Rape was in the news recently in a couple of horrendous stories from Pakistan. But the crime should be making some headlines here as well. That, clearly, was the view of the people who attended a Women's Leadership Summit, convened last month by the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women, which is the largest NOW chapter in the nation. The summit was intended to determine what specific issues are of urgent concern to women, and several at the top were connected to rape.
According to Matthea Marquart, NOW's NYC chapter president, some recent court decisions have resulted in victims not being permitted to sue for pain and suffering when they were raped in the workplace (including one at Macys); they could only apply for workers compensation.
There is also a tremendous backlog of DNA evidence in rape cases, in the thousands. Former state chapter chair Noreen Connell said that there was a backlog of 16,000 evidence samples that had not been analyzed and that the New York Police Department now says that number is down to 6,000. "Some hospitals are not collecting the evidence correctly," she said, "and when the police get to it a year later, it's not usable." NOW is among the groups pushing for the Debbie Smith Act in Congress, named for a rape survivor whose perpetrator was eventually found to be in jail for a subsequent offense. It would provide training, funding, and uniform standards for sexual assault cases and rape kits. Senator Charles Schumer is sponsor of the alternate Sexual Assault Justice Act that would fund the processing of DNA samples from rape kits.
Connell also cited the way women who call the police about being battered often get their children taken away and put into foster care because they allowed their children to witness the abuse. "She is the victim and she is doubly victimized," Connell said. "These women are placed in homeless shelters for singles and are not able to get their kids out of foster care. They can't get housing for families because they have open 'abuse' cases," a Catch 22 if there ever was one. In the federal Nicholson v. Williams case, New York Judge Jack Weinstein ruled in March that the city had to stop prosecuting battered mothers for child abuse. The women's group is focusing on how to get the city to follow through on the ruling.
Harriet Lessel, president of the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, talked to the group about the need for emergency contraception at city hospitals. State law only requires the hospitals to make sure that victims can get the timely drug within a certain amount of time, but does not require the hospitals to distribute it themselves. The state Department of Health could issue such a guideline under the Sexual Assault Reform Act of 2001. But legislation is being pushed by the New York chapter of National Abortion Rights Action League to mandate such treatment.
Finally, the summit took up the continued backlog of cases at the city and state human rights commissions. The state chapter of the National Organization for Women has had a lawsuit against the State Division for Human Rights for more than a decade now to get them to clear up its backlog. The lead attorney in that case, David Raff, has authored a bill for the state legislature to commit necessary resources to the division, but given the millions of dollars it would require, no hope is given for its passage in this economic downturn.
Just as alarming as the backlog, said Connell, is the fact that more and more businesses are forcing their employees to sign statements pledging not to invoke civil rights laws as a condition of employment. The courts have upheld these contracts, wherein the employee promises to abide by arbitration rather than suing. "About 40 percent of large law firms now have them," she said. "It makes the human rights laws unenforceable." There is a Civil Rights Protection Act in Congress to ban these contracts, but "it won't see the light of day in the Republican House," said Connell. Marquart is working with the City Council's Select Committee on Civil Rights to see if something can be passed on the local level to counteract this trend.
Mayor Bloomberg has yet to make a single appointment to the City Commission on Human Rights other than its paid chair, Patricia Gatling. That leaves twelve of fifteen unpaid commissionerships vacant and just three available-the minimum number required to make final decisions on cases.
Cliff Mulqueen, the Deputy Commissioner of the Law Enforcement Bureau, said, "The commissioners only become involved if a case goes to trial and the administrative judge makes a decision and orders a penalty. That hasn't happened in a while. They weren't doing a lot of work on these cases during the Giuliani administration." He said that there were about three cases that made it all the way up the line in the last three years and twenty since 1994, according to General Counsel Randy Wills who also served under the previous mayor.
Avery Mehlman, also a deputy for law enforcement, said that thousands of complaints have been resolved by settlement or by a finding of no probable cause. Gatling's original goal was to get the backlog of 4,500 complaints resolved by May, but so far 2,000 have been reviewed. Some are being referred for trial. And many of those that have been denied probable cause are appealing back to Commissioner Gatling. If she turns the complainants down, they can appeal to the courts.
The mayor's press office did not return calls for comment on why Bloomberg has failed to appoint new commissioners. The administration, after budgeting for a few new staff to work on the backlog, is now asking for cuts (along with every other agency).
The Convoluted State Human Rights Law
I made an error in my July column, leaving the category of "disability" out of the list of criteria in which discrimination is illegal in the state of New York. Thanks to disability activists, I found my mistake.
The state law posted in the Division of Human Rights web site leaves out disability and some other protected categories in its first listing of them. "The opportunity to obtain employment without discrimination because of age, race, creed, color, national origin, sex or marital status is hereby recognized as and declared to be a civil right," it says. You have to scroll well down the page to find that the disabled are also covered in employment. Age is also treated that way. (No matter how far down you scroll, you won't find the category of "sexual orientation." The State Senate ended its session once again without passing the state gay and lesbian rights bill that has passed the Democrat-dominated Assembly overwhelmingly for the past decade, despite the fact that Governor George Pataki said he would do "all in his power" to pass the bill this year.)
The City Commission on Human Rights does not have the same problem as the state commission. When the city's law is amended, the entire law is rewritten to include new categories (such as "gender identity" passed this year). The city web site also includes a plain language version of the law that is user-friendly for potential complainants.
Andy Humm is a former member of the City Commission on Human Rights. He is co-host of the weekly Gay USA on Channel 35 on Thursdays at 11 PM.