Halting the Clenched Fist of Abuse Sarah Buel Wages a Multifaceted War on the Problem of Abused Women

By David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 28, 1992 | Go to article overview

Halting the Clenched Fist of Abuse Sarah Buel Wages a Multifaceted War on the Problem of Abused Women


David Holmstrom, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


OPENING one of several folders she carries with her, Sarah Buel thumbs through the contents to find heart-stopping photos of a battered woman's face and neck. "These are good photos," she says, meaning they are irrefutable evidence gathered by the police to be used against the abuser.

It's trial day in the Quincy District Court. For the next nine hours or so, Assistant District Attorney Buel moves quietly through a headlong, chaotic day of court appearances, meetings, negotiations, and quick discussions with her staff.

She has a singular and passionate purpose: to defend battered and abused women. In Massachusetts this year, 11 women have been killed as a result of domestic violence. According to a recent congressional report, the severity of domestic violence in the United States has reached the point where four women, on average, are beaten to death every day.

Outside of court, Buel is a community activist, a spark-plug leader who has started many advocacy groups to meet the needs of the victims of domestic violence as well as the abusers.

Here in Norfolk County, she has been instrumental in creating a domestic-violence intervention program recognized by officials and foundations as the most effective in the state. At law school in 1988, she founded the Battered Women's Advocacy Project at Harvard University, a project that continues today.

As a former battered wife who escaped her marriage with her young son, Buel lived on welfare in the early 1980s while she stabilized her life. Self-described as "tenacious, tremendously optimistic, and driven," she sometimes cleaned houses to earn living expenses while she attended law school on a scholarship. Eventually she graduated with high honors.

She has testified before Congress and addressed dozens of conferences on the horrors of, and solutions for, domestic violence. This year the American Bar Association named her one of the nation's top 20 young lawyers.

"The FBI says now that one out of every two women in the US will be in a violent relationship in her lifetime," says Buel, moving from the scruffy District Attorny's office in the courthouse to a small, private office to meet with a young woman who was stalked for weeks by her former boyfriend. "Domestic violence is now the No. 1 cause of injury to women in this country," says Buel.

In the small office, she dumps the folders on the desk and sits down opposite a young, dark-haired, neatly dressed woman fidgeting with her hands. Buel gently questions and listens to the woman. Repeating what she told the police, the woman says she received dozens of threatening phone calls from her ex-boyfriend at all hours of the day and night. At one point he called her every 10 minutes to harass her. Once he came to her house and stood in the backyard, staring at her. A restraining order didn't stop him.

Later, Buel says this case is the first application in Norfolk County of the new "anti-stalking" state law, which forbids the hounding and harassment of one individual by another. Twenty-one other states now have similar laws.

Buel says, "My job is to seek justice. I'm not a fan of jail, and I don't hate men, but if we have to protect someone from them ...." She knows of hundreds of cases where men have beaten, humiliated, or terrorized their wives and girl friends. Or killed them.

"The typical response in the majority of communities around the country," she says, "is to tell the woman, `This is your problem; you figure out how to stop him from beating you up.' But God forbid that you don't look like the Betty Crocker victim in court, that you are of color, poor, don't dress appropriately for court, have tattoos on your arm, have a substance-abuse problem, or you are on your fifth marriage.

"Judges, and juries in particular, can be so righteous and judgmental," she continues. "But victims are like our relatives; we don't choose them, and the law should not distinguish between victims, the Betty Crocker kind and the other.

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