We work to eradicate victim-blaming practices, protocols and biases that prevent women from seeking either criminal or civil remedy in the wake of experiencing sexual or domestic violence.
Our work eradicating discrimination against domestic violence survivors by the insurance industry has earned national spotlight. We conducted an investigation that revealed that insurance companies used medical records and insurance databases to deny insurance altogether, charge increased premiums, cancel coverage, and refuse to pay claims of domestic violence survivors. We subsequently played a key role in eliminating discrimination against domestic violence survivors by the insurance industry. So far, 45 states and D.C. have passed legislation that prohibits insurers from using a history of domestic violence to inform coverage.
For the last decade, the Women’s Law Project has assisted the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare (DPW) in providing flexibility and confidentiality to survivors of domestic violence on welfare through implementation of the federal Family Violence Option (FVO). Through participation on DPW’s TANF/Domestic Violence Task Force, we provide extensive input into the state policies and procedures that provide domestic violence victims with referrals for services, confidential disclosure of domestic violence and location information, and when necessary, waivers of program requirements that have potential to place a victim of domestic violence and her family at risk of further violence or penalty.
Currently, through the Pennsylvania Campaign for Women’s Health, we support legislation designed to eliminate unnecessary barriers to safely escaping intimate partner violence.
Our work improving the criminal justice system for sexual assault survivors began in 1999 after a local newspaper investigation revealed that the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) had failed to adequately investigate thousands of rapes and other sex crimes by downgrading the cases to a non-criminal category. The report revealed that approximately 30% of all sexual assault-related complaints were buried over the course of two decades.
An internal audit resulted in 681 rape cases, and 1,141 sexual assault cases, being re-opened and investigated. In response to this crisis, we established an unprecedented review of rape and sexual assault complaints at the Philadelphia Police Department’s Special Victims Unit (SVU). The Women’s Law Project and our advocacy partners have continued to conduct an annual audit of sex crime files at the Philadelphia Police Department for the past fifteen years. Our audit has come to be known as a best practice called “the Philadelphia Model.” Currently, we consult with cities across the country to facilitate implementation of the Philadelphia model.
Our attorneys have personally reviewed thousands of sex crime files. In 2010, Executive Director Carol E. Tracy testified before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs at a hearing entitled “Rape in the United States: The Chronic Failure to Report & Investigate Rape Cases.”
This local work also led to national reform. When we discovered the definition of rape used by the FBI in the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) Program had not been updated since the system was founded in 1929, we advocated to revise it. The misleadingly narrow definition caused a vast under-counting of the incidence of sexual assault in our country. We led a 10-year campaign calling on the FBI to update and expand the definition. In 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the revision would be implemented, leading to more accurate national data on rape and sexual assault. In 2015, the Women’s Law Project worked with the U.S. Department of Justice on “Identifying and Preventing Gender Bias in Law Enforcement Response to Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence,” a report published to assist police in addressing gender bias in their practice and protocol.