Hidden pearls: A reflection on campus advocacy

The day Leonard Cohen died, I listened to his song, “Hallelujah”, performed by Grace Love. In college, I was obsessed with the album Grace by Jeff Buckley and it was his rendition of “Hallelujah” that first introduced me to this song. Cohen struggled with writing what turned out to be his most memorable song, and it did not become popular until much later, after many other artists covered it. It dawned on me that sometimes a pearl is left to be discovered after the thrashing tides bury the jewel delivered by life’s most difficult moments.

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Credit: JeffBuckley.com

Over 20 years ago I found myself walking 5 miles back to my dorm room in the cold dark hours before the sun came up after an experience I would later understand as sexual assault. I was enraged at what had happened, and it was that anger that powered my feet to get back to my own bed. I was lucky that year to find a community of advocates, feminists, queer spaces, and other groups engaged in justice work. I found spaces where I could grapple with the relentless experiences of sexism I encountered, the weight of the privilege I carried, and eventually the meaning of the assault I had yet to acknowledge.

Many years later, my path led me to working at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance doing systems advocacy, prevention program development, and social change work. For 10 years, I was part of incredible projects that I believe had an impact in Virginia and the nation. This year, I made a professional transition to work in higher education as the director of a campus resource center for students who have experienced gender-based violence and harassment. It has been quite a change from doing “macro” level work to direct services and this significant professional transition has left me with a few reflections. Advocates who have the privilege to walk with survivors in the aftermath of assault or abuse have a unique understanding of how violence and trauma manifest; it weaves its way into muscles, marrow, and matter. All the education, models, tips, and tools that have been brilliantly created to assist in providing the most appropriate response can’t prepare us for what this role entails. This is the hardest job in our field; it requires deep empathy, compassion, and vulnerability– something our culture unfortunately teaches us to offer sparingly.

While I grapple with the sacredness of this role and balancing caring for others and caring for myself, I am struck by the vibrant energy of college students and the passion and understanding they have about the issues of sexual and interpersonal violence. At times I struggle with how slow progress is, but I am inspired and hopeful when surrounded by students. Far beyond my level of understanding when I was their age, they grasp the intersectionality of violence and sexism, racism, heterosexism, xenophobia, and classism, and how they are woven into our culture. We all, in one way or another, are affected by the many ways in which violence and oppression show up in our institutions and culture. Like sand in the ocean, oppression has a way of invading us, entering our souls, irritating our lungs and our muscles.

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Credit: quotesgram.com

 

The majority of students I work with are survivors of their own trauma, who harness their experiences not only into practical support when another person needs it, but collectively are part of a larger force responsible for the culture shift to the kind of community we envision for ourselves. It feels less shameful to be out as a survivor these days, which is a welcome change as we continue to break down the divide between “advocates” and “survivors,” a false division that erases the major contributions survivors have made in this movement and fails to acknowledge survivors as the driving force of this work.

We have a long way to get to the community we envision for ourselves. The constant rubbing of violence and oppression on our bodies and souls can make us raw and brittle. Fortunately the human spirit is resilient and quite possibly magical. It heals. Were it not for life’s sand paper, we may never reach another level of knowing and genius that comes from surviving. Like a pearl in nature, sometimes our most powerful gifts form as a response to an irritant or invader. As I walk around campus, work with students, and reflect on my own life, I am more and more encouraged about the state of our movement and where we go from here. I walk among a sea of pearls who will carry forward a legacy of strength, compassion, and love.

 

Liz Cascone is the Director of The Haven at William & Mary, a peer-based confidential, welcoming, and inclusive resource center for those impacted by sexual violence and harassment, relationship abuse and intimate partner violence, stalking, and other gender-based discrimination.

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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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For The Last Child

On the first day of October Artemis House Staff began their celebration of Domestic Violence Awareness Month at Northern Virginia PRIDE Festival (NOVA PRIDE). We tabled and mingled, networked and shared cards, and felt the energy and joy of safe spaces. Near the end of my shift at our resource table a blended family stopped to learn more about Artemis House services, and as we began to converse I felt hopeful that I was speaking with “The Last Child.”

picture2In September, at a membership meeting for Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance (Action Alliance) a group of advocates invested in the anti-violence movement were tasked with identifying a “North Star”, a potential guiding statement for Action Alliance work. Though the process was difficult, this gathering of diverse people agreed that what gave us hope when the work makes us weary is the shared idea that we have committed ourselves to creating safe spaces until “the last child” is able to live free of violence and oppression.

Since leaving Richmond I have carried the hope that I am working towards the day of “the last child” with me everywhere. The last child has been to all of the Artemis House staff, Domestic Violence task force, and budget meetings this month. I see them take shape in our monthly review of data and program reports. I look for “the last child” in daily interactions with community partners, friends, loved ones, and strangers. This child reveals their self in the gaps of our data, the conflict and resolution in each meeting, and fellowship with others to remind me that there will be an end to our work.

On that day at NOVA PRIDE I was relieved to find hope in these children while discussing their experiences with violence and their love of Artemis, goddess of fertility and the wilderness. Unknowingly they shared a few truths of what the last child needs from those of us invested in this work: a seat at the table (inclusion); a voice in the dialogue (representation); a safe place for disclosure (accessibility); and unshakable support during post-traumatic growth (advocacy).

“Success is not one more woman in shelter, one more man in jail, one more child in foster care.”  

–Sandra Camacho

Most importantly I was reminded that the last child needs our investment in the anti-violence movement to be extended outside of our typical 9-5 work day. They require that we challenge our privilege in safe places so that they too may be included while maintaining awareness of our differences to increase representation. Though Domestic Violence Awareness Month has ended for this year, Artemis House staff will continue our investment in increasing the awareness and reach of the anti-violence movement until we meet “the last child.”

Raven Dickerson is the Director of Artemis House, a program of Shelter House Inc. Artemis House is Fairfax County’s only 24 hour emergency shelter for victims of domestic and sexual violence, human trafficking, and stalking. For more information on Artemis House services and opportunities to volunteer or donate contact us at (703) 435-4940.

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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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Serving the Incarcerated Individual

Shows like Orange is the New Black, Oz, and Prison Break have communities talking about people’s experiences of being incarcerated.  At some point, the topic of sexual violence comes up, whether it is a joke about how to pick up soap in the shower or protective pairing (when an inmate of higher status offers protection to a less powerful inmate in exchange for goods or services, often nonconsensual sex).

What is available to support people who are incarcerated*?

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which was passed in 2003 with unanimous support from both parties in Congress.  (From the Executive Summary ).

“The goal of this rule-making is to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual abuse in confinement facilities… it has been at times dismissed by some as an inevitable—or even deserved—consequence of criminality.  Prison rape can have severe consequences for victims, for the security of correctional facilities, and for the safety and well-being of the communities to which nearly all incarcerated persons will eventually return.”

As Just Detention International proclaims, rape is not part of the penalty.  Everyone deserves to be safe, regardless of their status.  Those who may be struggling with mental illness, survivors of previous sexual abuse, or those who are LGBTQ identified are more vulnerable to violence while incarcerated.

How do people who experience sexual violence access services in Virginia?

If someone is housed at a Virginia Department of Corrections facility, they have the option of reporting any incident to any employee verbally or in writing through a grievance, dialing #55, or writing to the PREA post office box (PO Box 17115, Richmond, VA 23226).

When a person dials #55 they can leave a confidential voicemail for the PREA department or speak to an Action Alliance advocate.  We have protocols in place should someone need immediate in person assistance, for situations such as hospital accompaniment after an assault.  Advocates provide emotional support, information, resources, and referrals.
For local and regional jails in Virginia, many local sexual assault crisis centers have similar arrangements.

What impact do these services have?

There are some unique challenges to providing services to people who are incarcerated.  Their backgrounds, needs, and concerns can be different from those out in the community. Often folks are looking for support from anyone outside of or beyond the systems they engage in on a daily basis. Fear of retaliation from staff or other inmates may prevent someone from disclosing. The stress and conditions of incarceration are traumatizing and may trigger survivors. Folks who have used the PREA hotline or written us have said, “Thank you for making me feel less alone.” and “This is the first time I told someone about what happened when I was locked up twenty years ago.”  Another person specifically called back the PREA hotline to let Action Alliance staff know that “they (the PREA investigator) took my report seriously. I have been moved to a different unit and things are better. Thank you.”

 

Want to learn more about PREA in Virginia? Attend our 2nd Annual PREA summit

Beyond Compliance: Building Trauma-Informed Partnerships

NEW DATE-NOVEMBER 9 – THIS IS A CHANGE FROM NOVEMBER 8. NEW LOCATION-CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA

*Note: As part of an anti-oppression framework, it is important to acknowledge the shift in language, moving away from terms that dehumanize individuals.  From The Marshall Project.  -Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative puts it this way in his book, Just Mercy: “We’ve institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them ‘criminal,’ ‘murderer,’ ‘rapist,’ ‘thief,’ ‘drug dealer,’ ‘sex offender,’ ‘felon’ — identities they cannot change regardless of the circumstances of their crimes or any improvements they might make in their lives.”

 

Reed Bohn is the Senior Hotline Crisis Services Specialist: Training at the Action Alliance.  He has worked and volunteered for HIV prevention, LGBTQ+ and anti-violence agencies. 

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

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Safety and Justice for All: Inside the Action Alliance’s Unique New Resource to Address Campus Gender-Based Violence

 

All college students have the right to learn and live in an educational environment where they are safe and treated equally. This is the overarching spirit of federal and state legislation governing campus gender-based violence response. It is also a core belief of the Action Alliance. The presence of sexual violence, dating/domestic violence, and stalking threatens this right. Institutional and societal oppressions compound the negative effects of violence on students of color and other marginalized groups.

Over the past 5 years, the Action Alliance has consistently heard from Virginia campuses that they need more resources to effectively address the complex maze of campus gender-based violence regulations. Community Sexual and Domestic Violence Agencies (SDVAs) have said they want to effectively support student survivors and work with campuses on prevention initiatives, but do not always have access to the campus-specific information or resources to do so. Based on these conversations, Action Alliance staff members and I began work on a resource to fulfill those needs. We focused on three specific areas: institution-wide trauma-informed responses, racial justice oriented systems and responses, and concrete examples of institutions that had implemented successful policies and programs.

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Safety and Justice for All: Best Practices for Virginia Campuses Addressing Gender-Based Violence is the culmination of this work. As there are already numerous best practices guides and model policies available, we wanted to make a unique contribution to existing resources. Our guide specifically focuses on addressing gender-based violence in trauma-informed and racial justice oriented ways. It is also one of the few guides that includes concrete examples of how institutions and organizations have implemented recommendations. The examples are critical because they help campus and community professionals begin conversations on how to implement the recommendations in their own context.

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We created two versions of Safety and Justice for All; one general version and one specific to community colleges. The structure of the guides is the same and essence of the recommendations are the same; however, the community college edition addresses the unique context of community colleges. We adapted the wording of several recommendations to address community-college specific concerns and also utilized community college examples whenever possible. To our knowledge, this is the only gender-based violence best practice guide specific to community colleges.

In both guides, we present key recommendations for six groups: administrators; advocates; faculty and other instructional employees; Title IX coordinators and campus disciplinary professionals; campus law enforcement and security officers; and prevention specialists. The guides include information for both campus and community SDVA professionals and highlight the importance of dynamic and mutually beneficial partnerships between campuses and community SDVAs.

Examples for Prevention Specialists-lower res.jpgWhile we designed the guides specifically for Virginia, we believe they can also be useful for campus and community agencies in any state. We hope you find these guides helpful and that they inspire you to keep working for change. Together, we can make sure there is truly safety and justice for all students on our campuses and in our communities.

Jen Underwood wrote Safety and Justice for All: Best Practices for Addressing Campus Gender-Based Violence. She is a campus gender-based violence consultant and is also a PhD student at Virginia Commonwealth University studying campus gender-based violence prevention.

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

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Community Level Prevention – A Vision for Long-term Success

Why Focus On Community Level Prevention?

Historically, the solution to end violence is focused on a top-down approach to solving violence. Communities that face oppression have not been a part of the conversations and actions to make change in their communities. The Prevention Team at the Action Alliance, is working hard to make sure that their experiences inform our anti-oppression work to end sexual and intimate partner violence.   Sexism, Racism, and overall rape culture are some mechanisms of oppression that are weaved in to the thread of society and are threats to the health of many individuals. It is important to address and identify these mechanisms that continue to oppress these populations because this oppression is a factor in what perpetuates violence.

 

Social Determinants of Health

The Social Determinants of Health (SDOH) are the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life. These forces and systems include economic policies and systems, development agendas, social norms, social policies and political systems (World Health Organization, 2016).

 

THRIVE-the Tools for Health and Resilience in Vulnerable Environments

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Image credit: /www.preventioninstitute.org/tools/

Developed by the Prevention Institute, THRIVE is a tool that have proven to be valuable in cultivating an understanding among stakeholders and enables communities to determine how to improve health and safety, and promote health equity.

It is a framework for understanding how structural drivers, such as racism, play out at the community level in terms of the social-cultural, physical/built, and economic/ educational environments. We call these community-level indicators the community determinants of health. In addition to being a framework, THRIVE is also a tool for engaging community members and practitioners in assessing the status of community determinants, prioritizing them, and taking action to change them in order to improve health, safety, and health equity.

The Prevention Summit is a 1-day prevention training focused on advancing community-level strategies to prevent sexual and intimate partner violence in Virginia. This training will utilize the World Health Organization’s Social Determinants of Health framework in order to explore both the conditions contributing to violence and successful multidisciplinary approaches to achieving community health and wellness in communities that have various needs but historically have barriers to accessing places at the decision making table. Trainers will draw from movements in other states and public health arenas while sharing best-practices and strategies for creating lasting community and societal level impacts in our work to end violence.

Register now for our Prevention Summit on October 19! Click here for details.

Leslie Conway is the Prevention Coordinator for the state of Virginia. Prior to working at the Action Alliance, Leslie gained experience coordinating primary prevention initiatives at a local program and developing a peer educator program in the local high school and faith community. As someone who understands the lasting consequences of witnessing the trauma that comes with domestic violence, she is committed to finding ways to resist and prevent all forms of violence.

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

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Awareness + Action = Social Change

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month; whether you are doing paid/volunteer work in a Domestic Violence Program or going it alone in your struggle to disrupt the patriarchy, your efforts are critical.

You, dear visionary and brave souls, are part of a larger movement to undermine domination and oppression and replace it with compassion and radical connection. This is good stuff, and we are so glad you are here.

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NRCDV

Our friends at the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and Move to End Violence are allies in this work too, and have a wealth of resources to help you stay present, connected, and moving forward this month and in the future.

The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence has cooked up some delicious webinars this month: October 11 “Keeping your Cup Full: Self-Care is Essential to Trauma-Informed Advocacy”, will offer strategies for dealing with daily work related stress, increase awareness of the issue of vicarious trauma, and provide ideas in order to gain organizational support to help sustain and support those working with survivors of trauma.

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NRCDV

Also check out the October 25 “Girls for Gender Equity: Centering Girls of Color within the Racial and Gender Justice Movement of the 21st Century”, where you can learn about two organizations’ radical and visionary approaches to promoting racial and gender justice and the critical importance it has to addressing and preventing domestic and sexual violence. Download NRCDV’s entire #DVAM2016 events flyer here.

The National Network Against Domestic Violence sponsors the National Week of Action October 16-22. NNEDV invites you to add your voice to the national conversation by participating in National Week of Action activities, such as: Conversation Sunday, Media Monday, Tie-in Tuesday, Write-in Wednesday, #PurpleThursday, Film Friday, and Shout-out Saturday. Check out the multitude of additional NNEDV #DVAM2016 ideas and offerings here.

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NNEDV

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Move to End Violence

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, let’s talk about you. This work is long-haul, expansive, heartbreaking, life-giving, joyous, and hard, and we need you here—really here—for the long-term. To make that happen, resilience is key. Move to End Violence promotes self-care as a core practice of movement building, and has an abundance of resources, like the 21 Day Self-Care Challenge to help keep your batteries fully charged so you can show up in all your glorious awesomeness Every. Single. Day.

Kate McCord is the Communications Director for the Action Alliance, a member of the National Domestic Violence Awareness Project Advisory Group, and is currently participating in Move to End Violence’s work with state coalitions to interrupt state violence against communities of color.

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

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

Shelter a Pet, Save a Life

Did you know that 2/3 of all households have pets? That is a lot of people. Did you also know that people have in fact died because the places they sought refuge from would or could not shelter their pets?

Remember Hurricane Katrina and the startling images of people forced to abandon their pets or of people who refused to leave their pets behind?  This catastrophe led to a shift in how service systems responded to families with pets in times of crisis.

Yet we have a long way to go, especially in Virginia where very few shelters accept pets. We can change this.

logo3-smWe recently had the privilege of having renowned animal advocate and founder of Sheltering Animals and Families Together, Allie Phillips Esq., present a webinar on how shelters can work towards sheltering the pets of survivors of sexual and domestic violence. During the webinar, Allie shared that she gets many emails daily from survivors asking for help in leaving an abusive situation – help that involves NOT leaving their pets behind to be tortured, killed, or abused. To have to choose between their own safety and that of a beloved pet is one that no one should have to make.

Understandably, some shelters have concerns about costs and the practicality of actually allowing pets in their residences. Many of these concerns were addressed in Allie’s webinar and she offers real-life examples of shelters who are making it work all over the country. Funding issues, vet care, physical accommodations and more are addressed in the webinar. Allie does an excellent job of breaking down the myths and all the reasons why it’s not possible to all the ways it IS possible.

We encourage everyone to take 1 hour and watch this resource-packed webinar and make plans to change how intake and safety planning are done so that pets are part of the equation. Get your communities involved as well! Everyone from vets, to animal shelters, to animal control, to law enforcement, to churches and more have a vested interest in saving the lives of survivors who just want to keep their pets with them and safe.

To illustrate the dire need for us to act, consider quotes from actual survivors:

“I stayed alive over a fish. When I had nothing else, I had a fish. It kept me going.

“If I had known about [this pet housing program] ahead of time, that would have saved my animals through the years that I’ve lost because of my abuser.”

The recorded version of the webinar is here. And if you are interested in doing more, reach out to us at training@vsdvalliance.org. We would love to exchange ideas, resources, and plans so that we can all work together to serve more survivors with pets.

Laura Bennett is the Training Institute Coordinator for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She is the mother of 2 girls, 4 cats, and 3 dogs. She has worked in the nonprofit sector for over 15 years and is passionate about helping nonprofits build their capacity to carry out their missions. A native of New York state, she is happy to be living in the warm South.

To check out the conferences and training that Laura helps produce, click here.

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

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

 

The Light of Moons Above

Richard Wright’s poetic description of leaving the South to “see if it can grow differently …respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to bloom” could not be more resonant than at this cultural moment. His words speak to a longing for opportunity that has been fleeting for many of us, particularly Black folk. Wright’s imagery also reflects the profound uncertainty that is widely-felt and the collective fragility that it exposes that we can no longer deny. Right now, we live within a world where it hurts to exist, and yet,

shaman imageThis week the Action Alliance hosts the Warmth of Other Suns Conference, of which the title’s significance looms large. I am humbled to be part of a supportive gathering for survivors and advocates. Our intention to hold healing space, which calls upon Richard Wright’s cautious hopefulness, imprints on my soul as a Black folk healer. While the promise of the Great Migration for our fore-mothers has not been fulfilled, our commitment to their liberation, and that of our own and our children’s remains resolute.

My hope is that our communion can invite the The Light of the Moons Above. It is, by contrast to Wright’s vision, a metaphor for healing wherever you are. Indigenous Black traditions, like other nature-based spirituality’s, associate the moon with transformative feminine power.

richaelMother Moon ushers in the deep intimacy of night-time where we encounter all of our shadow selves. Her great luminosity gifts us privacy for our suffering, opportunity for refuge, and means for escape. Her vessel represents the “dark night of the soul” but too, affords us a cycle for reflection and preparation. Moon’s medicine aided my enslaved ancestors to survive and her energies will continue our healing today across time and space.

Whether we follow the sun or moon, we can be assured that a search for realities better than the ones we occupy is a wise strategy against the backdrop of such an explosively vulnerable period. I look forward to bringing together our power, resilience, and wisdom in service to bloom.

Richael Faithful will be speaking at the Warmth of Other Suns Conference this week. You can find out more information here.

Richael Faithful is an African-American healer raised in Virginia. She/They serves as Shaman-in-Residence at Freed Bodyworks, a body-positive wellness center based in Washington DC, and birthed Conjure! Freedom Collective, a group of creative healers committed to healing trauma from U.S. slavery, ending racial caste, and building a love politic. Her/their main areas of practice are energy healing, spiritual counseling, and sacred drumming. Faithful, before her/their integration as a traditional healer, was a community organizer and peoples’ civil rights lawyer. http://www.richaelfaithful.com/

*All pictures courtesy of Richael Faithful.

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

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

New Marriage Age Law Equals Better Protections for Thousands

Over the last 10 years in Virginia, thousands of children were married, as young as 13 years old; 90% were girls, and 90% of the time they married adults, who were sometimes decades older.

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news.vawnet.org

The only barrier between them and a marriage license? A clerk’s rubber stamp based on parental consent or, for those under age 16, parental consent + pregnancy. There was no age floor, and no safeguards against forced marriage or other abuse or exploitation.

But as of July 1, when a new law goes into effect, young people will be enabled to make their own decisions about marriage, to advocate for themselves, and to have the opportunity to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.

The new law responds to a long list of urgent concerns flagged by advocates during the legislative process. These include:

  • Forced marriage is a serious problem in the U.S. that impacts many adolescent girls;
  • Child marriage can result in devastating, lifelong harm;
  • Girls aged 16-19 are at heightened risk of abuse;
  • All of the marriage licenses granted to children under age 15, and most of those granted to pregnant 15-17 year olds, sanctioned statutory rape as defined in Virginia;
  • Age 16 is the minimum age in Virginia to petition a court to be considered a legal adult (“emancipated”), marriage does not automatically emancipate minors, and unemancipated minors do not have the same rights as an adult to protect themselves in case of abuse (e.g., to seek a protective order or go to a shelter); and
  • Minors who are abused by their partners instead of their parents are outside of Child Protective Services’ jurisdiction in Virginia.

Given all these data points, Virginia’s current marriage age laws fly in the face of common sense and Virginia’s other laws and policies to protect children.

Today, if Virginia’s minimum marriage age laws were represented as an equation, they might read: Zero legal protection + minimal legal rights = extreme vulnerability. That’s an equation that results in serious consequences to girls’ health, safety, and well-being.

The new law will ensure that only individuals age 18 or older, or emancipated minors, can marry in Virginia.

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Beth Halpern, Hope Kestle, Vivian Hamilton, Jeanne Smoot, Kristine Hall, Rebecca Robinson, Kristi VanAudenhove, Delegate Jennifer McClellan

Companion reform bills (HB 703/ SB 415) were successfully championed this legislative session by Delegate Jennifer McClellan (D) and Senator Jill Vogel (R), and strongly supported by a broad coalition led by the Tahirih Justice Center in partnership with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance and Prevent Child Abuse Virginia.

Key provisions include:

Procedural safeguards

  • 16 or 17 year olds seeking to emancipate in order to marry will petition a juvenile and domestic relations judge, who will hold a hearing, issue written findings, and can order a Department of Social Services investigation or issue other orders as appropriate;
  • the minor will be appointed an attorney (guardian ad litem, or “GAL”); and
  • if the petition is granted, the minor will be given the rights of a legal adult.

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Substantive criteria
To grant the petition, the judge must find that:

  • the minor is not being forced or coerced to marry;
  • the parties are sufficiently mature;
  • the marriage will not endanger the minor (taking into account age differences and any history of violence between the parties, as well as criminal convictions for crimes of violence or crimes against minors); and
  • the marriage is in the minor’s best interests – but very importantly, neither pregnancy nor parental wishes is sufficient to establish “best interests.”

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Improved protections for children from being forced into marriage, and from the many other risks and harms of child marriage

This is tremendously important progress, but we need your help to make sure this new law actually works as intended:

  1. Spread the news! Talk about the new law when you present to schools or youth audiences. Share it with family lawyers, GALs, social workers, CASA advocates, and other children’s advocates with whom you work.
  2. Monitor implementation! If judges and GALs do not do a vigilant job, or teens are too afraid to disclose in court what is really happening, or abusive parents or partners try to evade the new law, a vulnerable teen’s next phone call may be to your agency.
  3. Share stories with us! We are working with national partners to urge that child marriage be eliminated in every U.S. state. Knowing how this new law is working (or what snags it hits in implementation) will not only be crucially important to enable us to course-correct as needed in Virginia, but also to drive reforms in other states.

To learn more about the alarming data-points that built momentum behind this new law, see our earlier blog post: “Empowering Girls in Virginia to Choose If, When and Whom to Marry” (January 11, 2016). Please contact Jeanne Smoot at the Tahirih Justice Center, jeanne@tahirih.org or 571-282-6161, for more info or to share your experiences.

Jeanne Smoot is the Senior Counsel for Policy and Strategy at the Tahirih Justice Center, where for over a decade she has helped lead innovative advocacy initiatives to reduce vulnerabilities of immigrant women and girls to violence and to empower them as survivors.

 

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

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

Experiencing DO YOU

Walking into a room for the first time, not knowing what to expect or who will be there—these are feelings participants have used to describe what it is like–annoyed, angry, and tired [from being in school all day]. Yet, because they were either court-ordered, referred by the school or based on assessment results, made to attend, they were one of the first participants of the Action Alliances new teen campaign: DO YOU, being held at OPTIONS in Culpeper, Virginia.

OPTIONS is a program designed to serve less serious offenders in an effort to reach teens before they become entangled in such things as negative peer relationships, substance abuse, and criminal activity . In 2013, OPTIONS was selected as one of our pilot sites to evaluate the effectiveness of DO YOU, a prevention initiative to address youth violence by confronting its root causes and enhancing protective factors to promote positive development and healthy relationships using creative expression. There are two components to DO YOU.  The first phase, consists of 10 sessions in small, similar gender groups of 8-10 teens. The second phase is DO SOMETHING which is a cumulative community level strategy designed and executed by the teen group members.

The success of DO YOU is so reliant on the facilitator/participant relationship, that the Action Alliance devotes two full days to train facilitators interested in implementing this program.

Wanda Anderson, the facilitator at OPTIONS was one of the first facilitators to become trained and certified.

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As the one at OPTIONS who is called on when youth are “having a hard time” adjusting to family or school life, Wanda knows firsthand how important it is to develop this relationship right from the start. Knowing the resistance she would face, Wanda set the tone for group participation by providing snacks and drinks, playing upbeat music and displaying a colorful array of art materials used throughout the program to illicit some curiosity about what this group will entail. As the teens relaxed their defenses a bit to enjoy the snacks, Wanda engaged them in light-hearted conversation while also talking up the program to alleviate some of their worries.

Once everyone arrived and it was time for the first session to begin, the teens were engaged in a group ice breaker activity by completing such statements as:

  • A strength or talent I bring to this group is…
  • Something I’ve always wanted to try is…
  • My all-time favorite movie is…
  • Something I wish people knew about me is…

Wanda further connected with each participant by validating their responses, asking open ended questions and sharing some of her own experiences- including some of her favorite parts of a movie mentioned. Initial feelings of discomfort were soon replaced by laughter echoed throughout the room.

20130207_180537The teens were more engaged and after completing the YOU-niverse activity, became more comfortable with each other based on commonalities that have been presented through volunteer sharing. What could initially be regarded as inhibition and resistance over the course of a couple of hours was turned into “connectedness” and “thought provoking and sometimes difficult” conversations that continued for the remainder of their time together in DO YOU.

After completing both phases of DO YOU, the teens described their experience as fun, having changed how they communicate with others and the realization that they were not the only ones dealing with stuff. While our male identified participants in other pilots needed a little more encouragement to engage in the art process, this group, which was comprised of self-identified females, all loved working in their ‘zines—. This was evident as they each took pride in showing off their finished product at an art exhibit held as part of their DO SOMETHING event. When I asked the teens about their facilitator, Wanda, the teens had nothing but good things to say. However, it was the response from one particular teen that defines, to me, what it means to be a great facilitator: ” Mrs. Wanda noticed things about me, like…if I changed my hair….or had on a different pair of shoes…it’s like…she saw me.”

20130207_180809When I asked Wanda about DO YOU, she immediately responded “It’s awesome! The teens are awesome!” She stated that after participating in DO YOU many friendships have developed-some positive and some negative, and, she adds, some of the teens still stay in touch with her and she is amazed to see the growth. She stated, ” they all seemed more confident and ready to tackle whatever lies in front of them.”

I have no doubt that this is, in large part, because of the relationship that was formed on day one with the facilitator. A relationship that was grounded in respect, honesty, and trust.

If you are interested in attending the next DO YOU Facilitator Certification Training being held in July 2016, please visit our website:  DO YOU Training. For more information regarding DO YOU contact Leslie Conway at lconway@vsdvalliance.org

Leslie Conway is the Prevention Coordinator for the state of Virginia. Prior to working at the Action Alliance, Leslie gained experience coordinating primary prevention initiatives at a local program and developing a peer educator program in the local high school and faith community. As someone who understands the lasting consequences of witnessing the trauma that comes with domestic violence, she is committed to finding ways to resist and prevent all forms of violence.

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