In this episode of Reckoning, Kathryn Kosmides speaks with Sheri Kurdakul about collecting evidence, survivor accountability, and abuser accountability. Sheri is the founder and CEO of VictimsVoice which is a domestic violence documentation tool that meets the strict legal standards of court admissibility and is built to meet HIPAA, VAWA, FVPSA, VOCA, and GDPR regulatory standards for privacy and security.
In this episode, Sheri discusses:
Welcome to reckoning, a podcast that explores gender-based justice, safety, survival, and resilience in the digital age, through conversations with experts and advocates. I'm your host, Kathryn Kosmides, the founder and CEO of Garbo, a tech non-profit building a new kind of online background check. Before we jump in, I'd like to warn our audience, that we have raw honest conversations about gender-based violence, which may be too much for some listeners. Please put your safety and health above all else when listening.
Kathryn: On this episode, our guest is the founder and CEO of Victim's Voice, Sheri Kurdakul. Sherri is a survivor of over 29 years of child abuse and domestic violence. She has endured the criminal and family court system experiences. She has also spoken for many professional organizations and has published several industry papers, magazine articles, and continuing education courses. Her new focus is on making a measurable difference in the lives of all victims and survivors, so their abusers can be held accountable and survivors can begin to reclaim and rebuild their lives and safety, and on their terms. Our conversation today revolves around what reporting really looks like, the path from victim to survivor, and accountability for abusers and ourselves.
Kathryn: First really want to talk about how you came up with the idea for Victims Voice and where it is today, which is pretty exciting.
Sheri: The idea of the tool actually was inspired by my daughter. When she was 10 years old, she built an anti-bullying mobile app for her science fair project, and that idea coupled with the fact of my own personal lived experiences as a survivor really led me to dive deeper into this tool. My first assumption was there's already something out there like this, and there are lots of tools for documenting and diaring your experiences, but we really wanted to take it one step further because we saw a core issue with the legal admissibility of being able to present what your experiences are relevant to a court case if need be for a protective order. And that's really the position that we took.
Kathryn: And you have some exciting news, you just released the latest version of it!
Sheri: We did, we're still working on some fine-tuning here or there, but the new version is fully featured and the user experience is much easier to navigate than the first version, of course. So we're really excited about that, yeah.
Kathryn: That's awesome! And I was checking out your website before this call and it highlights this crazy statistic that I've personally never come across before. It's that eight out of ten domestic violence cases are dismissed due to a lack of evidence and victims being too scared to testify. Why is documenting information correctly so important? And what do people not know about documenting domestic violence experiences?
Sheri: So let's take a step back first and kind of put into context what that eight out of ten really looks like. So through several studies that have been done, only 23% of people ever report what happened to them. So you're talking about a very small percentage of people that actually report and out of that 23%, eight out of ten, when they try to take their experiences to court are dismissed due largely like you said, to a lack of evidence. There's a real disconnect over what someone experiences and documents and what is considered legally admissible in court. So for instance, I know that almost every victim and survivor is documenting in some way, shape or form they're writing in a diary, they're keeping notes in their phone. They're texting things to their friends. They're saving pictures, they're recording audio or video, which is really important, we're gonna talk about that in a minute. But what's relevant to the individual is not necessarily relevant to the court. So the information that they're documenting has to match up to the laws that are in place, but it also has to be positioned in such a way that it's not what's considered hearsay. So if I experienced something today and I document it tomorrow, it's already considered hearsay. And so there's a lot of nuances to how the information is collected, but not just what's collected and how it's collected, but how that information is then stored because there's a really important aspect of evidence called chain of custody and chain of custody means that you can prove, without a shadow of a doubt to the courts, that the information when it's taken in, who has had access to it, who has touched it, has it been altered, has it been edited, has it been destroyed and reconstructed? So all of these things have to be taken into account. Now, one of the things that I mentioned was audio and video. Now, our app does not allow for audio or video uploads. And the reason is, I'm here in the state of New Jersey. We're what's called a one-party consent state, meaning that as long as I'm part of the conversation, I can legally record any conversation. Now, Pennsylvania, one state over from us, 10 minutes down the road, it's a felony offense to record anyone without their consent. I don't know any abusers that are going to give consent. And unfortunately, if someone unknowing of the law does record and store that information and tries to present it to the court, now the defense has the opportunity for discovery. And when they discover that you've illegally obtained that recording, can now prosecute you for illegal surveillance, and you can go to jail.
Kathryn: So many people don't know that and know these state policies and laws. And what I love is that on your site, you do have a whole section of majority, at least of all the U.S. State policies, about what is legally permissible and what you can and cannot do. That's such an incredible resource for victims and survivors.
Sheri: Yes, absolutely. We want to educate. Clearly, we don't replace, we are not legal advice. We present what the laws are and kind of translate what does that mean? But of course, in any circumstance, the laws have certain nuances. Florida, for example, it's a felony to record, without someone's consent, unless you're under the age of 17 and you're recording someone who is abusing you, in a domestic violence situation. So, there's a lot of nuances. If it's your 17th birthday, is it then legal? Is it not legal? These are the types of questions. And, where is the recording taking place? Does it constitute domestic violence? Is the crime that occurred actually an illegal offense or does it not fall into that? So there's a lot of nuances that should always be discussed with an attorney.
Kathryn: The difficult part of collecting evidence and why you've created this technology is to help people navigate collecting all types of evidence. And you talk a little bit about, you know, obviously you don't do audio or video, but you do talk a little bit about how to collect evidence for things like digital stalking and harassment. Can you talk a little bit about how that is different?
Sheri: So a lot of it comes from being able to prove who is the person that is actually stalking you because just because you screenshot what they posted on Facebook doesn't mean it was actually them that posted it on their account. We all know how many times we've had to reset our passwords on Facebook, because somebody has hijacked our account and taken over. And all a perpetrator or an abuser has to do is claim that that's what happened to their account. And then it puts into question whether or not it was actually them. So it's really, really important to not only document what happened, but be able to show through those photographs, you can pull metadata. If it is in fact illegal activity happening through Facebook or Twitter or something like that, then you would request to have those records, your account subpoenaed. And from there, they can then demise whether or not, the account, based on geolocation and all that kind of information that we also collect, is in fact, the person whose account it was, but it's very difficult. It really is. And the laws have not caught up to the speed of the abuse that's happening online.
Kathryn: I think that is really the most damaging part about domestic violence that happens online or harassment that happens online is that you can go and try and report to the police. And even in my own situation, it was a lot of digital stalking and harassment after I escaped the situation, but they would be like, oh, it's just digital stalking. Like we're dealing with murders and I'm like, Hm, I could be murdered. And for him, he even admitted to posting one post, right? He said, oh yeah, that was me. I posted it under a pseudonym, but all those other posts were not me. And I'm like, clearly they were you. But like the system doesn't have the evidence, they don't have the proof, they don't have the person admitting it. And so it becomes so difficult to have this court-admissible evidence. And so I'm so glad that you are taking that time to really educate people about all of these different laws and policies and advocating also that they change, that they do catch up to what the reality of being a domestic violence victim online is really like,
Sheri: I think one of the important parts too, is that you can have all the evidence in the world, but if you have a corrupt, legal system, you're also up against that. And while there is nothing that we can do about that right now, what we can do and what we actually do is we make sure that all of your evidence stays with you as the user. So as I consulted with someone who reached out to us and told us that they were using our application, we don't know who our users are, but this person, in particular, did reach out to us and said that they were up against a corrupt legal system. Then we were able to say, we'll then take your evidence and the evidence that you are collecting from what's happening to you in the courtroom or not happening for you in the courtroom and run it up the flagpole. It's very likely if the district attorney or the law enforcement or the judge or whatever they answer to someone else and if it's the attorney general if it's the next level of person, whomever it is, advocate for yourself, we're giving you all your evidence. We're making sure that you're in control of your evidence at all times. So even when you give a report to someone, you haven't lost all of your information, it's still intact. We can still prove chain of custody. We can do all that for you as a company. And you as the victim and or survivor are empowered to continue advocating for yourself because you're in control.
Kathryn: That's so true of needing to advocate for yourself. A lot of people assume like I was talking to a friend the other day who was thinking about filing an order of protection against her ex-boyfriend and there's this media perception of what filing an order of protection is like, or going to the police and things like that. And I was like, girl, I'm going to break it down for you. It is nothing like that. And a lot of it is having to advocate for yourself and not taking no for an answer, because they will not listen to you, or they'll say things that you don't understand, or the process just goes on and on and on. But like you said, everyone has a boss. Everyone has someone to report to. And while being a victim or a survivor is such a traumatic, hard experience already. And then having to layer on advocating for yourself after that is even more traumatizing and another layer of difficulty. It's part of the process really. And it's sad that that's part of the process, but it is.
Sheri: You mentioned protective orders and there's something really important that I think people don't realize with protective orders. We look at protective orders as there's that one incident that finally broke the proverbial camel's back, right? And that's when people reach out and say, "okay, I've had enough." and we know abuse happens to everyone, but for example's sake, "he shoved me down the staircase and I broke my arm." Okay, now, if the person who did the shoving is, an upstanding citizen, very well known in their community has some poll, very charming, turns on the narcissism full tilt. You go in for a protective order. and depending on your state, it's usually a two-step process. So you get your temporary restraining order right away because no one side needs to be heard except for yours. But then there's that final hearing. And if there's not enough information to show that there's a real threat against you and your safety, then chances are, you're not going to get the protective order. And so by having all of this documented abuse, maybe the early abuse, wasn't illegal at all. Narcissism is not a crime it's debilitating to the victim, but it's not a crime. And so if you're documenting all of this abusive behavior, then when that does become illegal behavior, you have all the history, but you need to be able to mention all that when you file the temporary paperwork because here in New Jersey, and I'm sure this is the case in many states, if you don't present it at the temporary request, you're not allowed to talk about it at the final hearing. And so you may have all this evidence, but because you didn't present it at the time of the temporary restraining order petition, then you have no legal recourse to talk about it at the final hearing. And that's another loophole that victims and survivors get set up in and get revictimized through the legal system because they don't understand the rules of the game. And it is almost like this legal game. You have to become an attorney or a paralegal of sorts just to make it through the system, to be able to get justice or protection.
Kathryn: I'm so glad that you called it a game because I think a lot of people won't refer to it like that. It is chess. You're playing chess and you have so many moves to make and there's rules to the game. And if you don't know the rules to the game, you're going to lose. And losing is losing your life potentially. And that's why it's so important to do that proactive education about these situations. That's why we're so focused on proactively preventing gender-based violence. Because if you don't know things like even what narcissism is or what love bombing is, and then you get into this violent relationship and then you don't know how to get out of it or how to seek protection, it's a downward spiral that does result in horrible trauma and even death potentially. And so I think a lot of it is educating yourself about what healthy relationships actually look like, what the rules in your state are for these types of things, et cetera.
Sheri: Yes. We have a saying now, we use it as our new tagline. and we say that legal documentation really doesn't matter until it does. And you'll wish that you had been documenting all along when you really need it. So it doesn't hurt that if you feel like something is off or your partner is pissing you off and this is a repetitive behavior. Document it, it doesn't hurt to document it. It does hurt if you don't document it and you need it later. So by doing so in the right manner, in the right space where it can't be found, it can't potentially put you at risk. It can't be accessed and altered and destroyed by you or your abuser, because we all know that when the love bombing starts, the first thing we want to do is get rid of everything that might have shown that we were upset with them. We don't want to upset the apple cart again. So, protecting the information from yourself as well as from those who would cause you harm is equally as important.
Kathryn: And protecting it from yourself, like you said, is equally important because you're flipping and flopping, it's a cycle of abuse. And there is that time where they are quote, "good" or "acting good", right? The offender is acting good and you're like, "wow, this relationship is healthy and I'm happy and they're so good." And that could make you rip up those diary pages or delete the evidence, but it's the cycle that you have to be able to understand and analyze. And I think that by not allowing the victim or survivor to have access to it until they need it is good, because then it's like, wow, I go into this app and I write it down. And they do remember writing it down every single time, you know? And they can't destroy it.
Sheri: Yup, yup, absolutely.
Kathryn: And when people think of domestic violence, they often only think of intimate partners, boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives, but domestic violence is violence between two people, usually in a home setting, right? And you yourself are a survivor of that kind of different kinds of domestic violence. Can you tell us a little bit about how that experience shaped who you are today and how you were able to take that pain and create this beautiful life for you and others?
Sheri: So my personal experience started, probably around the time I could walk. So I was very young, a toddler, and I was subjected to a physical, emotional, and sexual abuse as a child. My father was finally arrested when I was 17. He was convicted, did six weekends in jail for me, my brother, my two sisters, for at that point a lifetime of abuse. And when you grow up that being kind of the normal circumstance, it's really hard to just jump right into a healthy relationship because you have no bearing on what a healthy relationship is or should look like. And so there was a train wreck of relationships after that boyfriends, husband, the works and it really, I think after two suicide attempts, the last attempt really just shook me to my core. It wasn't my last abusive relationship, but it certainly was one where I decided that I needed a change and I needed to break away. And I did and still fell into the patterns. But abuse does come from all types. I learned that I had abusive friendships. I had not just abusive partners, but abusive friendships as well. And it wasn't until I decided that I really not only needed to take control of my life, but had the ability to do so that I was able to start really healing. And that meant for me anyway, pulling away from all partner-based relationships, obviously, I was a mom still am, and needed and wanted to continue that relationship. But as far as any kind of romantic relationship, just pulled myself away. And became invested in and learning how to love myself. I think that was really for me important and made me realize that as I learned how to heal myself, there was a real sense of empowerment in that, and felt like the more I did for myself, the less I felt out of control. And it was in that discovery that we really decided that Victim's Voice, the tool, would be one that would be completely controlled by the user. That they make the decisions, that they control who has access to their information, they control who has the ability to see their truth and also to own their license. We do license direct to the user that doesn't always mean that they pay for their license, but we give them that option. If they want to, they can. If they want to seek out one of our partners and get a free license, they can certainly do that. But again, that goes back to choice and giving them the ability to make those choices and feel in control and in a very out of control situation.
Kathryn: Talking about healing yourself from the trauma. I think so many people try to find self-love in other people. And especially when you've experienced trauma at a young age and recurring trauma throughout your life, it compounds on itself. And I always say that, the abusive experience which pushed me into the justice system was a combination of compounding trauma. It was not one experience. And it took me kind of stepping back from intimate relationships and doing that work on myself, going to therapy and understanding how, and you've said this before hurt people, hurt people. And I think that we can even hurt ourselves. Like we are a person too, and hurt people will often hurt themselves. I was recently talking to Dani (Danielle) Ayers from Me Too International, and they have this term that they use called post-traumatic growth. We often think of post-traumatic stress, but how you can utilize the pain that you experienced and go on this healing journey, which is a journey, a roller coaster. It's not what a straight lie, you know, it's not. And also, I often say, it's not a light switch. You know, you don't go from like trauma to heal with like, oh, okay. You know, it happened so quickly. And so to see your journey to hear your story's so powerful, I think to victims, and you often use this phrase, victims by force survivor by choice. Can you go a little into how that phrase has manifested itself, not only in your own life but in your work?
Sheri: So in our new version that we've released, one of the new features of this new version is that we have a white label version for international partners. And, I was talking with an NGO that said, "oh, you can't use the name Victim's Voice." Well, we wouldn't, we'd let them name their own app, and I said, "okay, why is that? I'm curious?" And she said, "well, victim isn't well-received" and I thought, a lot of people don't like that word. "Victim", the word victim means that you have lost control and something is happening to you, but that's the point of abuse that it happened to you. And so all of us who are we're survivors, we're victims, that's how we got to be a survivor, but it was by force. We didn't ask for it. We didn't invite it. It was thrust upon us, whether we wanted it or not. So, I've even made a t-shirt now it says victim by force, survivor by choice, activist by design. And the survivor is by choice. Because at some point we decide that we have had enough and we need to piece our lives together. Survivor doesn't mean we've had enough, and we're going to go to court necessarily, or we even need a protective order. What it means is we're going to do our best to regain control over our own lives. And for some of us, the activist by design isn't the appropriate path. Some people decide to put it behind them and move forward. And that's the path that they choose. Others of us decide to take the path of activism, whether it's telling stories, whether it's going to marches, whether it's volunteering at a nonprofit, whether it's starting an organization or starting a company. Activism, a lot of different forms. And even for a lot of people, activism means being a parent who decides that they're going to break that cycle. That's activism, that's actively taking a role in ensuring that it doesn't happen to someone else. So activism really has a lot of different meanings. For me, the survivor path, I don't think of myself as a survivor anymore. I do think of myself as the activist. However, I do have survivor moments, because like you said, it's an ongoing journey, but when I started the journey, it was really difficult because as I said earlier, I didn't have any basis for what a healthy relationship should look like. And so I needed to figure out what does this look like? And how am I going to figure out who I am? I have no identity right now, other than what people have wanted me to be, or forced me to be, but I want to choose my own identity. And so for me, it was picking out a couple of people that I felt were very powerful people in my own space. I chose two. One was a man. One was a woman. One was a fictional character. One was an alive character, Lee Lacocca at the time, and I'm dating myself here, Lee Lacocca was head of the auto industry. He was CEO of GM. And when he walked into a room, he commanded respect whether it was out of fear or whatever. When he walked into a room, he made a decision and everybody jumped to make it happen. And I didn't know how to do that. So every time I was faced with something that would trigger trauma for me, whether it was being in the courtroom, faced with whomever, or being at work. And my boss saying something to me or, or any of those situations, I would pretend to be Lee. And I would stand up a little straighter and I would just blurt something out that was more authoritative. And then of course I would recoil and, "oh my God, you know, this is going to be a catastrophe and, and everything". And when it wasn't enough times, I realized that I needed to be or call on Lee less and less. And I could be more of an authoritative Sheri instead of Lee from a personal, who is Sheri, I loved Madonna's character in the movie, Desperately Seeking Susan, even though she was a train wreck. She had this sense of style and didn't care what anyone else said or thought. And I was a people pleaser, most victims and survivors are people pleasers. And that's what gets them back into the cycle. And I loved the funky sense of style, even though that exact style wasn't mine. I love that she owned it and it was her. And so I started with small changes. I decided what was my favorite color? And I would wear that more often. I would go places and do things that I like to do or go, even if all my friends didn't. And that was okay. I think one of the big jumps for me was my cat eyeglasses. I have numerous pairs now. And the first thing when I bought my first pair was someone very close to me said, "oh, what are people going to say when you're wearing these glasses?" and I said, "well, I don't really care". I liked them. They're me. And so I'm learning my own sense of style. What I liked, who I was, helped me create my own persona, my own personal brand. And no, I as an individual, I'm not a company, but everyone should identify with who they are and, create that sense of brand that self-brand for themselves, because that helps set boundaries and saying, if you try to push me outside of my brand, then you're trying to change me. And you're not a friend. If you're trying to force me into something that I'm not.
Kathryn: So much power in what you said, starting with the fact that, like you said, trauma is forced on you. And it's often forced on people, pleasers and people pleasers don't know who they are, because they're always pleasing other people and placating them, allowing other people to have control over their own lives. And like for you to say, like finding your favorite color even, and not having even that identity, that sense of self was saying, I don't even know what my favorite color is. And I think that's really been also, my journey is who am I? Who am I under all of the trauma? Because when you experienced so much trauma, I think that does kind of become your identity. It becomes the biggest part of you. It dictates kind of your whole mindset. You're always in trauma brain, try and just do exist, trying just to get through the day or the week or the month. And so it becomes your identity. And when you choose to go from victim to survivor, that choice is so powerful. You have the opportunity to build who you were before the trauma and who you're going to be. Now. I think that's so powerful.
Sheri: And it changes. I mean, I used to, I love to paint and I used to paint when I would feel anxious. I would paint because it would take me outside of my anxious brain and put me into a different place, pour myself a glass of wine, put on some good music or a movie that I've already seen 10,000 times, and don't need to watch it, and get my canvas and my paint out and just paint. Now I don't paint as much anymore and that's okay. but I have other activities that I really enjoy engaging with. I think the biggest difference for me to realize that I'm now in a very healthy marriage, a very healthy relationship, is I'll say to my husband, "I'm gonna just go get in the car and drive around for a while". And he'll say, "okay, you know, text me when you're on your way home so I know you're safe". It's not where are you going, how long are you going to be gone, why do you need to go out? It's none of that. It's his respect for me knowing me and knowing that sometimes I just need to get in my car and put the top down and turn the music on and just unwind by myself and having that understanding that space and that respect is huge. Me not having to explain my every existence or justifying everything that I do is huge.
Kathryn: That is, I think the definition of a healthy relationship, is two independent people coming together to build something beautiful, but never questioning the other person's independence, never having to justify your actions to someone or why you are the way that you are. Like, I still think I'm trying to establish that in relationships, whether those are platonic friendship relationships and never feeling like I have to justify why I did something, or I said something to a friend, or even in a romantic relationship. So it's so beautiful to see that you have that. That's amazing. Going back to kind of reporting, when someone chooses to report, what's the biggest reason you see individuals reporting. Like I always say that someone is first reporting for their own safety, second to protect the next person. And then very far down the line becomes these phrases of justice and accountability. But like, that's not what people are thinking about when they choose to report. What have you kind of seen around that?
Sheri: I think from a reporting perspective, it depends on to whom they're reporting. If it's the police, then it's usually out of desperation and safety. Things get too ahead and they see no other option, but to immediately have everything stopped. And then when things do stop because the police have been called, oftentimes you'll see then the victim recoil and recant what they said because things have calmed down and now they're questioning whether or not things were really that bad. People report to their friends, whether it's sitting in a girl's night situation and your telling other people what's going on, sometimes that reporting is just to validate that what you're experiencing is in fact what you feel it is you need that validation to know that you're not crazy. We hear that term gaslighting, which puts into your own mind, questioning everything that you do, whether or not it actually happened or not. So that justification, we see people reach out and report to crisis shelters. That's usually because they need a way out or they need resources, and they don't know what to do next. So they need to reach out to that agency. Unfortunately, with COVID that has been very difficult because resources have been restricted while they may not have completely gone away. It looks different. And an in-home shelter may not have as many beds available or may not even be open. Their in-office hours may be restricted or closed. So it doesn't mean that the resources have gone away. They just may look very different and you have to get a little creative in how you do things. Reporting to your employer. That could be because you have to go to court and you don't have any choice, but you have to report. And so how do you do that in a way that doesn't out yourself as to what you're really experiencing, but gets you the resources that you need resources, maybe meaning that pay time off, some states allow it some states don't. But how do you navigate that at work if you're working? So there's a lot of different meanings to report. And then what that looks like. Justice, I often say that it's called criminal justice for a reason that it's not necessarily justice for the victims. It's more so justice for the criminals. And we live in a society where you are innocent until proven guilty, and that needs to be in place. God forbid, you were accused of being an abuser when you really weren't, you wouldn't want to have that safety net in place. However, the way the process works to be able to bring that burden of proof and having all of that burden of proof lie solely on the shoulders of the victim is excruciating. And it isn't always on the shoulders of the victim, because if it is a criminal case, the victim is merely a witness, the victim, the district attorney, or prosecuting attorney or state's attorney or whatever they call it does not work for the victim. They work and represent the state. It's the state versus the abuser or perpetrator. And all though, there are victims bill of rights, and although in a best-case scenario, we'd like for the district attorney or a prosecuting attorney to share in with what's going on with the court, with the case, all that, a lot of times, they're not legally obligated to do so, and they may not have the resources to follow up with every victim. And so again, the burden is back on the victim. So that goes back to not looking at it as a burden, but empowerment to take control, be accountable for yourself, find the resources that you need, that you're going to need to help you through the process, to not only help you through the process to understand the process. What does this mean and who do you need to line up to make sure that you are kept informed, that you do know what's going on with the case.
Kathryn: That accountability for yourself is something I've never heard. Usually, it's like, "oh, accountability for the abuser's actions and justice for the victim". But also like you said, taking accountability of your own path, your own survivorship, making that choice to become a survivor that is just like something I've really never heard and it just like was this big revelation. And I just had right now, I was like, wow, accountability comes from both sides.
Sheri: And as a victim, you have no control over anything. Your life is dictated to you. So why in the world would you want everything dictated to you when you start the survivor path? Why would you want to give away your control, your power? Take it back, own it, be accountable for it.
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