What Are We Yearning For? Building a Movement.

On a rainy day in Portland three months ago, Kristi and I sat in a room with 25 other leaders of domestic and sexual violence state and national coalitions, and were asked to ponder this question:

“As a movement working to end gender-based violence, what are we hungry and yearning for?”

The Action Alliance had been invited to join a cohort of statewide and national organizations to build and strengthen the movement to end violence against women and girls. The effort is part of Move to End Violence (MEV), a 10-year project funded by the NoVo Foundation to support leaders in our work to step back from our daily grind to envision the change we want to see, imagine new strategies, and build the capacity needed to make that change come to life.

Image 2

picture credit: Kate McCord

This was the second meeting for the group to learn, ponder, and discuss what our movement has been in the past, what it is now, and what it needs to be moving forward. It was easier to answer the question with negatives: we are not hungry and yearning for more hotline calls, more protective orders, more arrests, a higher shelter census. Though they are critical and often life-saving resources, we do not yearn for them.

We kept talking. We yearn for healing. We yearn for joy. We yearn for a world where violence and domination is replaced by compassion and interconnectedness. We yearn for a future where our children’s children will learn about oppression only in history books.

We yearn for liberation. We yearn to hold community with others doing brave work to get to the same horizon.

We talked about how to get there: centering the experiences of marginalized communities in our work, igniting major shifts in the larger culture, economic justice, ending mass incarceration and detention, reproductive justice, an engaged democracy. Big work.

We imagined electrifying possibilities by filling in the blanks: “If all domestic and sexual violence coalitions joined forces to make X impact in Y way at the same time, what could we accomplish?”

Imagine what we could accomplish.

We will be partnering with other state and national coalitions to find out. The Action Alliance and all other coalitions involved in this project have committed to work on areas of bold action that we see as stepping stones to a world with less domination and inequality and greater interconnectedness, compassion, and justice.

The work will require us to believe that fundamental, systemic change is possible, and that we are part of that work. It will require us to embrace experimentation and change in the service of learning and adapting. It will require building a bigger “we”—showing up for and partnering with others who believe in a similar vision. It will require us to work in alignment toward the same shared vision.Image 3

And of course this is where you come in, dear brave members and supporters. We will be asking you to believe that another world is possible and to join with us in deep conversation about what it would take to make the audacious vision of that world come to life. To stay at the table long enough for our conversations to get to a place of deeper understanding, clarity, and connection. To join our efforts and hang in there with indomitable spirits as we make some big leaps and bold moves.

This will be hard. This will be worth the struggle. We can do this.

Kate McCord is the Communications Director for the Action Alliance, a member of the Action Alliance’s Racial Justice Task Force, and has been working in the movement to end gender-based violence for over 25 years. Kate will be working with other coalition leaders as part of this Move to End Violence initiative to mobilize against state violence and create community-based alternatives to incarceration.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call804.377.0335.

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Raising My Daughters In An Unmuted Society (or Somebody’s Always Got Somethin’ To Say)

As the mother of two daughters I sometimes struggle with the way things are versus the way things should be when encouraging them to become brave, bold, and confident women. I think about things that could have been most helpful for me as I was navigating the path towards adulthood and want to make this path a little easier for them. One thing that would have been helpful is if I felt I was allowed to express who I was and to be comfortable, loving and accepting of all the aspects of me.

Being raised by a strict, Christian mother, I was taught to believe that my body was something to be kept hidden and at times to even be ashamed of. If I dared to push the boundaries and show any skin, wearing a tank top or shorts too high above the knees, I would be ridiculed or referred to by other unflattering terms where I was accused of seeking attention. It was always confusing for me though because regardless of the clothes I had on, I would still receive that unsolicited attention.  It was not until my college years that I realized I liked the way I looked in certain clothing choices and that was okay.

So now, I am raising my own daughters, who are eleven years apart in age, and let me just say, that especially for my oldest, some of her clothing choices would make the little old church ladies I grew up around turn over in their graves! While she is very mindful and respectful of the thoughts of her elders when she is in their presence at church or other functions, she makes certain to never lose her identity in what she chooses to wear. And I embrace that. Do I sometimes hear the gasps from others who would question me as a mother by “allowing her to walk out the house dressed like that”? Certainly. And if I am given the opportunity, I take the time to do a little educating.

By being in this work, but more importantly, by knowing who my daughter is, I know that the thoughts that enter the mind of anyone who might use the way one chooses to dress as justification to pass judgement, harass or excuse sexual violence, are not the thoughts that can put an end to it. Sometimes, I have to put my own thoughts in check because of the societal noise that exists; those thoughts do not empower women and girls to be true to their authentic selves.

mountain bridge

credit: indulgy.com

In my primary prevention work, I often refer to the metaphor of traveling upstream to do some major bridge repair work. But as I talk about repairing this bridge, I had not given much consideration to the tools one must carry in their backpack. Imagine that the bridge that is encountered is located atop this mountain with a heavy stream of water flowing down. In order for me to even reach this bridge, I have to first climb this mountain, and move past all those voices that tell me who I am supposed to be as a Christian woman. I have to put on my noise canceling headphones.

I have to consider this as I raise my own daughters. I am optimistic that the tools my youngest daughter will have to carry in her backpack will look much different than the ones I have had to carry. I am optimistic that her backpack will be light and the only thing she hears coming from her headphones is the harmony that comes when women and girls are loved, respected and treated as equal. The harmony that comes when the noise that attempts to diminish who they were created to be, cannot and will not prosper.

Leslie Conway is the Prevention Coordinator for the Action Alliance and is proud to be a mother, daughter, and sister, working to prevent violence against women and girls.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call804.377.0335.

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Secret Story of Beatriz

Susheela Varky conducted a training class on Working with Immigrant Survivors this week. Here is the story of her work with a client.  

Claudia and I sat down with Beatriz to review her Affidavit. Most of my immigrant clients who do not speak English speak Spanish. Because I do not speak Spanish myself, I am very lucky to be able to work with Claudia at the City of Richmond Office of Multicultural Affairs to be able to serve my Spanish-speaking domestic and/or sexual violence victim clients who are immigrants. Claudia is a native Spanish speaker, and she completes many of the intakes that help me determine whether victims are eligible for my free immigration legal services.

A client’s Affidavit is her story of abuse and of how she came to the United States. It is essential to a successful immigration visa application. In Beatriz’s case, as with many of my Spanish-speaking clients, she wrote her Affidavit on her own. Then, Claudia translated it from Spanish into English for me and for the visa application itself. All documents, even passports and birth certificates, in an immigrant visa application must be in English or accompanied by an English translation.


slide courtesy of slideplayer.com

After I read the English translation of Beatriz’s Affidavit, we scheduled a three-way meeting. I think this is the best way to ask clarifying questions of the client; so, I may do my job—namely, to make the Affidavit flow and compel a government reviewer to grant the visa request, and yet truly depict my client’s story in her own words.

I was sitting at Claudia’s computer with her translation of Beatriz’s Affidavit on the screen. Claudia and Beatriz were across the desk from me. Claudia interpreted my questions to Beatriz. Beatriz answered them. I typed or asked more questions. As you can imagine, this process can take more than one sitting to complete. It is not easy to talk about a person you love hurting you physically, sexually or emotionally. It is not easy to recall these details and to answer your lawyer’s questions, even if you know in your heart that your lawyer is just trying to help you. It can be traumatizing.

Beatriz was telling us about the day she went to court to testify against her abuser. (Beatriz’s immigration visa was a U visa. This type of visa encourages victims of violent crimes to report said crimes and cooperate with law enforcement to investigate the crime.) She had to walk to court. On the walk back, she was in a kind of daze, thinking about how court went and feeling exhausted.

She then told us something she herself had forgotten. On that walk home, someone had offered her a ride home. Without thinking, she got in the car. The stranger then tried to sexually assault Beatriz, just as she was returning from testifying against another man who hurt her! She somehow got out of the moving car and ran to a store to safety.

Claudia and I ran to Beatriz. We all cried together and hugged each other. Beatriz had repressed that memory for years. The things our clients have to endure are unforgivable. But the fact that they feel safe enough to share these stories and even recall a repressed memory makes me think we are doing something right and just. This makes me feel very grateful to do the kind of work I do.

Susheela Varky is the Staff Attorney for Domestic and Sexual Violence for Virginia Poverty Law Center (VPLC), the statewide legal aid support nonprofit organization. VPLC is committed to leading and coordinating efforts to seek justice in civil legal matters for lower income Virginians. Beatriz’s U visa application was approved and she is currently in the process of adjusting to Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) status.

For more training on topics like these, check our Training Institute’s schedule

[1] The name, “Beatriz,” and other names in this blog have been changed to protect VPLC’s clients’ identities.

[1] Between April 1, 2010, and July 1, 2014, the Hispanic population in Virginia has grown 16.7%. http://www.coopercenter.org/demographics/age-sex-race-hispanic-town-estimates


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call804.377.0335

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Are You Governed by Your Intake Form?

How did you learn your technique for interviewing?  Did it come naturally, did you learn it from an experienced mentor, or did you stumble into it, making it up as you went along?  I remember when I was a law student, interviewing my first clients in a legal aid clinic, I was petrified that I would “miss” something, so my interviews were epic, two-hour-long ordeals. It never occurred to me until years later that I was probably re-traumatizing clients by marching inexorably through my exhaustive list of questions, crossing the line from interview to interrogation. Yes, I got what I “needed” to fill out the forms, but was there a better way?

If your job description includes interviewing trauma victims in order to obtain critical details, you need to know how to sensitively ask for information in a way that does not re-traumatize the victim AND that gets you the essential facts you need to do your job. What are best practices for working with a client whose responses to trauma may vary?  I have come up with tools and techniques that help to resolve that conflict between relentless pursuit of the facts of the case on one hand and an understanding of the needs of the traumatized client on the other hand.

The Action Alliance’s conference, Trauma-Informed Approaches to Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence (May 4-5, 2016, in Charlottesville https://heartisamuscle.wordpress.com/ ) will include a workshop I developed to help professionals and volunteers identify the best techniques for working with traumatized victims in an interview. Whether we are social workers, shelter staff, attorneys, law enforcement or medical professionals, we need to fill out intake sheets and learn about the facts surrounding the victimization so we can offer tailored service, advice and referrals.

pixabay free image of intake form

photo credit: Pixabay

But what if our own interviewing has unwittingly become part of a long process of victimization? It is possible to consciously equip ourselves for those interviews with specific tools for working with a traumatized person.  You can learn how to create an atmosphere of safety and security; which techniques work best with angry, combative, fearful or disoriented victims; and what to do at the end of interviews to help the victim with next steps. Have you ever wondered how you could best work through an interpreter, handle sensitive issues regarding sex and drugs, or prepare for the next steps in the victim’s journey? And just as important as our awareness of the potential of re-traumatizing the victim is the critical but often overlooked topic of the interviewer’s self-care and vicarious trauma.

When you attend the workshop, you will learn:

  1. The three essential techniques for conducting an interview with a traumatized client
  2. How to set up your office or work space with a victim of trauma in mind;
  3. How language you employ in interviewing can hurt or heal; and
  4. The healing power of choice for a traumatized interviewee.

Ann H. Kloeckner, Esq., Executive Director of Rappahannock Legal Services, has spent over 30 years working with survivors of intimate partner violence.

The Heart is a Muscle: Trauma-Informed Approaches to Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence Conference will be held May 4-5, 2016 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Find keynote and workshop descriptions hereRegister here.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call804.377.0335

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email colson@vsdvalliance.org

Serving Victims, Building Trust, Restoring Hope 

National Crime Victims’ Rights Week – April 10-16, 2016

On behalf of the 65 member Sexual and Domestic Violence Advocacy agencies who are at the center of the Action Alliance, the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance is pleased to observe National Crime Victims’ Rights Week 2016.

Virginia’s Sexual and Domestic Violence Agencies served more than 20,000 victims of domestic violence last year, and more than 7,500 victims of sexual assault. Those services included shelter for 3200 adults and their 2600 children.

More than half of the victims served had reported to law enforcement.  For approximately 20% of victims the violence resulted in missing either school or work30% had to relocate as a result of the violence. One in 5 victims reported that a weapon was used during the violent incident that led them to reach out for help.

As one of the only services available 24 hours a day in every community in Virginia, Sexual and Domestic Violence agencies also responded to more than 70,000 Hotline calls. About one quarter of those calls were from individuals who were not victims of sexual or domestic violence, but who had some other urgent need—most often homelessness, or a mental health crisis.

A snapshot of an “average day” in domestic violence programs across Virginia can tell you a little bit more about how our member agencies are serving victims. The National Network to End Domestic Violence conducts an annual point in time census with domestic violence service providers nationwide. On September 16, 2015, over a 24-hour period, Virginia’s 51 Domestic Violence Programs (100% of whom participated in the census):

  • Served 1,613 victims
  • Provided emergency shelter to 267 women, 3 men, 1 transgender adult and 224 children
  • Answered 565 Hotline calls

When asked about the specific types of services that each agency provided on that single day:

    • 98% provided individual counseling or advocacy
    • 33% provided a support group
    • 50% accompanied a victim to court
    • 25% assisted a victim with a disability
    • 20% worked with a victim on an immigration advocacy issue
    • 10% provided advocacy to an LGBTQ survivor
    • 57% helped a victim to access health care or mental health care services
  • 24% worked with one or more survivors to find employment 

Sexual and Domestic Violence agencies are providing a wide range of services to diverse survivors each and every day. Of course, there is another side to this story. The census also revealed that on that same day 55 adults, with 29 children in their care, could not be sheltered because space was not available. Agencies also reported being unable to meet the full needs for legal services, counseling, housing assistance and child care on that day—with one agency reporting that the need so far exceeded their capacity that 23 victims were on a waiting list of counseling services!!

This gap between need and resources—which we first identified statewide in 2012—was further exacerbated in 2015 as 14 agencies reporting eliminating 32 direct service positions as a result of reductions in fundingWe look forward to seeing a turn around in those numbers in the upcoming year as a result of increases in both state and federal funding!!


     Building Trust  

Sexual and Domestic Violence Agencies are based in principles designed to build trust, empower survivors and ultimately restore hope for survivors and communities. They are trauma-informed, recognizing the short-term and long-term impact of trauma in the lives of survivors and considering the impact of environmental, community and historic trauma on those victims from marginalized communities whose personal experience is compounded by this contextual trauma.

They are asset-based, recognizing the strength within each individual and cultivating health and wellness as a part of both intervention and prevention efforts. And they are committed to “justice for all” in a deep and meaningful way—addressing the root causes of sexual and intimate partner violence and recognizing and addressing the intersections of oppression not only in our communities, but in the lives of victims who are directly impacted by sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-immigrant sentiments and other forms of bias and discrimination. If we are to be trustworthy we must embrace the inherent dignity and worth of every individual.


     Restoring Hope 

Survivors tell us each and every day that Sexual and Domestic Violence agencies are meeting the goal of “Restoring Hope” in their lives.  Each victim we serve has the opportunity to complete an anonymous survey that evaluates the services they received and offers an opportunity to provide feedback.

From the thousands of surveys that have been submitted over the past 3 years,  we know that 85% of victims feel more hopeful about their lives as a result of the services they received.  Survivors report:

“I neededServing Victims. Building Trust. Restoring Hope., April 10-16, 2016 support in my hardest times and she was there.”

“I was 9 months pregnant, with 3 kids.  I had been strangled and almost killed.  Because of you I didn’t give up.  You helped my keep going on…you have helped us to see that there is light out there for me and I’ll be okay.”

And from a caller to the LGBTQ Helpline

“I’m so glad that you have a service like this because I cannot talk to my friends or family members.”

All Virginians should be proud that you have created a network of “services like this,” through public funding, through your personal donations, through your contributions of time and talent as volunteers and as board members, and as dedicated advocates all across the state.  You truly are “Restoring Hope.”


Kristi VanAudenhove is the Executive Director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She has been a leader in coalition work, advocacy and policy for nearly 40 years.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call804.377.0335

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email colson@vsdvalliance.org




Mothers on Trial: Gender bias in the Courtroom

Imagine you are a mother, a victim of domestic violence, and have successfully severed the relationship in a step toward a life of safety. Yet, court papers arrive in your mailbox and on your front door almost daily for child custody hearings and criminal hearings. For accusations such as trespassing, for the day you brought your children to your abuser’s residence for court-ordered visitation only to be assaulted yet again by your spouse. Accusing you of trespassing was your soon-to-be ex’s legal tactic to rid himself of the assault charge pending against him.

Imagine being arrested for trespassing when you find out that your 5-year-old daughter is not in school, has a 105 fever, is being held in the marital residence with your ex’s girlfriend, and you go to the marital residence and ring doorbell to inquire about your child’s health. Imagine protecting yourself from an abusive spouse only to be dragged into court and accused by the court professionals, such as Guardian ad Litems and judges, as being unstable, a liar, the perpetrator of the abuse, and incapable of caring for and providing a stable socioeconomic environment for the children. Then imagine in the next hearing, being court ordered to sign over your house deed for $0 and to pay child support based on imputed income, not actual income, all to the man who threw you across rooms, called you a psycho b**ch, and threw your head into a wall.

But worse yet, imagine the children, who had never been separated from their mother, then lose access to their mother, except for three hours a week and every other weekend, with no explanation from any of the court professionals. Imagine this happening to three children, ages, 2, 3, and 4, and living with their abusive father for five years as you appeal court case after court case, taking one of your cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, only to be dismissed. Then imagine being ordered by the court to cease attending therapy with your domestic violence counselor and to attend therapy with a general licensed therapist because they do not believe the abuse happened to you.

This is a real story. It happened to one of our protective mothers.

Virginia is for Children is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the protection and safety of mothers and children who have been affected by domestic violence and child sexual assault and who become involved in family court cases in the Commonwealth. Virginia judges have labeled these cases as “highly contested” custody cases. They are usually heard in the Circuit courts rather than the Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts due to the volatile nature of the proceedings, often involving numerous professional experts, such as custody evaluators, vocational experts, psychologists, numerous attorneys, and physicians. Oftentimes the cases involve gag orders which prevent mothers from discussing the decisions of the court or discussing domestic violence if the court deems that domestic violence was fabricated by the mother or child. Therefore, if a mother speaks out against the injustices in the family courts or speaks about the domestic violence experienced, she could lose access to her children, even if she has been given a few hours a week with them.


credit: ndtv.com

The latest research indicates that custody litigation can be a method by which abusers continue to maintain their authority and control over their victims after separation. Therefore, many abused women find themselves revictimized by the family courts and the professionals that become involved by tactics such as suppressing evidence of domestic violence, ignoring evidence of domestic violence, labeling violence as a “lover’s quarrel,” accepting false testimony that the father was just “doing the things she does to me,” and labeling a child’s abuse disclosure as maternal coaching.

More and more research is emerging that the interests of the father are given more weight than the interests of the mothers and children. Research shows that custody evaluators place more weight on maintaining the father/child relationship over domestic violence incidences. Research shows that battered mothers experience corruption, denial of due process, and gender bias in the family courts. Phyllis Chesler reports in Mothers on Trial, that fathers who contest child custody are more likely than their wives to win access to the children, that in 82% of the contested cases, the father won sole custody, and that 59% who won child custody had abused their wives. Molly Dragiewicz, Canadian battered mother’s advocate, asserts that gender bias is prevalent in the family courts today, including disbelief or minimizing women’s reports of abuse, disregarding evidence, punishing the woman for the abuse, unfair financial settlements, or holding mothers to a higher standard than fathers. Dragiewicz also asserts that the men’s rights and fathers’ rights movements have had detrimental effects on the battered women’s movement. Joan Meier, George Washington University Law Dean and Executive Director of the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project, was awarded a 3-year grant in 2014 by the National Institute of Justice, to gather evidence regarding how family courts respond to cases of abuse. Her research shows that American courts have fallen into a trend of awarding custody to the abusive parent, even when the other parent warns the judge about the possibility of abuse.

In most of these cases, the abusive father’s legal team or Guardian ad Litem for the children claim that the mother is participating in parental alienation, particularly if the children make abuse allegations against the father. Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) has been labeled by the American Psychological Association as lacking data, and the organization has expressed concern over the term’s use. PAS originally took hold in American culture from the self-published writings of Richard A. Gardner, MD, who worked extensively with fathers who had been accused of molesting their children. Unfortunately, the term is widely used by Virginia guardian ad litems, custody evaluators, and attorneys to remove custody of children away from battered mothers. The term parental alienation syndrome is pervasively used in Virginia contested custody cases as a means to remove children from loving mothers.

Eileen King, Executive Director of Child Justice, Inc. in Washington, DC, specifically states that she knows of no case in which parental alienation used by the mother has been successful in positive outcomes for mothers and children in child custody cases, yet use of this term wields highly successful results for the fatherhood initiative and fathers’ rights movement. When custody is taken from the mother, due to domestic violence or child abuse allegations, child advocates are referring to this process as maternal deprivation, a form of emotional abuse on both mother and children.


picture courtesy Virginia is for Children (facebook)

Virginia is for Children is working to educate the community and legislators about the problems that Virginia mothers are experiencing in family courtrooms. Most recently, several Virginia mothers attended the judicial reappointment hearings at the Virginia General Assembly in December 2015 to testify about the biases they have experienced in the family courts by certain judges in the City of Alexandria, the City of Chesapeake and Chesterfield County. These mothers were given 5 minutes to speak about the injustices, but unfortunately, we learned January 21, 2016 that all judges considered for reappointment were re-elected by the Virginia General Assembly. However, we do not see this as a failure, but as a need to continue to create awareness of the treatment of battered mothers and children in family courtrooms throughout the Commonwealth.

All too often, various private professionals become involved in these cases, such as custody evaluators and guardian ad litems, many of whom have no or little training in domestic violence or child sexual assault. We believe there must be a collaborative governance in place for these independent professionals to reach out to local domestic violence, feminist, and children’s rights organizations to ensure that battered mothers and their children are treated fairly and justly by professionals in the community and by family courts. Questions to consider are:

  1. What steps did the professionals take to collaborate with other organizations to ensure children have adequate access to nurturing parents and safety plans for aggressive parents?
  2. When a parent alleges domestic abuse against the other parent, what is the professional’s standard procedure for ensuring the safety of the children?
  3. Does the professional generally believe the alleging parent? Why or why not?
  4. Does the professional ever consult with domestic violence specific organizations or DV advocates before making recommendations for the custody of children?
  5. What kinds of collaborative measures does the professional take to ensure battered mothers and children are treated fairly and justly?

Oftentimes guardian ad litems and custody evaluators perform their jobs independently without any oversight or collaboration with domestic violence and child sexual assault experts, thereby making unilateral recommendations that are often far from the latest research for domestic violence and child advocacy. Virginia is for Children aims to encourage the use of collaborative governance in family law cases to better protect battered mothers and children.

Imagine your children had been living with your abusive ex-spouse since they were 2, 3, and 4. Now, they are 7, 8, and 9. They have only seen you every other weekend and for three hours on a weeknight. They aren’t allowed to call or email. They can only wave to you across a room during school assemblies—all because you tried to protect them from the abuse. And you have to ask permission to file another motion with the court to try to see your children for more time before they become adults.

Where is the justice for battered mothers and children? Join with us to advocate for unbiased courts, judges, legal and forensic professionals, as well as collaborative governance of family law cases involving domestic violence and child sexual assault.

For more information about Virginia is for Children, visit the Facebook page or email kobriensmith@gmail.com.

Kerry O’Brien Smith is Executive Director of Virginia is for Children, a nonprofit organization that promotes the safety and development of children in Virginia by addressing, educating, coordinating, and providing assistance and relief to promote social and legislative reform of organizations serving mothers and children who have been affected by domestic violence and child sexual assault.  She holds a Bachelor’s in English Literature and Business from CNU, a Master’s degree from the Graduate School of Political Management at GWU, and is pursuing a PhD in Health and Human Services with specializations in nonprofit management and public service leadership at Capella University.  Her dissertation is about the role of collaborative governance on the treatment of battered mothers and their children.

For more information on training on legal advocacy, check our our Basic Advocacy Training  (BATS) and our Continued Advocacy Training Series (CATS) here


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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Why Believe?


Credit: Tim Meacham

Have you ever witnessed something so fantastic that you could not accurately describe it to friends or family? Have you thought, “They would not believe this?” Yet, you tell your story anyway. You tell it with vim and vigor, hoping that people believe the unbelievable. Some will believe you and speak to how incredible your story is. Some will not believe, but simply tell you that there has to be some underlying explanation that has not revealed itself. You feel validated by those that believe; and, for those that do not, you still feel accepted and certainly not denigrated. Yet, you desire for all to believe.

I have worked in public safety for almost 30 years. I have heard a lot of amazing stories, and experienced many, many more; some of these stories humorous beyond belief, and some of them tragic beyond comprehension. I know that were I to reduce what I have witnessed and heard to writing, there would be those that do not believe. I accept that. No one wants to believe some of the choices people feel forced to make just to survive. No one wants to believe some of the desperate acts I have witnessed.

As a younger patrol officer, I knew my functions were: 1) answer calls for service (reactive policing); 2) provide high visibility patrol and handle problems as I find them (proactive policing); and, 3) get to know the people living in my patrol area (community policing). In reality, I spent most of my time answering calls for service. That is the nature of the beast for law enforcement. You are supposed to handle a call to some resolution, quickly document your actions and head out to the next call for service. Resolutions were difficult to manage at times. Sometimes I could refer to another agency like Social Services, a counseling center, a church, or another government or non-profit organization. Sometimes I could refer the matter to my department’s Investigative Unit. Whatever the situation, though, I had to handle it and move on.
Even in the small agencies (where there are about 20 officers in the entire department), calls for service can stack up. There were times when I could spend some time working with community members who needed some extra help in navigating the problem, but I was always supposed to “stay in my lane”, which was patrol. Patrol, for almost every police department, is the primary function. When it came to community members reporting serious crimes, I was required to determine if I had enough information to call out one of our detectives. To do this, I quickly asked the: who, what, when, where, how, and why questions. Usually, most patrol officers can go through this information in about ten minutes or less. The thinking behind this efficiency is: 1) I have other calls for service to answer; and, 2) if this crime just happened, we are losing precious time locating the offender by standing around and talking about it.

Crimes that the above mentioned form of questioning fails are crimes of intimate partner violence. Intimate Partner Violence (or IPV) crimes include domestic violence, dating violence, stalking and sexual assault. With these crimes, it is not always as easy as who, what, when, where, how, and why. I have learned through many years and many, many calls for service that survivors of IPV experience a lot of abuse that someone would not be expected to tolerate. The reasons for this tolerance are as varied as the number of survivors. This is not assigning blame to survivors. I mention only to explain that everyone’s experience of abuse is different and people can exist with abuse in their lives for many reasons.

Survivors of IPV have some of the most extraordinary stories to tell. These stories can and will exceed a belief threshold. IPV survivors know their stories are extraordinary. Because a victim of IPV has experienced the extraordinary, the question format of who, what, when, where, how, and why cannot scratch the surface of what happened to them. Because IPV survivors have suffered trauma, they, most likely, cannot tell you everything about who, what, when, where, how, and why; although they want to. When IPV survivors tell this extraordinary story of what happened to them, they want to be believed.

When IPV survivors tell their story, they hear, “Why did you go back to him/her?”; or, “Why did you let it go on this long”; or, “Why did you drink (or get drunk) with him/her?”; or, “Why did you wear those clothes?”; or, “Why didn’t you ______ (call for help, scream, fight back, say, “no”)?” These are the questions they hear from friends and family. The IPV survivor blames themselves more than they blame the offender. The saddest encounter for the IPV survivor, though, is when the police ask those same “why” questions. The people sworn to protect and serve instead blame and denigrate.

I have had uncountable number of people tell me that someone stole something from them. I have had innumerable people tell me that someone broke something that belonged to them. I have had numerous people tell me someone broke into their house. I have had copious amounts of people that someone hit them. I do not ever recall asking those victims if their behavior led to the criminal behavior of their offender. Instead, I have accepted what they said, recorded what they said and applied my authority as appropriately as possible in their situation.
Survivors of intimate partner violence deserve the same respect as other victims of crime. They deserve more compassion and less hurried response. Most of all, survivors of intimate partner violence deserve to be believed. A simple gesture such as talking to them in a place that is safe is a great start. Telling this person that they do not have to convince you that they are telling the truth lets them know, from the start, they will be believed. Instead of asking the: who, what, where, when, how, and why, simply ask them to describe their experience and thank them for trusting you. This response can lead to them feeling validated in telling their story. It is that simple.

Have you ever wanted to be believed when you had an extraordinary story to tell? I have. This is why I Believe.

Tim Meacham is a detective for a Central Virginia university. He is currently assigned to investigate criminal complaints of sexual assault, dating violence and stalking. He has over twenty years of experience in Law Enforcement, beginning his career in 1990. Tim teaches sexual assault investigations for a local prosecutor’s office and the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Tim earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 2009 from Liberty University in Criminal Justice, and earned his Master of Science in Criminal Justice from the University of Cincinnati, in 2011. Tim has worked for a private police department, a municipal police department and campus police department. His training background is in investigations, crime analysis, and accreditation.

Start By Believing is a campaign of End Violence Against Women International


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call804.377.0335.

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email colson@vsdvalliance.org


Start By Believing

Every two minutes, another American is sexually assaulted, 80% of whom are under the age of 30. Knowing how to respond is critical—a negative response can worsen the trauma and foster an environment where perpetrators face zero consequences for their crimes. Because perpetrators attack an average of six times, one failed response can equal five more victims.- Northern Neck Taskforce

One of the negative factors of surviving sexual assault is the blame that often gets put on survivors by the community. Sexual assault survivors often report that blaming the victim is as traumatic as the rape itself. When a survivor is blamed for the crime against them, they often feel isolated by the very community and providers who should be helping them.

Start by Believing is a public awareness campaign designed by End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) to change the way we respond to rape and sexual assault in our communities.

stats image by NNTF

Credit: Northern Neck Task Force

This campaign has spread across the United States and beyond. Campaigns are starting up in universities, community programs, law enforcement agencies, local sexual and domestic violence agencies and coalitions.



credit: EVAWI

Campaigns across Virginia:

Central Virginia – The campaign involved collaborating with local campuses, including Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), the University of Richmond, and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. At VCU, nearly 50,000 students learned about the campaign through a personal email sent by University President Dr. Michael Rao.

Citizens Against Family Violence – started a local broadcast reaching over 52,000 people to promote Start by Believing.

Doorways for Women and Families – On Wednesday, April 6th, 2016, Doorways for Women and Families is joining the first-ever, global Start by Believing Day.

Northern Neck Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition  – The Northern Neck Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition along with The Haven Shelter & Services, area Sexual Assault Response Teams (SART), law enforcement, community volunteers, and advocates for individuals who have experienced sexual violence will launch a Start by Believing public awareness campaign on April 6th, 2016, as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, across the Northern Neck.


Want to launch a Start By Believing in your area? Go here for instructions and materials.


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 call804.377.0335.

To inquire about submissions for blog, please check the submissions page for requirements or email colson@vsdvalliance.org