Working Together to Empower the Survivor.

Years in the making, Governor Terry McAuliffe recently signed into law a layer of safety for those who seek relief from the fear, intimidation and threat of lethal violence. This measure will enable individuals and families to begin rebuilding their lives outside of abusive relationships without firearms looming in the background.


Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, center, with survivor and advocate Lisette Johnson, and Del. Kathleen J. Murphy, D-Fairfax,, after signing her bill relating to removal of guns owned by persons who have a restraining order against them during a news conference at the Executive Mansion in Richmond, Va. Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. Behind him are Sen. Janet D. Howell, D-Fairfax, Sen. L. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe, Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran, and Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter, R-Prince William. Picture credit: The Action Alliance


This is as a significant improvement in the protective order process; celebrated by and for those who advocate for and who are survivors of intimate partner violence. Empowered by measures beyond that of possessing a piece of paper, more women will seek and follow through to make their protective orders permanent now that the law gives it bones by requiring respondents to surrender firearms within 24 hours.Police now have the leverage to seek search warrants to find and seize guns of those who do not comply, and carries with it a Class 6 Felony charge with up to five years in prison.

As a survivor, after it is all said and done, I am brought back to the simple fact I just wanted a divorce. That is all. I did not want to speak out against domestic violence. I did not dream my life’s calling was helping women make tough decisions about their futures, their safety and that of their children. I never saw myself as an activist who would be a public voice, or represent those silenced by abuse and lethal violence.

I just wanted to move forward with my life and give my children a peaceful home.

In that simple statement is the heart of what every person leaving an abusive relationship wants; to leave without event and rebuild a life without violence. This legislation provides a needed protection and is the first step in letting survivors of abuse know they are not alone now that they have backup in the legal system, and that they can move from victim to survivor, with a much lower risk of being a statistic.


picture taken by the Action Alliance

The journey of a thousand miles has only just begun. There remains much work still to be done. We need funding for prevention and awareness. We must continue to look for new ways to keep families safe. When they are not safe, we need to have funding for adequate shelter, resources and support for survivors. Just for today, though, let us stop to rest and enjoy this victory.

Lisette Johnson is a survivor of an attempted partner homicide/suicide. She is an advocate for those experiencing domestic and sexual violence and collaborates for violence prevention education and awareness. You can read her first post on this issue published on January 25th here


Lisette Johnson is a survivor of an attempted partner homicide/suicide. She is an advocate for those experiencing domestic and sexual violence and collaborates for violence prevention education and awareness.  


Note from the Action Alliance: The Action Alliance is proud to stand with Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, as he signs historic bipartisan legislation that will increase safety for victims/survivors of ‪#‎domesticviolence‬ by prohibiting the possession of firearms for persons subject to “permanent” (max 2 year) Protective Orders.

The connection between guns and lethal domestic violence in Virginia is clear: over a 10 year period, firearms were used in more than half of all intimate partner homicides in Virginia.

We applaud the Governor’s willingness to reach across the aisle to enact common sense gun legislation to reduce lethal gun violence.


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Just Released: Our 2016 General Assembly Crossover Report


Many of the Action Alliance legislative priorities have crossed over, including:
–comprehensive statewide protocols for physical evidence collection (PERKs);
–strengthening laws on age of consent to marry;
–prohibiting firearm possession when subject to a “permanent” Protective Order;
–ensuring fair and equal treatment in housing and employment, and;
–strengthening/clarifying responses to campus sexual assault.


Several potentially very harmful bills that we strongly oppose have also crossed over, such as:
–circumventing existing concealed weapons protocols that could potentially add more firearms to volatile domestic violence situations, which evidence links with greater risks for lethality, and;
–policies that endorse discrimination and erode/block access to economic security, safety, and equality for LGBTQ communities.

Find full details in our 2016 General Assembly Crossover Report.

There’s still time to make an impact on legislation, whether you support or oppose.
Reach out to your representatives and let them know what you think! Find your legislators here.

Kristine Hall is the Policy Director of the Action Alliance. 


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Healthy Teen Relationships: A Youth’s Perspective

As president of feminist club one of my responsibilities is to arrange meetings and guest speakers. Last year I brought in a battered women’s counselor to talk to us about healthy teen relationships. I knew the red flags, I had heard them before, but I like most people did not want something bad to apply to me. My friends told me that I was in a bad relationship, but as I heard the counselor list off the red flags, it became reality.

Her talk about unhealthy teen dating felt like a description of my relationship. At the time, I was not spending time with friends or traveling for fear of making my then boyfriend mad, he kept trying to pressure me into things I made clear that I was not ready for, yelling, blaming, threatening, endless fighting over nothing. I had many wonderful, supportive friends during this time, but I had others that did not deal with what I was going through as well. Being on the receiving end of the advice and support taught me exactly what works and what does not work. It has been said many times before, but it is so incredibly important that I want to say it again: the most important thing in these situations is to be there for the victim of an unhealthy/abusive relationship. Some of my friends dropped me or got mad at me for not spending enough time with them. It was not  that I did not care, it was that I knew he would be mad.

Other friends tried to pressure me to leave him. I understand how this would make sense, but for someone in a controlling relationship, the last thing I needed was to be controlled by someone else. The other thing is, however simple it may seem to an outsider, leaving an unhealthy relationship is incredibly hard. This can be because one believes their partner can change, they truly love them, or the partner threatens that something bad will happen if they do break it off.


Picture courtesy of Diana Kabbani

Once I finally did leave my ex-boyfriend I finally felt free. My friends were there for me after I broke it off. One of the best ways I was able to get over it was blocking his number and social media. People with controlling personalities like that are manipulative and will try to get their partner back with lies and empty promises, that is why cutting off communication is essential. Everyone deserves respect and happiness in their relationship. We all have a duty to do what we can to help victims of unhealthy relationships and I hope this blog post is helpful in doing so.

Diana Kabbani is a student and President of her school Feminist Club. 


Want to learn more about building teen resiliency? Check out The DO YOU program. DO YOU addresses youth violence, dating and sexual violence, sexual harassment, and bullying by confronting its root causes and enhancing protective factors (also referred to as building resilience) to promote positive development and healthy relationships for age 13-16 years old. The UnCurriculum (the facilitator’s guide for DO YOU uses primary prevention principles and creative expression in a strategy intended to prevent violence before it starts.


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Let’s Talk About Sex(ual) Coercion

“He said we’d be so much happier if we had a baby…”
“I thought we were using a condom but he took it off without telling me…”

If you heard the former statements, would they raise a red flag to you? Advocates spend a lot of time talking about relationship red flags. What about the red flags that are directly related to a survivor’s sexual health and reproductive well-being?

I would like to encourage every advocate to start listening for red flags related to sexual and reproductive coercion. Sexual and reproductive coercion are behaviors aimed at maintaining power and control over a current or former dating partner that impact one’s sexual and reproductive health.

What does that really look like?


From the Action Alliance’s Reproductive and Sexual Coercion: A Toolkit for Sexual & Domestic Violence Advocates, sexual coercion encompasses a range of nonphysical behaviors – verbal pressure, threats, lies – that an abuser may use to have sexual contact with a person who expressed that they did not want to engage in sexual activity. Reproductive coercion refers to a range of behaviors that interfere with contraception use and pregnancy, including birth control sabotage (active interference with contraceptive methods), pregnancy pressure (behavior intended to pressure a partner to become pregnant when they do not wish to become pregnant), and pregnancy coercion (forcing a partner to comply with the abuser’s wishes regarding the decision to terminate or continue a pregnancy).

In a review of 40 years of literature, Ann Coker (2007) found significant associations between intimate partner violence, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and unwanted pregnancy. This isn’t particularly surprising; if a person doesn’t feel safe enough to negotiate condom and contraception use with their partner, they are more likely to be exposed to STIs or experience unwanted pregnancy than a person who can make these decisions with their partner.

Screening clients for coercion is just one of the many ways that sexual and domestic violence agencies (SDVAs) can ensure that they are better meeting the needs of all survivors. In preparation for implementing any form of screening, advocates should be trained and prepared to discuss sexual and reproductive health with survivors; SDVAs should take time to thoughtfully consider intake procedures, referral protocols, and shelter procedures; and SDVAs must take time to form relationships with reproductive health providers in their communities in order to ensure that survivors have access to necessary reproductive health services.

While there are many considerations that should be taken before implementing a screening process, the overall benefit to survivors is immeasurable. A person’s ability to make decisions about their own sexual and reproductive health has an impact on their long-term health and overall quality of life. Screening clients for sexual and reproductive coercion may open the door to a form of empowerment that a survivor had not experienced before.

If you’re interested in learning more, the Action Alliance is hosting a Sexual and Reproductive Coercion Continuing Advocacy Training on February 25, 2016. Click here for more information.

Kristen Pritchard is the Data and Technology Specialist at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, Virginia’s leading voice on sexual and domestic violence. She received her B.S. in Psychology and Human Services from Old Dominion University in 2012 and her Master of Social Work from the Virginia Commonwealth University in 2015. Kristen travels across the state of Virginia to provide training and technical assistance to organizations on various issues such as reproductive coercion, healthy sexuality, and trauma-informed advocacy.

Kristen can be reached at


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335. 

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“No one does that”: Teens and the challenge of teaching consent


“That’s not realistic. No one does that,” assessed my (then) 14 year old daughter when she previewed the rough cut of Ask. Listen. Respect., the Action Alliance’s new video to teach teens about consent.

Her comment stung, but she had it exactly right.

We had developed the 1-minute video to be the centerpiece of a new statewide sexual violence prevention messaging campaign. The object: illustrate to young teens a set of concrete examples for how to ask for consent, what enthusiastic verbal consent looks like, and how to respond to “no” respectfully.

The Action Alliance prevention team had decided to focus on consent and negotiation after collaborating with the brilliant minds at Force: Upsetting Rape Culture, who assisted us in conducting a field scan. While the consultants at Force conducted online listening experiments and analyzed the data, we reviewed best practices, consulted with other prevention experts, and held discussion groups with young teens to learn about their lives. The void became clear. Negotiation and consent, two essential building blocks of healthy relationships and (in later, more mature relationships) joyous sexuality, were concepts unfamiliar to young teens.

During the middle and high school years, teens experiment with new identities and new relationships. Every relationship, no matter now short or casual, is a rich learning opportunity that lays the groundwork for future adult relationships. And yet, teaching and talking about the skills necessary to engage in negotiation and ask for consent rarely happens. In my daughter’s words: no one does that.

When we asked middle school boys what consent means, here’s what they said:

  • “I’ve never heard that word, like, in a relationship.”
  • “It’s like, you have to have parent’s consent to order that movie, so like permission?”
  • “Talk about it?”
  • “I don’t know I’m as confused as you!”

Perhaps even more concerning: teen boys explained that their friend/partner saying “no” to them was something they took personally. A rejection.

The Ask. Listen. Respect. video speaks simply and directly to young teens. It shows two teens (about 14 years old) practicing consent. They negotiate how they spend time together (“Want to watch a movie”? “Shoot hoops?”), each hearing a “yes” or a “no” respectfully. In the final scene, one teen asks if the other would like to kiss, and the teen responds with an enthusiastic “yes”. As they lean toward one another, the camera pans behind a tree, the scene ends, and the teens voice over: “Don’t worry about it being awkward, just say what you want…and ask first”.

Parent discussion guide COVER

photo from DO YOU discussion guide

We developed two discussion guides to accompany the video and promote conversations about respect, boundaries, and consent: one for parents, the other for facilitators of teen groups. All materials now live on our brand new Teach Consent microsite to make the materials most accessible to parents and facilitators.

The practices of consent and negotiation are essential to equitable, fulfilling relationships, regardless of a person’s age, regardless whether the relationship is romantic or platonic. Where physical intimacy is involved, these skills provide healthy counterweights to our culture’s pervasive narratives that intimacy “just happens”, and that coercion is sexy, while clear communication is not.

Teaching consent debunks the notion that we all magically just know what our partner wants, what feels good, what turns them on.

Where teens are involved, teaching consent and negotiation gives them tools to build empathy, deepen connection and trust, and helps prepare them to be responsible, respectful partners in future relationships.

To be clear: changing individual knowledge and behavior is one piece in the complex and layered puzzle of preventing sexual violence. Larger oppressive cultural forces related to power and agency, for example, shape individual experiences and choices. And while communication and negotiation are everyone’s responsibility, if a person chooses to move forward without getting clear consent from their partner, what follows may veer quickly into coercion and/or assault. The responsibility then lies solely with the person who advances. No one else’s.

Consent is the non-negotiable, bare minimum we should expect from our partners when it comes to physical intimacy. As such, it is one of the first and most essential concepts that should be taught. Precisely because it seems so foreign to teens at an age when they are experimenting with how to relate to their peers, precisely because many teens are entering into their first romantic relationships which set the tones for future relationships. Precisely because, at least at this point in our cultural evolution, “no one does that”.


Kate McCord is the Communications Director for the Action Alliance, a member of the Action Alliance prevention team, and a proud, grateful (and sometimes harried) mama of two truly incredible kids.


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Black Lives Matter: Racial Justice and Trauma-Informed Advocacy

Gynnya McMillen was 16 years old when she died in her sleep while in custody at a juvenile detention center last month in Kentucky.

This was the first night she had ever spent in detention. She had been arrested on a misdemeanor assault charge on a family member. Guards used a martial arts-style restraint on Gynnya when she refused to remove her sweatshirt as part of the facility’s search and booking procedure; she was found dead in her cell 24 hours later.

The tragic death of Gynnya McMillen raises critical questions about how she was treated in the detention facility and what exactly caused her death. Her story also raises broader questions about the extreme and overly punitive ways in which we approach children and teens of color whom we deem “non-compliant”.

The U.S. detains and incarcerates girls of color at staggering rates. African-American girls constitute 14% of the general population nationally, yet make up an astounding 33% of girls detained and committed.1 Native American girls are also disproportionately involved in the juvenile justice system: they are 1 percent of the general youth population but 3.5 percent of detained and committed girls.2

The vast majority of detained and incarcerated girls are trauma survivors. According to a study conducted by the Human Rights Project for Girls, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and the Ms. Foundation for Women, more than 80% of the girls in some states’ juvenile detention centers have been sexually or physically abused prior to incarceration.

Challenging behaviors exhibited by children and teens are frequently rooted in trauma and abuse. Yet instead of being viewed and treated as survivors of trauma, girls of color who exhibit trauma reactions are often suspended or expelled from school or referred to law enforcement.

Educational and legal systems fail to address the root cause of problematic behavior, which in turn exacerbates feelings of isolation and disconnection. In the face of being sanctioned, rather than supported, young survivors’ trauma reactions worsen. Sanctions grow harsher for worsening behavior, and so on.

Studies on racial bias have shown that white people feel less empathy for black people experiencing pain than they do for white people experiencing pain. The same bias has been reflected in white children as young as seven. The toxic combination of individual and systemic racial bias, along with the criminalization of trauma responses results in a terrible, unnecessary cycle of suffering and imprisonment.

At the Action Alliance, we believe trauma-informed work must be done from a racial justice lens. That means, in part, taking into account the impact of racism on individuals and communities. Think for example: how might these 5 tenets of a trauma-informed response operate differently when we consider them from a racial justice lens?
• Safety
• Trustworthiness
• Choice
• Collaboration
• Empowerment

Likewise, how might we rethink and respond to behaviors typically labeled as “failure to comply”, “defiant”, or “combative” when we look at them from a trauma-informed lens? Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington is an excellent example of the stunning changes that happen when struggling teens are approached from a trauma-informed lens.

At the detention center on the morning of January 11, Gynnya did not respond to a verbal offer of breakfast at 6:30am, nor for snack 2 hours later. She did not move when guards said her family members were on the phone waiting to talk to her. Each one of these instances should have been cause for alarm, a cue to check on her at a facility where policy dictates that juveniles in isolation be checked every 15 minutes. Even after she was eventually found unresponsive, guards waited 11 minutes to perform CPR on her.

gynnya-mcmillen2-credit facebook

photo credit:

Gynnya McMillen is remembered as a “quiet, beautiful person” by one of her former counselors at Home of the Innocents, one of Kentucky’s largest emergency placement centers for children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse, abandonment or neglect.

Gynnya should have been cared for well before she was found alone in a cell, unresponsive. Like so many other girls of color presently living in detention, Gynnya should have been cared for–by any number of educational, social, or other systems ostensibly created to help children stay safe and achieve their potential–before she ever entered a detention facility.

Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected, a report by the African American Policy Forum, offers comprehensive recommendations for lifting up the experiences of girls of color and turning back the tide of overly punitive sanctions in favor of more restorative ones.

As allies and advocates, we have the power to lift up the experiences of girls of color and center them in our work. We can integrate what we know about trauma-informed approaches into our direct advocacy work in schools and detention facilities, as well as our policy work at local, state, and national levels. We can and must risk the discomfort of noticing and talking about systemic racism while working to undermine it. We can and must show up for racial justice and for kids who struggle every day with unrecognized trauma. We can and must show up for kids like Gynnya.


Kate McCord is the Communications Director for the Action Alliance. Kate’s work as a white ally to racial justice began in 2004 and has included serving for 3 years on Virginia Organizing’s statewide racial profiling campaign, serving on the Action Alliance’s Racial Justice Task Force, and raising her amazing kids to be actively anti-racist.

For more information about conducting trauma-informed advocacy through a racial justice lens, register here for our February 16 webinar, “Racial Justice as Trauma-Informed Advocacy”.


1 As referenced in “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story“: Melissa Sickmund, Anthony (T.J.) Sladky, Wei Kang & Charles Puzzanchera, US Dep’t of Justice, Nat’l Ctr. for Juv. Justice, Easy Access to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement: 1997-2013, http:// (last visited May 24, 2015); Annie E. Casey Found., KIDS COUNT Data Center, Child Population by Race and Age Group (2013),,66,67,68,69,70,71,12|/17077,17078 (last updated Feb. 2015)

2  As referenced in “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story”: Sickmund, supra note 8; Annie E. Casey Found., KIDS COUNT Data Center, Child Population by Race and Age Group (2013), available at loc=1&loct=1#detailed/1/any/false/36/13,66,67,68,69,70,71,12|/17077,17078 (last updated Feb.2015).



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Helping Fund a Healthy Future

Building healthy futures for our youth is one of the most important directives of families, communities and countries. Sexual and domestic violence, child abuse, stalking and dating violence are all elements that impact youth the most and create immense problems with successful development, building resiliency, transforming to active and healthy adults, and managing successful relationships. Yet, prevention programs are the least funded. Programs designed to help our youth learn not to hurt each other, not to abuse but instead learn to accept each other, engage in relationships with respect and compassion are lacking as a consistent part of education because there is little funding dedicated to funding prevention programs and initiatives. Virginia’s Sexual and Domestic and Violence Advocacy Agencies are engaged in a wide variety of prevention efforts across the state – and they are struggling to fund those initiatives.

Every dollar invested in prevention not only changes the lives of individuals, but also saves literally hundreds of dollars in the costs associated with future violence. However, public funding is very limited and less than 1/3 of Virginia’s Sexual and Domestic Violence Advocacy Agencies receive any of these limited funds. The Building Healthy Futures Fund will offer an opportunity for communities to work together to raise private dollars – to benefit everyone.

Here at the Action Alliance, we are trying to fill that void of funding and have created the Building Healthy Futures Fund and created the Peace Begins at Home license plate to help fund the initiative.  The Building Healthy Futures Fund will offer an opportunity for communities to work together to raise private dollars – to benefit everyone.

The Peace Begins at Home special license plates are now available at the DMV website.


Carol Olson is the Development Director at the Action Alliance. She was previously the Director of a local rape crisis center. She has continued to engage in community activism through her work with the Alliance and through radio at WRIR 97.3 FM. 



Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335.

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Moving toward trauma-informed and social justice oriented approaches to ending campus gender-based violence

Jen Underwood, MSW

end-rape-culture for campus post-Jan 2016


All college students have the right to learn and live in an educational environment where they are safe and are treated equally; the presence of gender-based violence threatens that right. This is the fundamental concept behind campus gender-based violence legislation. While campus gender-based violence is not a new problem, student-survivor activism has spurred an increase in governmental oversight over the past several years. Through Title IX, the Clery Act, and the White House Task Force the federal government has taken a strong stance on the responsibility of colleges and universities to effectively respond to and prevent gender-based violence. At the state level, Governor McAuliffe created a campus sexual assault task force and the General Assembly passed new legislation regulating institutional response.

The national focus has inspired a number of improvements in how institutions respond to gender-based violence. Despite significant progress, though, reform has not been effective in all areas. The attention has almost solely focused on sexual violence, making dating/domestic violence and stalking secondary issues. Additionally, administrators have been so focused on complying with the detailed requirements related to response and adjudication that they have spent less time and resources on comprehensive prevention efforts. To truly eliminate gender-based violence on campus, survivors need to be supported, perpetrators need to be held accountable, and the campus culture needs to be changed so that it does not sustain oppression, discrimination, and violence of any kind.

The public attention may be focused on the “epidemic” of sexual violence on campus, but college students also experience dating/domestic violence and stalking at high rates.  Survivors of dating/domestic violence and stalking have the right to the same protections and services as survivors of sexual violence. Activist organizations such as Know Your IX are working to make sure institutions pay attention to all forms of gender-based violence.

Gender-based violence prevention does not get as much publicity as response, investigation, and adjudication, but it is also a requirement of Title IX and the Clery Act. Prevention, however, is often at the bottom of the priority list and viewed as a box to be checked off rather than a critical component of an institution’s overall response.  The Action Alliance and Virginia’s sexual and domestic violence agencies have a strong history of effective primary prevention work. Through projects like The Red Flag Campaign, they are helping campus professionals institute effective prevention programming.

The Action Alliance recognizes the road to culture change and federal compliance is difficult.  To help institutions achieve these important goals, the Action Alliance is developing a best practice guide that outlines trauma-informed and social justice oriented recommendations for campus gender-based violence. By focusing on trauma-informed systems and social justice oriented approaches, the Action Alliance seeks to fill a gap in existing resources. When published, this guide will help campus staff and local Sexual and Domestic Violence Agency staff institute changes that will meet both the letter and the spirit of the regulations.

Jen Underwood is an independent consultant who works to prevent campus gender-based violence.  She has over fifteen years of experience in advocacy, training, and prevention work.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335. 

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