I recently had the honor of speaking to the FBI as part of their National Women’s History Month Program. Preparing for the speech gave me the opportunity to reflect on the people in my life who have influenced me and given me the courage to pursue leadership opportunities. I have worked as a prosecutor, I have engaged in private practice, I was a state trial court judge for 11 years, and now have the great honor of being the Acting Director of the Office on Violence Against Women.
My thoughts about my influencers actually start with my dad. Cliché perhaps but true. My father was a State trial court Judge himself and told me every day and in every situation that I could be and do anything I wanted to be or do. Now, I grew up in the 70’s. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I responded “Miss America and President of the United States.” This was so uncommon as a 7-year-old that I was actually interviewed for a PhD candidate’s dissertation. Other attorneys then started bringing their own daughters to my dad’s courtroom so he could give them the same message: they could do anything.
But why was my father so enlightened? He was a typical ‘70’s father, very law enforcement-oriented, conservative, and strict. It is because his mother, Ruth Reedy Sullivan was way, way ahead of her time. She finished high school, had no prospects for marriage, and had a passion for learning, so she went up the street to Albany Law School. Grandma Sullivan graduated from Albany Law School in 1924. She then practiced law and served her community for the rest of her life. Grandma Sullivan was counsel to the New York State Senate Judiciary committee. This meant she left four children at home and took the train to and from Albany each day – 3 hours each way – when the committee was in session. In private practice, Grandma Sullivan focused on probate law. She represented many women who were left widowed who had never written a check or seen a bill or had any idea how to manage a budget. She provided legal help and ensured these women were empowered to run their lives.
Then of course, there is my mom. She had the most difficult job of all, raising me and my brother and sister, until my fathers’ premature death when she was only 46 years old. My mother had been out of the work force for almost 25 years at that point. Amazingly, she decided to run for office! It was so exciting as we made it a whole family event, everyone putting lives on hold and running the campaign. She did so well, mustering up tons of courage and defeating her opponent! My mother, Fran served as a New York State Assemblywoman for 12 years. She was later called out of retirement to serve as a Commissioner at the New York State Commission of Correction, which provides oversight to State and local jails and prisons.
Not only have I been fortunate to have the most important factor of all for success - these wonderful role models - I also am truly passionate about the issues that face law enforcement as they intersect with domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. Reducing violent crime is a priority of this administration. Combatting the Violence Against Women Act’s four crimes is paramount to eradicating this violence. Successful investigations and prosecutions are vital to holding offenders accountable. That is why I deeply appreciate everyone at the FBI. The work they are doing in conjunction with U.S. Attorney offices is so fantastic.
For example, according to Justice Department data, since 2016, the number of defendants charged under 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(9) has grown by nearly 80 percent, from 110 in Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 to 197 in FY 2018. In the same period, convictions increased more than 160% from 55 in FY2016 to 148 in FY2018.
The significant increase in charges and convictions under 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(9) – the prohibition against firearm possession by a domestic violence misdemeanant – is a direct result of the Justice Department’s aggressive effort to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. This effort from U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country has resulted in three Supreme Court decisions upholding both the statutory and constitutional viability of this statute. These critical decisions, combined with the re-invigoration of Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) and the Justice Department’s concerted efforts to prosecute violent crime, has resulted in this success. A central component of PSN is that safe neighborhoods begin with safe homes.
I want to highlight one PSN in particular, led by U.S. Attorney Bob Troester for the Western District of Oklahoma. His office is running an issue-specific Domestic Violence and Firearms PSN in close conjunction with Palomar, their local family justice center. In the first year of this Domestic Violence and Firearms PSN they charged over 50 cases! These cases are now over 17% of the office’s overall caseload and the 50+ cases they have charged this past year are a 100% increase over the prior year. Women have broken down in tears when they were told that their abusers will go to jail and they do not have to testify against them, because they are not charging these as assault cases but as firearms cases. This has empowered victims and helped hold more offenders accountable, as having to testify against one’s abuser can inhibit victims from testifying and result in dropped charges. The success of this program is built on their local partnerships. The U.S. Attorney’s office works hand in hand with the local DA’s office, local law enforcement, and with their local family justice center.
During Women’s History Month, it is important to reflect on all the ways women have helped us in our lives and how we can in turn help other women, by they mentees in the workplace or victims we help in through our law enforcement and services. I want to thank all OVW grantees for the work they do every day to make our country a safer place.
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