Susheela Varky is a Staff Attorney focused on Domestic and Sexual Violence Law at the Virginia Poverty Law Center. The organization advocates for the civil legal needs of low-income people and supports local legal aid offices throughout the state.
I’m one of those wack job people who knew exactly what they wanted to do as a kid: I wanted to be a public interest lawyer. It was a vague notion at the time, but I knew I wanted to be able to represent people and help them improve their lives.
After law school, I was working at a national nonprofit organization focusing on federal affordable housing issues when I decided to take on a pro bono case from an organization called Women Empowered Against Violence (WEAVE). My client needed a protective order against an abusive spouse. Around this same time—Thanksgiving 1998—my parents called to tell me that they were getting a protective order against my brother. He was abusing my parents.
I ended up hired as the first staff attorney at WEAVE, and that’s when I first acknowledged that I grew up in a violent home, where my dad abused my mom. It was always something I had hidden. None of my friends knew what happened behind closed doors.
Since then, I've felt as if it just makes sense for me to do this work. This field is where I’m supposed to be. My personal experiences help me to get it: I get it from the victim’s perspective, from the children’s perspective, and even from the abuser’s perspective. I don’t condone any abusive behavior, but I understand how people end up like this.
If one of my clients goes back to an abuser, I get that, too. My mother was the primary breadwinner—and the only breadwinner—for much of my childhood. She had the financial resources to say, "I want a divorce." The fact that she didn't suggests how difficult and layered all of this is. She loved my dad and he loved her, and she was never going to leave him. She did the best she could under the circumstances, shaped by her cultural background and norms.
I’m reconciled to the fact that because of my family background, I understand this work on a nuanced level and do my best to represent my clients effectively—yet I do not have the ability to do one iota to resolve these problems within my own family. My brother died recently. He and I responded very differently to the abuse we saw growing up. I danced and did activities and focused on the goal of "Get away from this and lead a ‘normal’ life." My brother ended up becoming an abuser—of other people, of drugs, of alcohol. He took a different path, and imploded.
Every day, I talk to people who are victims of abuse or their advocates, and often they're seeking legal advice on how to obtain a protective order. About half of those callers are immigrants. They’re dealing not only with the fact that an abuser can prevent them from getting help; the abuser can also hold the person’s immigration status over their head. He or she might say, "If you report, the police are going to deport you, because you’re the one who’s here illegally."
I met a client several years ago whom I recognized as an employee of a restaurant close to where our office used to be. She and her husband are immigrants. He had a green card; she did not. After they married and moved to the U.S., he made a complete 180-degree turn. He refused to work, and instead made her work under the table. Every day, he would drop her off at the bus stop, and she would have to take two buses to get to work. If she wasn’t on a particular bus at the end of the day, he would accuse her of having affairs and be extra abusive.
With such a controlling partner, we had to find creative ways of working together. He didn’t know how to use the computer very well; so, she was able to e-mail me. She also came by our office during her breaks. If I was available, we’d meet. If not, she’d leave notes in my mailbox, and I’d leave notes for her. We did that over the course of a year. And there were close calls. One time, we lost track of time. When we realized that she'd missed the first bus, we got in my car and I drove like the devil along the bus route to catch the bus so that her husband wouldn’t suspect anything. These are the kinds of crazy things that victims have to do to protect themselves.
We submitted her application for a type of visa that was made available through the federal Violence Against Women Act. It allows domestic and sexual abuse victims to self-petition for legal status. We received notice that the reviewer needed more evidence of abuse. I expected that; many domestic violence victims, whether because of their culture, the trauma that they’re dealing with, or other factors, can’t express the details of what’s happened. It’s very painful to put that on paper. And yet, a very significant part of these visa applications is the affidavit—the personal story of what happened. Because of her immigration status, my client had never called the police; so, there was no official record of abuse.
I understand the perspective of U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services: They can’t automatically grant a visa based on an applicant’s story alone. How would they know whether it's true? Fortunately, my client's sister-in-law had seen some of the violence and wrote an affidavit to accompany my client's own. A few months later, my client’s application was approved: she received her visa. From start to finish, it took two years to get her visa and then another two years to get her green card. Today, she’s a productive member of the community, a mother of two, and a homeowner. If she hadn't reached out, she could still be in an abusive situation. She could be dead. Her kids could be motherless and living with an abusive dad.
She’s the kind of person I talk to every day. People who call me have dealt with so much for so long, and they have kids to care for all the while. They don’t want to see their partners go to jail, even temporarily. They want their partners to be the people they fell in love with. After all, there are good times, too, and abusive people can be very charming. Most victims just want the abuser to get help.
But help is not always available, and counseling is rarely something that an abuser is willing to consider. It's especially difficult if the victim and abuser grew up in environments of abuse and have always been in volatile relationships. The cycle is difficult to break. It’s possible for an abusive person to stop abusing, but not likely. It’s ingrained. It's how they were raised. It’s part of who they are.
After being on a phone call with a domestic or sexual violence victim, sometimes I feel as if I wasn’t helpful. It's rare that I can secure pro bono legal assistance for someone or take on a client myself. But the people who call are so grateful just to be able to talk about what they’ve been going through with someone who believes them. When you’ve been oppressed for so long, you start to buy into the idea that, Well, maybe I did deserve that. After all, dinner wasn’t on the table at 6:00. You start to lose perspective of what is appropriate behavior from someone you love, someone with whom you share children. So, at the very least, I can have a conversation with them. And it’s the best part of my job—talking to real people and providing even just a bit of guidance and assistance.
— interviewed August 1, 2016