By Greg Varner
In recognition of her groundbreaking work to support victims of domestic violence, the George Washington University installed GW Law Professor Joan S. Meier as the inaugural holder of the National Family Violence Law Center Professorship.
Meier is a professor of clinical law and the director of the National Family Violence Law Center (NFVLC) at GW Law. For more than three decades, she has been a powerful advocate for victims of family violence. She founded the nonprofit Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project (DV LEAP) in 2003 to provide pro bono advocacy for survivors of domestic violence, challenge unjust trial outcomes, train lawyers, judges and others in best practices and spearhead litigation.
GW Law Dean Dayna Bowen Matthew praised Meier in introductory remarks as a trailblazing scholar, gifted teacher and generous colleague willing to give her time and service to the school’s community.
“The United States has one of the worst records among industrialized nations, losing an average of five children every day to child abuse and neglect,” Matthew said. “Professor Meier has trained a veritable army of judges, lawyers, experts and advocates on best practices in domestic violence cases.”
She noted Meier’s many awards and honors and record of distinguished publications, including her significant 2019 study, Child Custody Outcomes in Cases Involving Parental Alienation and Abuse Allegations. The study found that courts only believe approximately one-third of women’s and children’s reports of abuse and tend to be overly deferential to allegedly abusive fathers: As many as 50 percent of the women reporting abuse by a child’s father lose custody to the alleged abuser.
Citing sobering statistics, Matthew touched on the “shocking dimensions” of the problem to which Meier has dedicated her professional life: one in four U.S. women have experienced violence at the hands of a partner; 15.5 million children live in families that have experienced partner violence at least once in the past year; and 7 million children live in families in which severe partner violence has occurred.
The dean thanked the donor, who requested anonymity, saying, “Your endowed professorship will have a great impact for many generations to come.”
GW Provost Christopher Alan Bracey also expressed his appreciation for Meier, saying he realized almost immediately after meeting her that she was “a fellow traveler on the road to social justice reform in American society.”
President Mark S. Wrighton reflected on the importance of endowed professorships before formally installing Meier in her newly endowed professorship.
“This professorship will last as long as the university itself,” Wrighton said. “This is a permanent commitment, and this purpose is extremely important.” He praised the high standard set by Meier and expressed thanks to the donor, who was then presented with a commemorative medallion.
“It is my honor to endow this professorship, with my deepest gratitude for Joan, both professionally and personally,” the donor said. “We first met at a time when I was in need of legal advice and guidance … I was overwhelmed and she gave me immediate clarity and understanding.” She praised Meier as a “remarkable person” with unique talents, great compassion and “an incredible depth of knowledge,” combining “sharp intuition with her authority on the legal system” who is “shining a light on the many failures of the family court system.”
According to Donna Arbide, GW’s vice president for development and alumni relations, “It is truly heartwarming to see an amazing faculty member like Professor Meier recognized with such generous philanthropic support for her work from someone who experienced first-hand the positive difference she is making in people’s lives. We are incredibly thankful for this endowment, which will provide leadership for this critical law center for generations to come.”
After the ceremonial remarks from others, Meier spoke briefly, thanking the dean as well as the donor. “This moment feels like the culmination of a journey,” she said.
From left: GW Law Dean Matthew, Professor Meier, President Wrighton and Provost Bracey.
Briefly discussing the evolution of her work, Meier said she started out representing clients and helping them win civil protection orders, but then moved into the child custody arena, where she faced pushback from judges.
“We saw courts resisting the idea that children were at risk where women were at risk,” Meier said, “and the idea that fathers’ access might need to be limited to keep children safe.”
Meier’s research and litigation experience convinced her that systematic appellate advocacy was needed, so she launched DV LEAP, the first organization that would systematically take appeals in such cases. But over time, she found that appeals courts were reluctant to overturn trial court decisions on these issues, even when a strong appeal had been lodged.
As Meier and her colleagues gathered more data, media interest increased. But it became clear to her that changing the system required the founding of a law center to provide stronger advocacy and a broader platform dedicated to bridging the gap between the domestic violence field and the child abuse field.
“The creation of the center and the endowment itself are important not just for me, for GW, for the Law School,” Meier said, “but really important for the people in the world who are going through this.”
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