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Home / Focus / February 2013 Women in Public Policy / Sarah Buel: Professor’s life experience is basis for helping domestic violence victims

Sarah Buel: Professor’s life experience is basis for helping domestic violence victims

Sarah Buel teaches a law class at the Diane Haile Center at ASU. (Photo by Kyle A. Porter/Arizona Capitol Times)

Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law, ASU

Sarah Buel was working as a paralegal for the city prosecutor’s office in Seattle when a judge called her up to the bench after a hearing. She had just argued passionately on behalf of a victim in a domestic violence case. The husband had poured boiling water on his wife, burning and scarring her terribly. Buel’s boss wanted to drop assault charges, saying the family at least had insurance to cover her medical care. The judge told Buel she should become a lawyer.

Buel’s passion eventually took her all the way to Harvard Law School. She went to work in Boston for a legal aid group, and her boss said he’d write a recommendation to law school for her. She told him she wanted to go to Harvard, but he said she needed to be realistic and choose some other schools.

“I thought, ‘There’s one thing I know how to do: how to pray, how to focus on what I want,’” Buel says. “So I drove my beat up old Ford Escort past Harvard Law and just yelled, ‘You’re gonna let me in!’

“Then I got braver and went in. They had multi-colored lockers, my son liked the Syracuse Orange, so I said, ‘I want an orange locker.’ And the most amazing thing happened; they gave me a full scholarship and an orange locker.”

Buel teaches family violence and the law and criminal law at Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law at Arizona State University. She is also founding director of the Diane Halle Center for Family Justice, operated by the law school, which provides free legal and social services support to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and sex trafficking. Buel conducts some law classes at the center and oversees the center’s Ruth V. McGregor Family Protection Clinic, guiding student interns to help clients.

Buel left an abusive husband in 1977 and graduated cum laude from Harvard Law in 1990. Between those milestones, Buel was getting another education — on the plight of domestic violence victims and the law.

She got off welfare with the help of training to become a paralegal. She worked in rural New Hampshire, but also left New England a couple of times to avoid her threatening ex-husband, working in Seattle and Denver.  She spent seven years getting her bachelor’s degree, attending six different colleges, mostly at night.

Buel’s early inspiration to speak up for people who needed help came from her mother. A Holocaust survivor from Vienna, Buel’s mother came to the U.S. as a girl, but lost most of her family in the concentration camps. She supported seven children as a single mother; Buel’s father did not contribute regular support. Buel saw her mother struggle and experienced poverty with her four siblings and two cousins being raised with her.

“She was just so sweet, she did not know how to speak up for herself and people took advantage of her,” Buel says of her mother, “It just infuriated me, so I said I am going to learn how to speak up for poor people. My initial interest was around poverty law.”

The TV show “Perry Mason” became an inspiration, too. Buel says her family had no television, but when she was 12 years-old and babysitting for neighbors, she saw the fictional Los Angeles defense attorney on the screen for the first time.

“I had been to the mountain top!” Buel says, “This guy knows how to speak up for those who can’t do it for themselves. This is what the law can do.”

She noted that although there were no women lawyers on TV, even Mason’s secretary Della Street got into some of the action, so Buel envisioned working her own way up.

Buel had married her high-school sweetheart, “a typical Jekyll and Hyde,” she says. Even her mom was baffled when she left him, Buel says, he was a perfect gentleman in public. She stayed with him for three years after the violence began, but there was verbal abuse earlier. When she left, she was able to go to her mother’s and step-father’s dairy farm in New Hampshire. Buel says she was lucky to have that safety net. Many women she’s encountered in her work don’t have the loving support she experienced from her mother.

Buel uses her own experience in her work to teach law students and offer services for victims of domestic violence, but she didn’t always see herself in the same place as the women she helped early in her career.

“I didn’t identify as a battered woman,” Buel says, until a mothers’ support group at her son’s daycare went from sharing childcare strategies to discovering that nine of the 12 women in the group were being actively stalked by an abuser.

“It was transformative to hear others with the same experience I had,” she says. Buel decided she wasn’t going to let the experience of abuse define her.

During her first term at Harvard Law, the court where she had worked providing legal aid continued to call, asking her to take “just one more case.” So Buel placed an ad in the student paper to ask for volunteers to help abuse victims. She says 78 students showed up at the first meeting.

“By the end of the year, we had 230 students providing legal assistance and 30 percent were men. We were able to do a lot of advocacy.”

As those students graduated and were hired by Boston law firms, 15 of the largest firms set up domestic violence pro bono projects, Buel says.

Buel sees domestic violence as a part the larger issue of human rights. She brings up the United Nations’ 1948 Declaration of Human Rights.

“Every human being has a right to be treated with dignity,” Buel quotes, sometimes in court, she says.

“I love the idea of integrating human rights into our discussions of what ought to be happening in the United States,” she says, “We are so good at pointing out the problems in China, Tiananmen Square. But women’s prisons in the U.S. are some of the worst human rights violators in the world.”

Buel narrated a documentary film about domestic violence, “Defending Our Lives,” which won an Academy Award in 1992.

“One of the things I’m most proud of,” Buel says, “is getting let go from the Suffolk County, New York, District Attorney’s Office for making that documentary.

“They told me, ‘You can’t be working on getting people out of prison, your job is to put them in.’ I said, ‘No, the prosecutor’s job in every state is twofold, to ensure justice is served and to ensure public safety. Neither of those is happening with these women in prison who are the true victims.’”

Buel’s boss told her if she was going to continue with that work, she couldn’t work there. She told him, “The person who signs my paycheck doesn’t get to determine my ethics.”

Buel is writing a book to be published next year, “Rethinking Abuse: Positive Rights for Abuse Victims,” by New York University Press.

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