Double trouble

Tanica Lewis was trying to do the right thing, the necessary thing to protect herself and her two kids from a former boyfriend she feared. Based on threats he'd made against her, Lewis had obtained a personal protection order that barred her ex — the father of her two children — from visiting the family's apartment on Detroit's east side.

The PPO didn't work, though. On March 1 of last year, the man came to Northend Village, a low-income apartment complex on Hague Street. When he found Lewis wasn't there, he lobbed a brick through one of her apartment windows and then kicked the door in.

Lewis reported the vandalism to the police and, it's claimed, her landlord. She explained the problem and the PPO. The man was eventually convicted of breaking and entering, and ordered to pay restitution for the damage.

But an abusive former boyfriend turned out to be only one of the problems facing Lewis. The other was her landlord, who evicted the woman and her two children shortly after their place was vandalized, saying Lewis was responsible for the damage caused by her "guest."

Imagine the stress. Lewis had to move to a new, more expensive apartment. Her work commute became longer. She had to make new child care arrangements. All the while dealing with a threatening and potentially dangerous ex-boyfriend.

That was just about a year ago. Now the ACLU has become involved, filing suit in federal court against the partnership that owns the apartment complex and the company that manages it, Management Systems Inc.

A call seeking comment from the management company was not returned. The ACLU, however, is eager to draw attention to the case.

"Something like this sends a dangerous message," says Emily J. Martin, deputy director of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project in Washington, D.C. "What it says is that, if you want to keep your home, you have to keep violence against you a secret."

The ACLU tried to resolve the issue without going to court, sending a letter to Management Systems Inc. in January asking that Lewis be reimbursed for the expenses incurred as a result of her eviction, and that she be provided with a new apartment similar to the one she was tossed from.

The management company didn't respond, says the ACLU, and so the suit was filed. As pointed out in its letter to the management company, the ACLU views this as primarily a sex discrimination case.

"The eviction of Ms. Lewis was apparently based on gender stereotypes about battered women — namely, the stereotype that if a woman is experiencing domestic violence, it is necessarily her fault, because she must be inviting it or allowing it to happen," wrote Martin. "In addition, because most domestic violence victims are women, those policies and practices that discriminate against victims of domestic violence have an unlawful disparate impact on women."

Calling her ex-boyfriend a "guest" when he kicked his way into her apartment is an example of this sort of discrimination, Martin added.

Such cases are more common than most people realize, Martin says. Her office frequently consults with attorneys across the country with clients in similar straits.

"Attorneys who work with domestic violence victims see this all the time; advocates see it all the time," she says.

In 2002, the Michigan ACLU successfully intervened on behalf of a domestic violence victim evicted by the Ypsilanti Housing Commission, which eventually agreed to end the policy.

"This kind of thing really victimizes a woman twice," says Martin. "It punishes them for taking the steps they need to take to protect themselves and their families."

Which is why the ACLU wants this case to generate some publicity.

"One of the things we'd like to accomplish here is to get the word out to housing providers that this kind of action is unlawful," says Martin. "And we want to let women going through this know they have rights, and that there is a way to respond to this problem."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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