amazon employees are drastic, if not callous. While Jeff Bezos scrambled to assure the public of his commitment to employee satisfaction, he also had to address Amazon’s insufficient female leadership and the undue burden faced by working parents.

Amazon requires a dedication from employees that is as unrelenting as it is unreasonable—a requirement especially apparent to employees who are also caregivers. Since women are still the primary caregivers in most families, corporations with such outrageous demands are setting women up to fail. The article details several stories from women who have experienced this system first-hand: One employee was told that “raising children would most likely prevent her from success at a higher level because of the long hours required” and she should seek a less competitive position. Another was explicitly told the day after a miscarriage that Amazon may not be right for her considering she was trying to start a family. And yet another woman was placed on performance-improvement plans as a ridiculous penalty following the loss of a stillborn child. What message does this send to any employee at Amazon who seeks to be competitive in their workforce while also nurturing a healthy family life?

It’s the same message sent to many working parents in the industry—you can’t do both. 

Of course, Amazon’s problem isn’t just the way they treat women; it’s also the fact that they don’t have equality in hiring to begin with. Contrary to the confident and varied faces on Amazon’s diversity page, the company has much to accomplish in terms of parity. While Amazon employs a higher percentage of women than comparable companies (37%), only 18% of leadership positions are held by women. In addition, the top leadership team at Amazon does not feature any women at all. (The paltry percentage of women working in any role at Amazon is still more than other industry leaders such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, Apple, Intel, and Microsoft. Of these companies, Facebook boasts the most women in leadership positions at a meager 23%.)

Unfortunately, these statistics are not surprising, and the demanding office culture brought to light by the Times article is not unique to Amazon, but represents an exaggerated dynamic present in many science and technology jobs. Women workers are often deprived of equal opportunity in the workplace because of harassment, gender stereotyping, and discrimination based on pregnancy and gender identity. And as recently displayed by a tasteless advertisement from an Issaquah-based real estate company, stereotypes of working mothers abound.

While national attention is fixed on Amazon and other similar workplace cultures, now is a great time to push legislative reform for the important economic justice issues faced by women nationwide. Legislators and corporate leadership need to realize that there isn’t just one thing that contributes to the gender wage gap, so there isn’t just one thing that will close it. We need to increase access to family leave and paid sick & safe days, address gender stereotyping that leads to occupational segregation, and support working parents rather than forcing them to choose between a career and a family life.

And we need to call on tech companies to be a part of the solution instead of adding to the problem. Show us an industry leader not just in profits and product innovations, but in the movement to prioritize the representation of women and other marginalized populations. Hire women, believe in women, put women in leadership roles, and through it all, give women the support needed to succeed.

Samantha Mahool is an author and activist based out of Seattle, Washington. In addition to wrangling children as a nanny, Samantha also commits much of her time to volunteer work at various local organizations whose missions reflect her dedication to justice and equality.

Photo courtesy of Viktor Hanacek | PicJumbo

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The (Dis)Ability to Choose
The Intersection of Reproductive
and Disability Rights

By Alison DeBoise

Advances in prenatal testing allow healthcare providers to determine if a fetus will have a genetic disability. This development, and how it relates to a pregnant person’s right to choose how to proceed with the pregnancy, has been the subject of much discussion among advocates for both reproductive rights and disability rights. But you may not realize that, through a reproductive justice lens, both groups of advocates are fighting the same fight.

Prenatal testing is viewed by some as harmless expansion of choice. Knowledge of genetic disability allows pregnant people and their families to make informed decisions about their pregnancies, and the births and lives of their children. They may choose to use this information to prepare emotionally, financially, and physically for the unique care the child may require; start marshalling resources and support for the care of the child; terminate the pregnancy; or prepare for the child’s adoption.

But a pregnant person’s ability to make the choice is highly constrained by societal factors. The complicated ethics that accompany advances in prenatal testing not only hinge on the right to choose whether or not to have a child (birth versus abortion), but also the right to be supported in that choice (access to abortion care versus family support services). The reality remains that there is a substantial lack of access to societal and material support for a pregnant person choosing either to terminate the pregnancy or raise a disabled child.

Pregnant people need to be supported in their choice to terminate a pregnancy even if that choice was primarily informed by the knowledge that their child would be born with a genetic disability. But pregnant people’s ability to make that choice is being eroded at a rapid rate. In addition to the common barriers pregnant people face in seeking quality and affordable abortion care, several states are attempting to prohibit abortion based on knowledge of genetic disability.

For many pregnant people, the choice is further complicated by their socioeconomic status. Financial instability may prevent a person from being able to make the decision to terminate, as many pregnant people cannot afford the time off work for the procedure, do not have a means to travel to the nearest clinic (38% of women do not have a clinic within their county), or cannot afford the procedure due to a disparity in insurance coverage. But that same lack of funding may prevent a person from being able to care for a child with a disability. While the pregnant person might desire to have and raise the child regardless of disability, they may decide to terminate nonetheless because they do not have the time, familial support, or financial stability to care for a disabled child.

Pregnant people also need to be supported in their choice to raise a child with a genetic disability. Parents need access to institutional programs such as subsidized and free childcare, monetary assistance, and caregiving support. Socially, parents need programs that work to change ableist attitudes that result in discrimination in schools, the workplace, and the design of the physical landscape to ensure their child has a high quality of life.

Despite some legislators’ attempts to pit reproductive rights and disability rights advocates against each other, both groups tend to recognize that unconstrained choice means not only having the right to choose, but also having the right to be supported in that choice. This illustrates where advocacy for reproductive rights and disability rights intersect to form reproductive justice. We must work together to ensure accessible social services for people with disabilities and their caregivers, promote accurate information about disability absent of ableist rhetoric, and continue educating others of the fact that we all—disabled and otherwise—benefit from a society that allows us the right and the support to make our own reproductive choices.

Alison DeBoise is a volunteer at Legal Voice and a rising third-year student at Smith College. She is passionate about the intersections of disability rights, reproductive justice, and LGBT+ rights.

Photo courtesy of Phalinn Ooi

Monday, August 3, 2015

In Celebration of World Breastfeeding Week

By Jennifer Werdell

It’s World Breastfeeding Week! While I probably would not have known that before I started volunteering with Legal Voice, I am grateful to take this opportunity to reflect on how privileged I am – to be a mother to two beautiful and healthy children, to live in a place where my children have access to nutritious food every day, and to work in an environment where breastfeeding mothers are provided with the flexibility and resources to be able to continue to feed their babies after they go back to work.

I am not going to lie – I didn’t like breastfeeding, and I truly hated pumping at work. But I was grateful that breastfeeding was an option for me and that I was able to exercise my right to do so. Yet, even in 2015, a supportive culture for breastfeeding is surprisingly absent in many places, even within our own community. Whether it is a prospective politician calling a working mom “disgusting” for pumping milk or an employer refusing to allow an employee break time to breastfeed or pump, women continually find themselves in a no-win situation. Many will be judged for their decision or inability to breastfeed; many others will be chastised for doing so.

So, Washington mamas, during this national and global week of breastfeeding awareness, here is a friendly reminder that the law is on your side! You have the right to breastfeed in any public place and you cannot be discriminated against (or called out as indecent) if you chose to breastfeed your child in public. Need to breastfeed or pump at work? Federal law requires employers with over 50 employees to give moms a reasonable break time when they need to express breast milk for an infant (feeding directly or pumping), and employers must provide a clean and private place for expressing breast milk. And, by the way, no, it does not count if you are given the ‘privilege’ of sitting on a toilet in a bathroom to do so! State law also encourages employers to create policies that support breastfeeding in the workplace, like allowing flexible work schedules and providing a place to refrigerate breast milk and a way for you to clean your breastfeeding supplies. 

Talk to your employers if you are not getting the support you need to breastfeed; if you need help, check out Legal Voice's memo Breastfeeding in Washington State and resources from other great organizations. Happy breastfeeding!

Jennifer Werdell is the Associate Director of Seattle University School of Law’s Access to Justice Institute. She has been participating with Legal Voice’s Self Help Committee since 2012.

Photo courtesy of Jem Grismshaw | Daily Cloudt

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

From Hawaii to Seattle and Back Again:
Meet Volunteer Louisa Duggan!

By Louisa Duggan

I stood in my black knee-length skirt, quickly trying to manage my collared blouse with the funky buttons when the faded yellow 74 appeared at my stop. The butterflies in my stomach had calmed since the night before and my mind kept reassuring thoughts on repeat. The bus driver smiled and I remember feeling ultra-cool while I scanned the Orca Card my dad had bought with me earlier that week. I grabbed the nearest seat and prepared for my first day volunteering with Legal Voice.

The ride seemed slower than I had anticipated and I arrived at my destination half an hour earlier than needed. I was new to the surroundings so I decided to quickly go to the Legal Voice office and apologize for my inappropriate arrival time. Of course Jennifer was the nicest person I had met so far in my new habitat and welcomed me. I was thankful for her smile every day.

I came to Legal Voice to follow in my mother’s footsteps and pursue my desire of helping women and children through family law. The goal was to see if the future I had been planning would really one day become a reality for me. But this summer has been so much more than that. I actually see myself not just as a woman but also as a feminist. I found my voice by wanting to help others find theirs. The envelopes I’ve stuffed help bring in supporters for an amazing cause and it’s for ideals I wouldn’t ever give up for anything.

I initially wanted to write something that you, the reader, wanted to hear—perhaps about my awkward transition from my home in Hawaii to the big city of Seattle for seven weeks of independence. However, I then realized that what I really needed to be heard was my own voice, my own experience. Today I find myself being able to navigate through the streets of my neighborhood and the nearby areas like a pro. I have to say goodnight to my roommates (my aunt and uncle with their twin three-year-olds) earlier than normal, giving the big girl excuse of, “Sorry, but I have work tomorrow.” And as my time with this wonderful organization comes to a close and I prepare to return home, I realize that Legal Voice is my home away from home.

Louisa Duggan is a rising senior at Hawaii Preparatory Academy waiting in anticipation of her next step in finding her voice.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Continuing Fight for Full LGBTQ Equality
What Lies Ahead?

By Alison DeBoise

Following the Supreme Court ruling that made marriage equality the law of the land, the QLaw Foundation—joined by Legal Voice and many other community partners—held a community forum to discuss the work that needs to done to achieve full LGBTQ equality.

Legal Voice’s David Ward, along with attorneys from Lambda Legal, the ACLU of Washington, and the QLaw Foundation, discussed the Supreme Court ruling’s implications for continued advocacy and what lies ahead. The implementation of the ruling is important right now because, as David said during the panel, “having legal equality does not mean having lived equality,” an opinion echoed by other panel members.

Beyond marriage, there remains much work to be done to ensure full equality. To illustrate the direst needs of the community, local leaders of LGBTQ rights organizations called upon the ways in which the community’s identities are intersectional. For example, if a woman is transgender, low-income, lesbian, and a woman of color, she is put at a much higher risk for marginalization and discrimination. Moving forward the LGBTQ rights movement must take an intersectional, multifaceted approach to achieve equality for the entire LGBTQ community.

Furthermore, the community must engage in legal advocacy and grassroots organizing on issues such as:
  •  removing health insurance restrictions that bar transgender people’s access to care
  • passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity, expression, and sexual orientation
  • ensuring all parents and families are recognized and protected by the law
  • ensuring landlords follow state and federal laws prohibiting discrimination in housing
  • banning conversion therapy aimed at changing one’s sexual orientation or gender identity
  • and many more

To watch video of the full event, please visit The Seattle Channel website.

To learn more about what local organizations are doing to continue the fight for LGBTQ equality visit their websites:

Legal Voice
ACLU of Washington
Equal Rights Washington
Gender Justice League
Greater Seattle Business Association
Ingersoll Gender Center
Lambda Legal
LGBTQ Allyship
Pride Foundation
QLaw Foundation

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Ensuring Equal Access to Abortion Coverage: The EACH Woman Act

By Megan E. Veith

Although Roe v. Wade has been the law since 1973, for almost as long, low-income and many other women been prohibited from accessing abortion care. Not only have states increasingly enacted restrictions on abortion, but the federal Hyde Amendment, passed yearly by Congress since 1976 in federal appropriations legislation, bans federal insurance coverage for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or to preserve the life of the mother.

Today in Washington, D.C., some members of Congress took a step in the right direction so that the promise of Roe can become a reality for more women. Representatives Barbara Lee, Jan Schakowsky, and Diana Degette introduced the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act, or the “EACH Woman Act.” This Act has two critically important features: first, it provides that every woman who has insurance through the federal government has coverage for abortion. This includes insurance provided through Medicaid, Medicare, FEHBP (the federal employees’ health care plan), TRICARE (military health care), Indian Health Services, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the Veterans Administration. Second, the Act prohibits legislators from interfering with coverage of abortion services in the private insurance market, such as plans established under the Affordable Care Act.

Currently, because of the Hyde Amendment, women on Medicaid or other federal health insurance programs are denied coverage for abortion. States are allowed to supplement with their own resources to cover abortion, but only 17 states currently do so. And even in those states, there are additional barriers: some women may not be aware of what coverage they are eligible to receive, or their state may lack sufficient abortion providers, so traveling to a provider requires even more resources. Moreover, legislators in some states have passed restrictions on private insurance coverage for abortion that are even stricter than those in the Hyde Amendment, such as allowing abortions only to preserve the mother’s life.

These restrictions on abortion coverage have a disproportionate impact on women who already face barriers to accessing quality health care, including low-income women, women of color, and immigrant women. Restrictions such as the Hyde Amendment make choice elusive in practice; a woman’s pregnancy options depend on how much money she makes or how she is insured.

Even in Washington State, which is one of the 17 states in which Medicaid does cover abortion, many women of reproductive age would benefit from this new bill because they are covered under other federally funded health insurance plans subject to the Hyde Amendment’s restrictions. For example, in 2013, about 44,417 Washington women had TRICARE/military health coverage, and about 5,633 had VA Health Care. The EACH Woman Act would ensure that all of these additional 50,050 women in Washington have coverage for abortion services, by removing access barriers and preventing politicians and providers from interfering with a woman’s right to abortion coverage in the future.

In September 2014, Legal Voice and its allies successfully advocated for the Seattle City Council to pass a resolution calling for a repeal of bans on federal abortion coverage. Six other local jurisdictions have passed similar resolutions, and we are pleased that the same rallying cry has now spread to the other Washington.

To learn more about the EACH Woman Act and how you can show your support for every woman’s right to abortion coverage, please visit All* Above All and use the hashtag #4EACHofUS on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of All* Above All.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Dignity. Hygiene. Period.

Legal Voice staff and board collected 520 tampons and pads for local shelters!
By Taylor Markey
If you are one of the 86% of women who have been caught without a tampon or pad at the beginning of your period, you know that it can be an uncomfortable and annoying experience. But, for many people (women, transgender men, and genderqueer people alike), this experience is more than annoying; for those who cannot afford supplies, it can be debilitating. Because tampons and pads are not covered by public assistance programs—such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program—low-income people are often compelled to break the law by selling their food stamps to afford these necessities. In many prisons, the prices of tampons and pads are inflated, making them difficult to obtain for inmates who don’t receive money from outside. For women who are homeless, lack of access to feminine hygiene products (and the lack of awareness of the need for such products) often means that they go without them.

Inability to access tampons and pads increases the risk of many vaginal infections and may force people to miss opportunities such as school, work, or employment interviews. There is also an emotional toll when a person cannot maintain basic cleanliness, leading to feelings of alienation and lack of dignity. The denial of access under SNAP or WIC not only to tampons and pads, but to diapers, soap, toilet paper, and other hygiene items, has come to be seen as another way in which the cycle of poverty is institutionalized. Because SNAP and WIC have clearly defined missions of feeding the hungry and have been unfortunately framed by politicians as “entitlements,” any expansion of these programs to non-food items would likely be faced with intense political resistance.

This is why Legal Voice was excited to learn that our long-time supporter Kate Beck had set out to collect 50,000 pads and tampons for her 50th birthday to help meet the need in our community. Our staff and board members joined together to collect 520 tampons and pads for Mary’s Place and YouthCare in Seattle. We encourage you to match our efforts by making a donation of tampons or pads to your local shelter. (And be sure to track Kate’s progress on her campaign page.)

Donation drives like Kate’s have sprung up across the country, providing a critical immediate solution for many people. But we cannot allow this to be simply a passing trend. It is time to advocate for a long-term policy solution to supplement these efforts and ensure that low-income individuals have access to the feminine hygiene products they need.

This issue is often misleadingly framed as primarily a problem for women in the developing world; we have all heard the heart-wrenching stories of young African girls who miss school during menstruation or Indian women who are shamed for using tampons because of insertion taboos. But this narrative obfuscates how much of a problem access to basic reproductive care is for women in our own country, particularly for women of color. It also ignores the strides that people in developing nations have made on this issue without foreign intervention. For example, India’s government targets subsidies of pads to poor rural areas, while many Western governments continue to tax feminine hygiene as a “luxury.”

In the US, some state government officials have proposed removing sales taxes from tampons and pads. This is an important first step, but state governments should actively subsidize these items as well. Employers are required under OSHA guidelines to provide hand towels and soap in employee restrooms; they should be required to provide tampons and pads for sale as well, and encouraged to provide them for free, to create a comfortable workplace environment for people of all genders. Laws requiring tampons and pads to be available at no charge in prisons should also be passed and enforced to stop prisons from using restricted access to hygiene and reproductive health as a punishment.

For incarcerated people, important first steps have been made through litigation. A class action lawsuit on behalf of inmates in the Jefferson County Jail in Washington resulted in a favorable settlement, requiring jail officials to follow the state law directing prisons to provide feminine hygiene products free of charge. Another similar case in Michigan right now is seeking feminine hygiene access, and the removal of other degrading living conditions, arguing that prisoners’ constitutional and human rights have been violated. The framing of these legal arguments is part of a larger movement to expand the notion of “human rights” to include a right to cleanliness and dignity. This movement arose from a growing awareness that people cannot succeed in modern society if they do not have access to basic hygiene.

For the non-working, non-incarcerated poor, policy and litigation-based solutions are less obvious. As is too often the case, those who are most marginalized are not part of programs or institutions that can be easily affected by regulation or legal change. This is perhaps why many feminists have suggested that tampons and pads should be completely free. Although this suggestion takes the idea of tampons and pads as a human right to its logical conclusion, it is politically and logistically infeasible and would over-include people who can easily afford tampons. For the most marginalized among us, local, grassroots efforts are probably the best way of increasing access. Perhaps organizations like Planned Parenthood and other women’s health clinics, particularly those which are highly integrated into low-income communities, could be given federal funding designated for purchasing and distributing feminine hygiene products, mirroring successful programs that have increased condom use.

In addition to advocating for policy changes, we can all be a part of the solution by asking for tampons and pads to be provided in our workplaces and schools, by including these products in our collection efforts for homeless and domestic violence shelters, and by questioning the culture of silence that surrounds menstruation, which allows this problem to persist.

Taylor Markey is a legal intern at Legal Voice and a rising second-year student at The George Washington University Law School. She is a recipient of the QLaw Foundation’s Sher Kung Memorial Grant for her LGBT advocacy work and is not-so-secretly obsessed with boy bands.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Game of Thrones and Sexual Violence

By Brittany Carpenter 

As you may have heard, the hit HBO show Game of Thrones has caused a huge stir this past week. In the latest episode, a major character was raped on her wedding night by a character whose reputation on the program has already been well established as sadistic and villainous.

Fans reacted to this scene in various ways. To fans of the book series Game of Thrones, this scene marks the third (!) time the writers of the TV adaptation have included a rape scene where one didn’t exist for the particular character in the novels.

Additionally, many men and women have been speaking out about how the scene triggered an extremely negative and unsettling reaction for them, declaring its inclusion unnecessary and over the line of acceptable content for television.

However, there has been another contingent of the show’s audience saying to those who were upset by the scene: “What’s the big deal? Game of Thrones includes a lot of unsettling content!”

Throughout the existence of the show, characters have been tortured, violently murdered and even castrated. Children have been burned to death. An incestuous relationship between a brother and sister is an integral part of one of the major storylines. Most people would agree that those are actions are, indeed, unsettling and disturbing.

So…what’s the big deal? Why is portraying rape any different?

While those other acts of violence do still persist worldwide, sexual violence is alarmingly prevalent in our society with not enough being done to prevent it, or even acknowledge its effects on victims.This scene, not unlike the other two previously enacted on the show, depicts the violent action as a catalyst for a change in plot, but hardly (if ever) deals with the mental and emotional repercussions for the victim. While other violent acts, such as castration, are absolutely disturbing, the fact of the matter is that they simply do not happen as often or are debated as publicly as is sexual violence.

As a woman, and as someone who has known victims of sexual violence, the image of rape as portrayed and treated in news stories, in politics, and in entertainment, is jarring.

Take, for example, Emma Sulkowicz, the student who was sexually attacked at Columbia University. She carried around her mattress in protest of the school administration’s lack of response and action to her complaint for the remainder of her education. Several days ago, Sulkowicz graduated from Columbia, opting to carry her mattress across the stage despite protests from university officials. In response, the President of the university refused to shake her hand. By refusing to shake Sulkowicz’s hand, the President chose not to acknowledge her attack, including any emotional and physical repercussions that resulted from it.  

It is painfully apparent, based on this and many other instances in both fiction and reality, that people are either not aware or worse, choose not to acknowledge the frequency and effects of sexual violence in our society. As a result, when these scenes do stir conversation, people are surprised at the amount of negative backlash.

It is disappointing to see so many people not understand why rape is such a sensitive topic. However, I remain hopeful that the more the issue of sexual violence is portrayed to the masses, the more it will further the conversation about its frequency and effect on victims. Without that essential feedback, how can the minds of politicians and scriptwriters ever change?

Brittany Carpenter works in marketing by day and studies for her MBA by night. In her spare time (is there any?) she likes to travel to watch her favorite football team, sample the amazing beer of the Pacific NW, and catch up on her favorite TV shows.

Image via HBO 

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Mother's Fight

Rachelle (left) with her partner,
Angela VanHoose
With all the progress we’ve made for LGBT equality in Washington, I didn’t think I’d be treated any differently in my divorce because of my sexual orientation. But I was wrong.

After nearly 20 years of marriage to my former husband and having three beautiful children, I filed for divorce last year because I realized that I am a lesbian.

Even though I’ve been a stay-at-home mom for more than 15 years—for my children’s entire lives—the court gave primary custody of our children to their father, and now I have my children only a few days every other week. The court also restricted me from talking to my children about homosexuality, religion, or other “alternative lifestyle concepts” unless I obtained specific approval for each conversation from their counselor.

Legal Voice, with the help of attorneys at the Perkins Coie law firm, is representing me in my appeal of this ruling. I am so grateful for their advocacy and support, and I am asking—on behalf of all individuals facing discrimination—for your support.

Please make a gift to Legal Voice on Give OUT Day on Thursday, May 21st. They are working to change the system so that no one else has to go through what my children, my partner, and I are going through. During this time when Legal Voice is supporting me, I hope you, in turn, will support them.

- Rachelle Black, Legal Voice Client

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Legal Voice Self Help Committee:
Seattle's Best Kept Secret

By Lauren Akamine
Last spring, I was in the market for a muse. Late nights with Jon Stewart were not sufficient anymore and as a potential JD candidate about to take the plunge, I was in dire need of an overdose on motivation. My firm announced that we had two tickets left for an event, “Cocktails for a Cause.” Of course I was in. Networking with social justice champions and feasting on delectable hors d’oeuvres? Painting the town with likeminded individuals was the mental stimulation I had been craving.

Upon arriving to the event, I grabbed a crab cake and parked myself in front of a giant orange screen that read, “Women’s rights, nothing less.” At that moment, I knew I was going to be a part of a leading movement. For the rest of the night, I sat and looked up at the guest speakers in awe. Where did these women come from? Where does one find that kind of eloquent confidence? How do these women remain so hopeful in the face of the constant onslaught on women’s rights? Where has Legal Voice been all my life?!

I recently celebrated my one year anniversary as part of the Legal Voice family. I am currently a proud member of the Self Help Committee, a diverse group of social justice superheroes comprised of, but not limited to, attorneys, paralegals, and law students. We meet tucked away above The Paramount Theatre at the Legal Voice headquarters on the second Wednesday of every month. As Self Help Committee members we discuss issues on proposed court ruling with legislative advocacy staff, identify legal needs through community outreach, and increase access to legal information for the general public. The meetings are informal, usually accompanied with fresh fruit, old Halloween candy, and riveting dialogue about Legal Voice’s latest work.

What I didn’t anticipate was how much this small-scale committee contributes to the people of Washington State and to the mission of Legal Voice. From specific issues facing victims of violence (Hearing Guidelines for a Domestic Violence Protection Order – “You can do it without a lawyer!”) to basic information about lawyers (Working With a Lawyer  – yes, that phone call to your lawyer just cost you $50!) to estate planning and end-of-life issues (After a Death Occurs - a Checklist  – a vital collection of information for a very stressful time, excerpted from another example of dedicated committee work, the Handbook for Washington Seniors: Legal Rights and Resources.) As a contributing editor to the Self Help materials—available in the Tools to Help You section of the website—I discovered so much about issues that I had never considered before such as Basic Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples and Leave from Work for Victims of Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Stalking (a right brought to you by Legal Voice!)

From this experience I began to understand why so many people required legal help. The law is an entity that we interact with every day. However as citizens, we often fear the law and perceive its complexity as a restrictive force. In reality, the law is in place to protect and enhance our rights. This is why the determined efforts of the Self Help Committee are so important. Our mission to enhance the general public’s access to the law enables citizens to find solutions to their legal issues and, in turn, increases their understanding of the law and how it can help them.

What I enjoy most about being part of the Self Help Committee are the people. I have never encountered so much passion in one room from so many different backgrounds, genders, and age groups. I like to think organizations like this are where people like Shirin Ebadi and Madeleine Albright first started: a small room, good ideas, and profound generosity. If the riveting conversations aren’t enough for you, consider joining for the unlimited smiles, the fulfilling work, and the old Halloween candy. Welcome to Seattle’s best kept secret. You won’t regret it.

Lauren Akamine is a paralegal for MacDonald Hoague & Bayless by day, and a Legal Voice feminista by night. She hopes to be accepted to law school soon so she can finally spread her wings and abandon cubicle life.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Survivor Stories:
Education, Entertainment,
or Public Investigation?

Law & Order: SVU Rips Story From Dozens of Campus Rape Headlines
By Alex Kory

Including the voices and real life experiences of survivors can personalize issues like domestic violence and sexual assault in ways that statistics cannot. Stories educate, inspire, and connect people. Because of this, survivor stories are frequently told on the news, at public events, and even in movies and television. But has our demand for survivor stories come at the expense of survivors themselves?

While some survivors choose to share their stories on their own accord, many others are approached with speaking opportunities or interview requests. When I worked as a domestic violence advocate it was not uncommon to get inquiries from media or event planners looking for a survivor to share her story; Legal Voice, too, frequently receives similar requests. As advocates, we can help survivors decide whether to share her story by weighing the intent of a request against the impact on the survivor. In the end, the survivor is our number one priority.

But in other circumstances, that isn’t the case. Even with seemingly good intentions, education can quickly become exploitation by journalists, event planners, or panel moderators who are simply looking for the shocking details. Survivors may face disbelief in their stories or be pressed for explanations of very intimate, personal, and traumatizing events. Put on the spot, survivors may not have prepared for certain questions or considered the potential impacts of taking their story public.

Journalists who report on violence against women have to balance the demand for stories with scrupulous fact-checking. In the aftermath of Rolling Stone’s discredited story on an alleged gang-rape at University of Virginia, journalists are even wearier of believing a survivor’s own words. And as more stories are reported, including stories that become discredited, the public is weighing in on the issue in disturbing ways—playing out the role of investigator and adjudicator in news article comment sections and on social media.

Survivor stories that are told without the input or permission of the survivor can create risk, unwanted attention, and scrutiny for the survivor. I cannot count the number of times I saw the video of Janay Rice (Editor’s note: link does not take you to actual video) being dragged unconscious out of an elevator—not once because I sought it out. When she did decide to speak about her experience to ESPN, over 650 people weighed in in the comments section, with varying degrees of victim-blaming and misogyny.

It becomes even more problematic when we try to reconcile the demand for survivor stories in the news and at public events with the entertainment industry’s use of violence against women. While some stories are told to educate and engage people, others employ violence against women solely and indisputably for the purpose of entertainment. The wildly successful Law and Order: SVU—a show that dramatizes, reenacts, and profits off of stolen sexual violence survivor stories—has been feeding our insatiable desire for “real-life” survivor stories for over 16 years. And like the entertainment industry, most news media outlets are also driven by profits, which can lead to sensationalist reporting, gratuitous violence, and even highly sexualized depictions of victims and survivors.

Survivor stories at public events such as conferences, fundraisers, and even hearings on proposed legislation allow for live interaction between survivors and the audience, opening up the dialogue in critical ways. But it also creates the potential for invasive questions or offensive assertions by people assessing credibility, judging stories, and picking out the survivor’s mistakes. All of this may leave survivors feeling exhausted, angry, and exploited.

The goal of sharing survivor stories should be to empower women affected by violence and inspire others to take action against it. But when survivors are scrutinized, blamed, and used for entertainment, we’re only adding to the myriad reasons for the gross underreporting of rape and domestic violence.

So how can we engage with survivor stories in a way that is respectful, educational, healing, and empowering? There is no bright line rule and we can’t always anticipate the full impact of sharing a survivor story. But we can take steps to carefully consider the survivor speaker, the audience, and the purpose.
  1. Survivor speaker: Choosing a speaker should be done thoughtfully. As an advocate at an emergency domestic violence shelter, I always turned down requests from people seeking survivors to speak because my clients were homeless and living in crisis, and often in the process of seeking legal protection or child custody. Survivors should be given space first before being asked to take their story public, and should not be asked to decide immediately. The survivor should be able to choose her own identifiers or labels, if any (i.e. dv survivor, victim of trafficking, etc.) and should be able to decide beforehand what topics will be discussed.
  2. Audience: The particular audience may impact who the speaker is, what topics will be covered, and whether the audience will be able to engage with the speaker or not. Some survivors may be invigorated by speaking to potentially hostile or uninformed audiences like lawmakers or batterers groups. Others may prefer sympathetic audiences already knowledgeable about and committed to ending violence against women.
  3. Purpose: Generally, survivor stories should be shared with some intention of educating people about the problem of gender-based violence and inspiring them to take action—rather than to entertain or instill fear. It may also be important to consider whether the story is put into context, related to larger societal issue, or accompanied by a discussion of the root problems and possible solutions, or a call to action.
Public speaking is scary enough. Asking a survivor to share a traumatic story with strangers should always be facilitated with care and respect. For more insight, check out the Survivor’s Guide to Public Speaking by the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.

Alex Kory is an intern at Legal Voice and 4 short weeks away from graduation. She is a Scholar for Justice at Seattle University School of Law; and like a true north westerner, she camps in the rain.

Photo courtesy of Jezebel (Gawker Media).

Monday, March 16, 2015

My Dreams

By Sun Huijun

My dreams have been changing as the time goes by. The dreams before I came to Seattle were to expand my global vision and change my lifestyle. I made it. Now, one of my new dreams is to take action to protect women’s rights. 

I have worked as a practice attorney since 2008 in China. At that time, no more than 20% of attorneys were female at my former law firm. I worked hard, so I was considered as a tomboy. One of my co-workers thought that it was hard for a female lawyer to get married. “Why?” I asked. She said lawyers’ professional characteristics made you have stronger opinion. Generally, Chinese men would not like to have a wife who is stronger than him. I kept silent. I did not want to argue about the topic.

I decided to come to the U.S. to study a new culture, including the language, business practices, and legal system. On the first day of 2013, I arrived in Seattle, and my status changed from a lawyer to a student. My lifestyle was totally changed. I enjoy the studying experiences here. By studying and traveling in the U.S., I not only have achieved my former dreams, but also added one more dream—to do something related to protecting women’s rights. I decided to take action to accomplish this new dream. Legal Voice inspired me.

On February 4, 2015, when I was on the way to volunteer with Legal Voice, I read a story on a Chinese news website about the first lawsuit in China about terminating parental rights. The Court made the decision because the facts of the case were extremely horrible: a father abused and raped his 11-year-old daughter. I was emotional when I read the report—how hard of a time the girl will confront in the future! The girl’s mother, who has mental issues, is divorced from her father and remarried to another man. Her father was sentenced to go to prison. Her neighbor would like to foster her, but the government is still considering if it is suitable for her to live there. I can’t imagine how hard it will be for this little girl to heal.

I want to emphasize that this is the first lawsuit in China about terminating parental rights, and it didn’t happen until just this year. Similarly, China still does not have a sound legal mechanism against domestic violence, though the first anti-domestic violence law is supposed to be issued this August. In reality, when someone is suffering from domestic violence, it is so hard to get the protection from the police. If she/he calls the police, usually, she/he receives the answer “That is your family issue, we cannot deal with that.” Or “That is not our business, but you can sue and go to court.” 

Compare with the lawsuit case I read at Legal Voice about terminating parental rights. A woman who had suffered from domestic violence lost custody of her children due to, among other reasons, her “poor partner choice” and because “her history as a victim of domestic violence put the children at risk.” This means her status as a domestic violence survivor was used against her. Legal Voice got involved with the appeal of this case because, if she loses custody of her children, other women may not dare to call the police when they suffer domestic violence. Because they may be afraid of having their parental rights terminated, too.

I saw the above two cases on the same day. I did some research then. I saw the big legal gaps in protecting women’s rights and against domestic violence in China. There are some legal provisions related to protecting women’s rights, but they are general principles. Women need more specific laws to outline their protections. This is a serious issue. We cannot just wait for the legislature to make laws to protect women’s rights—we can get involved. 

These two cases made me think of another case I took before I came to Seattle, and the first time I wanted to do something to protect women’s rights. Before I came to Seattle, a client came to my office. She was 30 years old and looked very nice. She was educated and was an accountant. She wanted to divorce. I asked her to introduce her situation. She could not help crying. After she became calm, she told me that her husband showed how he loved her before they got married, and even after they married. But that changed when she had their daughter. He wanted to have a son. His parents wanted to have a grandson instead of granddaughter. He did not care for their daughter and did not live at home anymore. I couldn’t help but wonder how many women were suffering the same thing in China. What could I do to protect women’s rights, including my own? I took the case and tried my best to help her and her daughter. She divorced her husband, and now lives with her mother and her daughter. 

I wanted to do something to protect women’s rights, but I felt alone at that time. But now I know that I am not alone: a lot of people are striving to protect women’s rights. So now, when I go back to China, I want to do more research, let more people know which rights women have, join the women’s federation, take pro bono cases related to women’s rights, and more. 

I know it is a long journey, but I will keep going on. When I do this, I know I am not alone. Thousands of people are doing the same thing: protecting women’s rights. Dream will come true; equality will win.

Sun Huijun works at Yingke Law Firm as a partner attorney. She came to Seattle to study at University of Washington. During her studying, she volunteers at Legal Voice as an intern.

Photo courtesy of Sun Huijun.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Support Mothers, Support TANF

By Joshua Turnham

The Great Recession of the 21st Century hit everyone hard, but many people continue to struggle in the recovering economy. Poverty has grown in Washington every year since 2008—now over 14%—and the state is one of only three with rising rates of both poverty and income inequality. One of the (many) problems with our beloved capitalist society is that many people get left behind; this is why we have created various social safety nets to help people that do not benefit from the capitalist successes that others enjoy. Washington State currently has more than 288,000 kids living in poverty, yet the state has drastically cut funding to one of the most important safety nets for kids and families who have fallen on tough times: Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

TANF is a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people—particularly women—who struggle on a daily basis to clothe, house, and feed their children. About half of TANF recipients are single-parent families, primarily led by single mothers who need financial assistance caring for their children so they can find or keep jobs. But the current grant amount of $478 per month (for a family of three) is nowhere near enough to help families cover the necessities: the cost of some of the most basic needs—rent, heat, transportation, and health care—has increased statewide by an average of 46% since 2001. Meanwhile, the value of the grant has decreased by 34% percent, thanks in large part to the 15% legislative cut in 2011. Between that enormous cut and the state underspending each year, TANF has been cut, directly and indirectly, by $610 million since 2009, forcing more than 20,000 families off the program and resulting in nearly 55,000 fewer people receiving TANF funds in 2014 than in 2009.

As with most other benefits provided to citizens, various barriers have been erected to separate the supposed deserving from the undeserving poor. With TANF, one significant barrier is the work requirement. In Washington, TANF takes form in the WorkFirst program, through which only those who are actively seeking work are eligible to receive help with feeding their children. Putting aside for a moment the fact that—despite the economic rebound—finding and holding a job is still very difficult for many people, this false dichotomy between who deserves TANF and who does not ignores those whom TANF is supposed to help: the children. Clichés abound on how children are the future, they are always the innocent victims, and how they can’t choose their circumstances, so why do we create barriers for kids to get the resources they need to succeed?

Poverty alone creates huge barriers for young people, especially girls, and TANF is one of the tools we use to help young girls who face these barriers to have equal opportunity and to thrive. For example, several studies show that kids in the child welfare system experience pregnancy, child bearing, and STIs at much higher rates than the overall population of young people. Girls aged 17 and 18 in foster care are twice as likely to be pregnant than their peers in the general population. Young people in poverty who come into contact with the juvenile criminal justice system are more likely than their more affluent peers to be found guilty of delinquency. Unfortunately, girls are coming into contact with police and the justice system at higher rates than ever before, and once a young person has been incarcerated, she often can become stuck in a cycle of poverty and criminalization. If we continue to shortchange kids, we are only going to see more poverty and more kids in jail.

The Washington State legislature is currently considering a bill that would expand TANF eligibility. As of now, a person who receives TANF can remain eligible if they are participating in vocational training or education, but only up to one year—HB 1875 would double that time to two years. The bill has passed the House with 90 votes for and only 6 votes against and is pending in the Senate. This is a nice first step, but if the State only expands the pool of people who are eligible for TANF without increasing overall funding, even this bill will be, unfortunately, a hollow victory. Therefore, it is critical that we continue to encourage and pressure the legislature to support increased funding for TANF.

Join the conversation on Twitter using #84amonth—representative of the $84 in monthly funds that were eliminated in the 2011 cut—to see how you can get involved.

Joshua Turnham is a legal intern at Legal Voice and is in his last semester at Seattle University School of Law. He continues to be awed by blindness to systemic inequality.

Photo courtesy of CIA DE FOTO.