This interview was published in the Spring 2008 issue of The Baylor Line.
Cindy Dyer advocates for change as the director of the Office on Violence Against Women
The first time Cindy Dyer, JD ’93, went to Washington, D.C., she was like every other gawking tourist who visits the seat of power. Now, the nation’s capital is her home. Last December, the U.S. Senate confirmed Dyer to be the director of the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), a component of the U.S. Department of Justice.
The OVW was created in 1994 to help implement the Violence Against Women’s Act, which was designed to improve criminal justice responses to domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking. The act, which Congress reauthorized in 2000 and 2005, also seeks to increase the availability of services for victims of these kinds of crimes.
Since taking over the director position on January 1, Dyer has visited high schools to talk about teen dating violence, traveled to Europe to help other countries establish similar programs, and participated in workshops and media conferences in Dallas, where she served as a prosecuting attorney for more than a decade. During a brief respite from a schedule she calls “plumb crazy,” Dyer talked with the Baylor Line about her new job and the impact she hopes to make.
BAYLOR LINE: What does your job as director of the Office on Violence Against Women entail?
CINDY DYER: The responsibilities of the director are actually set out in the Violence Against Women’s Act. The main purpose is to serve as a liaison between the Department of Justice and federal, state, and international governments regarding the crimes of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. I’m also responsible for handling the department’s legal and policy issues regarding the implementation of the Violence Against Women’s Act. I oversee an annual budget of almost $400 million, and I have a staff of approximately fifty people. They are all really dedicated to this issue, and I’m fortunate to be able to work with them. It’s a lot of work—really important work.
LINE: What kinds of things does your office do?
DYER: Since 1995, the OVW has awarded more than $3 billion in grants and cooperative agreements that really enable communities to enforce protective orders; provide legal assistance; and provide shelter, training, and services to victims. We have several awareness months and weeks that give us an opportunity to bring focus to this issue. For example, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. During those months, we really try to get the word out and publicize that help is available and that victims do have an opportunity to reach out and access it. We participate in a lot of events, like a recent speak-out at a local high school for Teen Dating Violence, Awareness, and Prevention Month. We speak at conferences. We are looking into doing public service announcements. We partner with other agencies because part of the effort is not only to provide the direct services but also to let victims know that direct services are available and that help is available.
LINE: To what do you attribute what seems to be a growing trend of violence against women? DYER: That’s a really complicated issue, and frankly it’s hard to tell sometimes. Is violence against women on the rise because our society is becoming more violent and there are violent shows on TV and the movies? Or maybe there is more help available and more discussion about it, so more victims of violence are just speaking out and reaching out to services and resources—and that’s why we see and hear so much about it nowadays. I do believe very strongly that at least a large part of it is because the more we talk about it and the more we address it, the more victims will speak up and get assistance.
LINE: Do you also work on ways to pre-vent this type of violence against women before it ever starts?
DYER: Yes, the best way to stop it before it starts is to intervene early. That intervention could be done by a police officer, a friend, or a member of the clergy or with the victim seeking assistance on a hotline. Early intervention is what really saves lives.
LINE: Is the OVW involved in any kind of international outreach?
DYER: We work with the U.S. State Department and their Office on International Women’s Issues. The woman in charge of that office used to be in this office, so we try to coordinate and collaborate with them.
And next week, a member of my staff and I are going to Poland to work with their Ministry of Justice, which is similar to our Department of justice. One of the things the United States has done is recognize that victims of violence against women need specialized services and resources that victims of other crimes might not need. They need shelter. They need counseling. They need access to legal assistance. They have such a broad range of needs that you can’t just have a one-size-fits-all for all crime victims. So I think the United States can serve as a model for the specialized services that victims of violence against women actually need.
LINE: Were you surprised to be considered for director of the OVW?
DYER: I was working as the chief prosecutor of the Family Violence Division in Dallas County when I got a call from the White House presidential personnel office. I was never so surprised to get a phone call. In fact, I think after they said “White House,” I didn’t hear another thing they said. They cast a broad net when they’re looking to fill a position like this one. And I was so honored to be considered, I couldn’t stand it!
I talked it over with my husband, who is an attorney in Dal-las, and we decided it was an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up. I moved myself and two kids and about half of my husband’s things to Washington, D.C., last August when President George W. Bush formally nominated me. I began working in another component in the Department of Justice called the Office of Justice Programs while my nomination was pending. And I answered questions and filled out a lot of forms. I had the actual confirmation hearing in December.
LINE: Being confirmed by the U.S. Senate sounds intimidating. What was the experience like for you?
DYER: My experience was very nice. I went up with a couple of other really well-qualified folks who were being nominated for positions. There were only a couple of senators at the actual hearing, and they asked me a few questions, which I had thought about and had an answer for. And then was confirmed within a few days after that. So I had a very, very good experience. I was certainly very nervous, but it was not contentious at all.
LINE: What types of cases did you try as a prosecuting attorney in Dallas County?
DYER: Over an entire career there, you name it and I tried it. I started out as a misdemeanor prosecutor in a regular criminal court, and then I moved up to felony prosecutor in a general jurisdiction criminal court. I had become really interested in crimes against women. So in September 1994, when I had the opportunity to start a Family Violence Division, I went for it, even though a lot of people thought I was crazy. I gradually brought on prosecutors and investigators, and we branched out to bring in caseworkers. By the time I left in July 2007, we had more than fifty people.
I specialized in trying domestic violence and sexual assault cases where the defendants were the intimate partners of the victim. During the last five years I was there, I tried almost exclusively murders and capital murders of women who were killed by their husbands or former partners.
LINE: It’s surprising that a city the size of Dallas didn’t have an office dedicated to crimes against women before 1994.
DYER: Prior to 1994, Dallas was one of the few places that did have one prosecutor that was assigned to look at family violence cases. But that prosecutor did not actually try the cases. He would talk to the victims of family violence cases and try to work out different settlement options that would allow the defendant to get treatment, if that’s what the victim wanted. But they did not actually start taking the cases and prosecuting them themselves until I started that September.
LINE: Have other cities across the country created similar offices, or is there still a lack of attention to these kinds of crimes?
DYER: Since the passage of the very first Violence Against Women’s Act in the mid-1990s, many prosecutors in large juris-dictions have created specialized divisions just for prosecuting domestic violence and sexual assault. But we still have a long way to go. Some prosecutors’ offices are really advanced and do an amazing, great job, and others have not changed much in the past twenty years.
LINE: Dealing with such a serious and often heartbreaking subject every day can’t be easy. How have you survived that kind of emotional roller coaster for so long?
DYER: I understand exactly what you’re saying, and you are right. The cases can be very frustrating, but a couple of things have kept me going. First, the people that I worked with in Dallas were amazing and so supportive. The other thing is that occasion-ally I would have a case where I was really able to make a huge difference in the lives of a battered woman and her children. Those success stories really kept me going and made me say, “I think I’ll come back tomorrow.”
LINE: Are there some cases you prosecuted that you still think about?
DYER: There are definitely some cases. I don’t know if you would say I still think about them or that they still haunt me. I tried a really terrible, terrible murder case that occurred in Dal-las. The name of the victim was Mary Williams Richardson, and she was killed in front of her children. I still think about that case and those children. But I also think about those cases that I tried that were not as high profile as that one, where the children of the victim didn’t have a great family to fall into the hands of when their mother was killed.
LINE: What do you remember from your days in Waco?
DYER: I’m actually from Waco. My mother still lives in a little wooden house over by where the Lake Air Mall used to be. I went to Waco ISD public schools. I think I was the last graduating class of Richfield High School, which also isn’t there anymore!
LINE: And you earned a bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M?
DYER: Yes, A&M was cheap! But I did come back to Baylor for law school. I think that Baylor Law School has one of the best programs anywhere to teach you how to be a trial lawyer. I think it really does a good job of teaching you how to go into a court-room and try a case. We used to joke when I was at the DA’s office in Dallas that we could tell Baylor attorneys by how they acted in the courtroom. You didn’t ever have to see which diploma was on their wall. They knew when to stand. They knew the rules of evidence. And they weren’t terrified to give an opening statement. Baylor prepares you for the courtroom like very few law schools do.
I had Professor Louis Muldrow for Practice Court. And even now—sitting here at my desk high up in Washington, D.C.—one of the proudest moments of my life was when I got an A in Practice Court.
LINE: How has your family adjusted to life in the nation’s capital?
DYER: My seven-year-old son, Aubrey, and my five-year-old daughter, Evie, are doing great. They are in a fabulous little school here in Alexandria, Virginia. Every Thursday night, when my husband steps off the plane from Dallas, I have to straighten his halo. He spends all day Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in D.C., and then he flies on the last plane out on Sunday night. It’s hard, but it’s absolutely worth it.
LINE: By this time next year, there will be a new president of the United States. What happens to your position then?
DYER: I’m kind of new to this whole political thing, but I believe that all of these positions, like the one that I’m in, serve at the pleasure of the president. So generally speaking, when a new president comes in, he or she is going to have the opportunity to bring in whoever he or she wants to serve in those positions.
LINE: When your job as director of the OVW ends, will you stay in D.C. or return to Dallas? DYER: That is a very good question and one that I really don’t have an answer for at this time. I am so focused right now on making the most of the time I have here that I will figure out what I’m going to do later, closer to the time. I feel like I have a limited amount of time that I’m going to be here, and I’m going to make the most of it.
Lisa Asher is associate editor of the Baylor Line.