Richmond, VA – April 2, 2020 – The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance joins with the Legal Aid Justice Center’s call to public officials to take aggressive action to protect low-income Virginia residents and communities of color and reiterates the critical importance of ensuring the safety of ALL survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence during this public health crisis. As a result of physical distancing measures designed to support public health, perpetrators have increased access at home to those they harm. Accordingly, we are seeing an increase in the need for services to survivors. It is imperative that public officials take urgent action to protect the well-being and safety of survivors.
Even in times of crisis, the justice system must work to ensure the safety of victims of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. Specifically, the Action Alliance makes the following recommendations:
- As courts consider suspending civil dockets, exceptions for “emergency filings” must include all services needed for victims of sexual assault and intimate partner violence to maintain health, safety, and well-being. This includes civil protective order filings, emergency custody and child support filings, and certain pendente lite filings.
- As Judges and Magistrates consider releasing people who appear before them to prioritize their health and safety, victim safety must remain a primary consideration. High risk perpetrators of sexual assault or intimate partner violence should not be released without consideration to and planning for the safety and well-being of victims of violence when such release could lead to continued violence or even loss of life and jeopardize community safety. This is particularly important given the mobility limitations victims now face which create additional barriers to escaping abusive situations.
- Although missed appearances in court should not result in bench warrants, default judgments are still appropriate in emergency circumstances where a party fails to appear or file a responsive pleading. This includes civil protective orders and emergency custody and support orders where relief is needed to ensure the safety and well-being of victims and their families.
- Although Judges should authorize suspending the collection of fines, fees, and costs related to court cases, Judges should not suspend orders for family support and financial restitution. Victims and their children are particularly vulnerable to eviction, homelessness, and economic insecurity during this time. Orders for child or spousal support should continue to be enforced and should not be suspended without an alternative plan in place to ensure the safety and well-being of victims and their families.
- As law enforcement officers and deputies consider using summons as a last resort, arrests should continue to be made in intimate partner violence and sexual violence situations where necessary to ensure the safety of victims and their families. Officers should not issue mutual arrests or request mutual warrants, particularly during this time where victims are left with few options and may be required to defend themselves. Officers should continue to consider the factors found in Virginia Code § 19.2-81.3 when determining which person is the predominant physical aggressor when intimate partner violence has occurred
- Law enforcement officers and Commonwealth Attorneys should consistently enforce protective orders during this time, and, in particular, protective order violations. Priority should be given to preventing firearm access for respondents in protective orders, and, where possible, safe collection of firearms when serving protective orders. The presence of firearms significantly escalates lethality in sexual assault and intimate partner violence, and this is even more true during this time of national crisis.
- Like many of our partners, we share concerns about the safety, health, and well-being of Virginians who are incarcerated. We agree that the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) and local jails should examine all release processes and mechanisms under their control and consider employing them liberally and expeditiously except in cases where an incarcerated individual poses an ongoing risk to the health and safety of others. We must insist that officials prioritize safety for survivors of sexual and domestic violence from all communities during this time of limited mobility and access to services. They can do so by applying evidence-based assessments for risk of future violence and by taking steps to invest in community corrections and alternatives to incarceration which seek to increase health and safety while also managing high risk behaviors and risk of recidivism. At this time when domestic and sexual violence is escalating and access to community support for survivors and families is becoming more limited, it would be reckless to ignore the fact that this violence often repeats and intensifies during times of natural disaster, pandemics, and other crises.
We continue to stand ready to ensure the safety of survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence while also supporting justice system reforms intended to reverse historical harms committed against low income communities and communities of color As we move forward, the Action Alliance believes in balancing victim safety and offender accountability with our vision for racial and restorative justice.
For survivors and concerned family and friends:
Please know that advocates at the Action Alliance and at local sexual and domestic violence agencies throughout the state are here for you. While Action Alliance staff have moved to working remotely, the Statewide Hotline is operational and continues to be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. If you need support or help with planning for safety:
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About the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance
The Action Alliance has been Virginia’s leading voice on sexual and domestic violence for nearly 40 years and enhances response and prevention efforts through training, public policy advocacy, public awareness programs, and technical assistance to professionals.