Woman Fired for Being a Domestic Violence Survivor: Why California Needs SB 400 - Women's Foundation California
Carie Charlesworth. Photo credit: NBC San Diego

By Katie Egan, Program Assistant

Second grade teacher Carie Charlesworth was terminated from her job at Holy Trinity School in San Diego – but not for anything she did on the job.

The firing was prompted by an incident involving her abusive ex-husband, Martin Charlesworth, who invaded the Holy Trinity School parking lot in pursuit of Charlesworth, sending the school into lockdown.

Instead of rallying around Charlesworth and her four children, who also attended Holy Trinity, during this undoubtedly difficult and scary time, the school district decided to terminate Charlesworth and – in a particularly sinister move – request that her children also leave the school.

The January incident that caused Charlesworth’s firing followed a particularly bad weekend for the school teacher and her family, in which Martin Charlesworth was reported to the police on three separate occasions for his abusive behavior. Upon returning to work on Monday, Charlesworth decided to be forthright with her employer. She informed her principal about what had happened and asked the school to be on the lookout for her ex-husband. After he showed up in the parking lot, Charlesworth was put on indefinite leave. The termination letter came three months later.

According to the letter, Charlesworth was not fired for anything she had done. So, what were the school district’s grounds for termination? Her husband’s dangerous behavior:

“We know from the most recent incident involving you and Mrs. Wright [the principal] while you were still physically at Holy Trinity School, that the temporary restraining order in effect were not a deterrent to him. Although we understand he is currently incarcerated, we have no way of knowing how long or short a time he will actually serve and we understand from court files that he may be released as early as next fall. In the interest of the safety of the students, faculty and parents at Holy Trinity School, we simply cannot allow you to return to work there, or, unfortunately, at any other school in the Diocese [emphasis added].”

Charlesworth plans to challenge her dismissal in a lawsuit; however, it may be difficult since the school is protected by a religious exemption that allows teachers to be fired without cause. Nonetheless, by coming forward, Charlesworth has brought attention to the pervading stigma that domestic violence survivors face in addition to the abuse itself.

“That’s why women of domestic violence don’t come forward,” she told NBC. “They’re afraid of the way people are going to see them, view them, perceive them, treat them.”

The fear of stigma that Charlesworth describes, in combination with anxiety surrounding partner retaliation, prevents many domestic violence survivors from reporting their abuse. Although recent research found that over a third of women in the U.S. experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime, domestic violence remains one of the most chronically underreported crimes in the country.

When brave women like Carie Charlesworth do come forward, they should not be punished for the violence being perpetrated against them. However, a 2011 study by Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center shows Charlesworth isn’t alone: nearly 40 percent of survivors in California reported being fired or feared termination because of domestic violence.

This statistic is especially unnerving since studies have demonstrated the link between domestic violence and women’s economic instability. By choosing to fire, rather than help domestic violence survivors, employers leave women without the support and resources they need to leave their abusers and protect their children. “They’ve taken away my ability to care for my kids,” said Charlesworth. “It’s not like I can go out and find a teaching job anywhere.”

Luckily, there is a bill in the California legislature that could prevent women in similar situations from losing their livelihood due to abuse. Senate Bill 400 (SB 400), sponsored by Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, would prevent employers from firing or discriminating against an employee who has been a survivor of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. In addition, the bill would require employers to make reasonable efforts to protect survivors from their abusers, such as changing their work telephone number, relocating their desk, or implementing a workplace safety plan.

For years the Women’s Foundation of California has worked to support survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in their journeys to safe and economically independent lives. This bill offers critical protection for those survivors that is vital to their economic security.  “Without a steady paycheck, domestic violence survivors can find themselves trapped in abusive relationships, without a way out,” Senator Jackson explained while discussing her bill. “This bill will ensure the stability of their jobs and their safety at work at the time they need it the most.”

It is crucial that domestic violence survivors like Carie Charlesworth are protected from unjust employment discrimination. We must pass SB 400 to ensure the economic security and safety of all women in the state of California.

katie-eganKatie Egan joined the Foundation as Program Assistant in August 2012. She is a dedicated social justice advocate who has worked on a variety of progressive issues and projects, from organizing death penalty abolition campaigns to creating employment workshops for low-income immigrants and refugees. She currently lives with her partner in Oakland, where she enjoys exploring the beautiful hiking trails of the East Bay.

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