Nov. 5 is Our Chance to Start Building a Radically Hopeful Future– #SurvivorsVote

The background is a starry, night sky above mountains. Foreground text says, "I support protections for survivors, including living wage, racial justice, sensible gun laws, access to healthcare, safety and justice. I believe in a radically hopeful future and I vote to make it happen. Remember to vote the first Tuesday in November!" Stylized text as logo for Building Thriving Communities: a project of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance.Did you know that all 40 State Senate and 100 House of Delegates seats are up for election this November?

These members of the Virginia General Assembly will make decisions affecting the safety of our schools and communities, our healthcare, the future of Virginia’s economy, including access to livable salaries and wages, and numerous policies affecting survivors of sexual and domestic violence.

Many of us will also have the chance to vote for local school board representatives, members of city councils or boards of supervisors, commonwealth’s attorneys, sheriffs, and other local elected officials who will make policies that shape our day-to-day lives.

Wouldn’t it be great if these elected officials shared in our dream of a Virginia free of violence in which everyone not only survives, but thrives?

Let’s expand the frame of the possible and invest in #radicallyhopeful futures. We can work towards a vision of a Virginia where the seats of the Virginia General Assembly are filled with individuals who understand what it takes and are deeply committed to ending violence together.

We can have a future in which the full humanity and dignity of all people are recognized and embraced; where communities thrive and are sustained by human connection; in which people who are most affected by policies and decisions are at the center of the decision-making and have ample influence and representation to make change happen; and where relationships, families and communities are healthy, equitable, nourishing, and joyful.

So, how do we make this happen? It begins with each of us using our voice.

Our voice as individuals: Our vote, our voice.

Voting is one way to use your individual voice. By participating in elections, you’re choosing people to represent you and your values and voicing your opinion on ballot referenda.  Your vote is your way to tell people who currently hold office, “good job, keep it up!” or “you don’t represent me, I choose someone else.” Of course, not every candidate running for office will share your views on every issue. You’ll have to decide whose vision of the future is most aligned with yours and choose based on what matters most to you.

Not sure if you’re registered to vote in Virginia? Check here. If you’re eligible to vote and are not yet registered, be sure to register by Tuesday, October 15 so you can vote in November’s election. If you’re already registered, be sure to check your voter registration and confirm its accuracy so you don’t have any problems at the polls on Nov. 5. For example, you may have moved since the last election and need to update your address and identify your new polling place.

Once you know you’re registered to vote, make a plan for Election Day (November 5).

The background is a watercolor image of a woman's face with her eyes closed. In the foreground is text that says, "imagine a radically hopeful future and vote to make it happen. Remember to vote the first Tuesday in November!" with stylized text "Building Thriving Communities: a project of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance."

You can also encourage others to vote by hanging one these posters and sharing this handout on why voting matters.

Our voice as advocates: civic engagement is systems-level advocacy

As advocates, we work to ensure survivors are knowledgeable about their options and empowered to make their own choices because they are the experts in their lives. Voting is an extension of this work. If we are to eliminate violence in the long-term and improve interventions for survivors in the short-term, we need to use our voice during elections.  In our unique role as advocates, we have the power to elect legislators who are willing to improve systems to benefit survivors of violence and even prevent violence from happening in the first place.

One powerful tool that can help advocates – and community members –understand how, or if, our elected officials will truly serve survivors is asking critical questions of candidates. Asking questions like “how would you improve survivor access to medical services in the aftermath of trauma?” not only serves to educate our communities and future policy makers on the issues facing survivors but it also serves to help us understand where candidates stand on these issues and how our day-to-day work might be impacted. Here are some questions you can ask candidates.

Looking to do more to build a #radicallyhopeful future? Check out the Building Thriving Communities Toolkit for more information on facilitating community conversations and for materials and strategies that you can use to engage your community and amplify survivor voices in our democratic process.


Jonathan Yglesias is the Policy Director at the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance where he works with a team of advocates, movement minds, attorneys, and passionate policy nerds to coordinate the Action Alliance’s public policy efforts on behalf of survivors, sexual and domestic violence agencies, and communities in Virginia seeking to improve the prevention of and response to sexual and domestic violence.

Elizabeth Wong is the Coalition Development Director for the Action Alliance. She is committed to building relationships that advance social justice and equality.

Take Action to Support Sensible Gun Control

Firearms and domestic violence are a lethal combination. In an average month, 50 women are shot to death by intimate partners in the United States. In Virginia, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner recently reported that 64% of all intimate partner violence homicide victims were killed with a firearm.

Moreover, in a climate where we are seeing spikes in the frequency and lethality of mass shootings, there are alarming connections between mass shootings and gender and race-based violence. According to a recent analysis of F.B.I. data on mass shootings in the U.S. that occurred between 2009 and 2017, offenders of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking accounted for 54% of all mass shooters where the perpetrator also shot a current or former intimate partner or family member.  It is also no coincidence that we are seeing more perpetrators of mass shootings declare their motives as being directly related to white supremacy, xenophobia, and racism.

It’s time for Virginia to act to stop the spread of violence in our homes and our communities. Join us in telling the Virginia Crime Commission that you support survivors and our communities by supporting sensible gun control legislation!

Several people at a rally in front of a building with one young person in the foreground holding a sign that reads, "Kids are the Future Not Guns"

Photo credit: Photo by Natalie Chaney on Unsplash. (People gathered at a rally with one young person in the foreground holding a sign that says, “Kids are the future not guns.”

Following the mass shooting in Virginia Beach in May, Gov. Ralph Northam called a special session of the General Assembly in July to address gun violence. No action was taken at that time, though several bills were referred to the Virginia Crime Commission.

Now, the Virginia Crime Commission is accepting written public comments related to proposed gun legislation until August 20. Comments may be submitted by email to comments@vscc.virginia.gov or by postal mail sent to:

Attn:  Written Comments
Virginia State Crime Commission
1111 East Broad Street, Ste. B036
Richmond, Virginia 23219

The Action Alliance has submitted comment and will make public statements during the upcoming Crime Commission meetings. We encourage local justice-based and survivor advocacy agencies and advocates to do the same. Need some talking points? Check out the Action Alliance’s “2019 Guns and Domestic Violence Fact Sheet.” While facts and figures might be useful to understand the large scope of the problem with firearms, nothing is more powerful than personal stories. If you are comfortable sharing your own story, please include it. Some sample text is provided below.

Sample text:

Dear Members of the Virginia State Crime Commission:

I’m writing to show support for legislation that prohibits the purchase, transport and possession of firearms for persons subject to protective orders and/or who have been convicted of assault and battery of a family or household member. Additionally, I support efforts to give law enforcement officers and prosecutors additional tools to remove or force the surrender of firearms when these conditions are present.

{Insert your own story/context here…for example, “As an advocate for survivors of intimate partner violence, I have heard too many stories in which guns played a significant role in abusive relationships…”}

The assumption and message that guns save lives not only contradicts what we know about the dynamics of sexual and domestic violence, but it also contradicts best available research evidence and public health strategies to prevent violence. Where a history of domestic violence exists, the presence of a gun, regardless of who owns the gun, makes it five times more likely that a woman will be killed—in fact, gun access is the strongest risk factor for victims of domestic violence to be killed by an intimate partner.*

Enough is enough. It’s time for the Virginia General Assembly to take action to protect victims, our families, and our communities. Please support sensible gun control legislation.

Thank you,

{name, address}

*Testimony before US Senate July 30, 2014 Jacquelyn Campbell, PhD, RN, FAAN, Anna D. Wolf Chair and Professor Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.


Jonathan Yglesias is the Policy Director at the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance where he works with a team of advocates, movement minds, attorneys, and passionate policy nerds to coordinate the Action Alliance’s public policy efforts on behalf of survivors, sexual and domestic violence agencies, and communities in Virginia seeking to improve the prevention of and response to sexual and domestic violence.

Silhouette of a group of five people hiking on rocks. Text says, "The Action Alliance's 2nd Annual Empower Challenge. October 1st-8th, 2019. Empowering Survivors and challenging communities to build solutions to sexual and domestic violence."

Are You Up for the Challenge?

“Democracy is the best revenge.” —Benazir Bhutto

Join the Action Alliance from October 1-8, for this year’s (em)Power Challenge and help us build solutions to sexual and domestic violence.  The Challenge encourages both movement and movement building to raise funds for local sexual and domestic violence agencies who provide front-line support, advocacy, and prevention programming to survivors of violence and their communities.

So, grab a group of family, friends, and/or community members to move and talk together to envision a Virginia free from violence. Pick an activity – walk, run, bike, hike, scooter, shop—that matches your group’s mobility and fitness interests. Then, get moving and have a conversation about this year’s theme: civic engagement and voting.

Group of 11 people and two dogs wearing purple EmPower Challenge t-shirts in front an Action Alliance tent.

Action Alliance Staff ready for the (em)Power Challenge in October 2018.

We need public policies that make our homes, communities, and world a more loving and connected place for everyone. To make that happen, we need engaged community members who understand how policies impact survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence. Together, we can move one step closer in our collective journey towards building inclusive, safe, and health communities in Virginia. Join us in believing in a radically hopeful future and voting to make it happen.

Not sure how to get a conversation started? As a Team Captain, you’ll get the Walk & Talk guide to help you.

Registration is just $25 per person and when you sign up, you’ll also receive a special (em)Power Challenge t-shirt to raise the visibility of your group.

Two photos side by side. Left photo is of a dog on a leash with a purple shirt. Right photo is of the same dog's back with the same purple shirt on that says, "emPower Challenge."

Addie, wearing a custom-made emPower Challenge shirt, joins the staff for its walk.

Come together in a public display of solidarity in support of survivors and a Virginia free from violence!

Register today for #empowerchallenge.

P.S. Are you registered to vote? Be sure to check your voter registration or register to vote by October 15. Each and every vote makes a difference.

In a Perfect World…Reflections on how we should respond to sexual assault allegations made against Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax

Early last month, Dr. Vanessa Tyson came forward to share her story of sexual assault at the hands of Virginia Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax, at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Days after Dr. Tyson’s statement, Ms. Meredith Watson came forward with a statement that Mr. Fairfax raped her in a “premeditated and aggressive” assault in 2000 when they were both undergraduates at Duke University.

Between this and the racist images in Governor Ralph Northam’s yearbook, the Action Alliance staff, governing body, and members have engaged in hard conversations about our elected leaders and how to respond to revelations of harm they may have committed in the past.

We’ve asked one another  questions like, “What would true accountability look like for each person? What would healing and repair look like for the people most directly affected? How do intersecting oppressions of race and class inform what we do next?”

We published several statements on these questions: a statement about Governor Northam’s yearbook photo, a statement about Lt. Governor Fairfax, followed by a longer call to action that centers the work of building a culture of consent in Virginia.

Building on these important discussions, we’ve asked several Action Alliance members, partners, and supporters to offer their perspectives on what should happen in the wake of the sexual violence allegations made against Lt Governor Fairfax. To frame the conversation, we requested their responses to two questions:

  1. In a perfect world, what should have happened/can still happen now that Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson have come forward with sexual assault allegations against Virginia’s Lt. Governor?
  2. What is missing from this conversation?

Here’s a small sampling of the voices and perspectives captured by this dialogue.

Our contributors:

Fatima M. Smith, Speaker & Consultant at FMS Speaks, LLC, member of the Action Alliance Training Institute Faculty and Governing Body.

Mike Milnor, Trainer with Justice3D, an organization that educates on issues related to investigating and prosecuting sexual assault, child abuse, and domestic violence cases, and has partnered with the Action Alliance on a variety of educational initiatives.

Raven Dickerson, Chief Programs Officer for Domestic Violence Services at Shelter House, Inc., a community-based program in Northern Virginia that provides housing and advocacy for people who are homeless and/or affected by domestic violence, and member of the Action Alliance Governing Body.


Question 1: In a perfect world, what should have happened/can still happen now that Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson have come forward with sexual assault allegations against Virginia’s Lt. Governor?

Fatima M. Smith: Action Alliance and many advocates, including myself, have stated that what should happen in response to Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson is the community starting from a place of belief. This issue is complex because it deals with a black male in power as the perpetrator and a black woman as the victim/survivor. The story is unfolding in the midst of blackface scandals and #muteRKelly and it is another painful reminder that the violence that black women experience is not important. I want society to rally around these black women and say, “we believe you, I see you and I appreciate you sharing your story. ” Let us not get distracted by politics and remember at the core this is about (two) survivors coming forward to share their experience with sexual violence. Instead of asking, “why did it take so long to come forward,” we should be asking, “why does it take us (as a society) so long to believe survivors?” We continuously fail black women in this country when we make the conscious decision to not to believe, not to fight for justice. We see this in the less talked about cases of missing black girls in DC, the school to prison pipeline for black girls, and the police killings of black women.

Mike Milnor: In a perfect world, every sexual assault survivor would feel confident in the response to their situation when deciding whether to report immediately. We however know that is not the case. The point to be made here is that Dr. Tyson is totally normal when it comes to her not disclosing to anyone for years about her assault. She was “triggered” to come out to the Washington Post by her abuser running for public office. When one understands trauma and its effects on the brain this is completely normal. It is difficult to go back and say what “should” have happened in this case. What we can do is go forward with a trauma-informed investigation that begins with a trauma-informed in depth interview of Dr. Tyson. Then if she wishes, an in-depth investigation into what can be corroborated, such as any witnesses she came into contact with immediately after the event, should follow.

 Meredith Watson’s case is also consistent with trauma. She however did immediately disclose to friends and dorm mates and named her abuser. As with Dr. Tyson’s case, a full, trauma -informed investigation beginning with a trauma informed in-depth interview with Ms. Watson is the best practice.

Raven Dickerson: In a perfect world, and I believe in the world we have now, Lt. Governor Fairfax would step down so that the experiences, needs, and voices of survivors can be lifted up into the spotlight that he, and the mention of him, is holding.


Question 2: What is missing from the current conversation?

Fatima M. Smith: I would like to have a conversation about why society is quick to attribute things like sexual maturity and/or hypersexuality to black girls/women who are victims of sexual violence. An examination of why we do not value black women’s lives as a society…this would include a discussion unpacking the impacts of white supremacy which create the jezebel trope and the strong black women trope and how they intersect and create one’s ability to disregard a black woman’s experience.

Mike Milnor: What is missing from this is the opportunity to have a full, non-confrontational conversation with Mr. Fairfax concerning the statements of Dr. Tyson and Ms. Watson. Mr. Fairfax should be offered the same opportunity as the reporting women, to have his statement taken and then investigated and/or corroborated if possible. Once all statements have been given and fully investigated then we stand in the best position to evaluate what steps should be taken.

Raven Dickerson: We are lacking intentional conversation about how survivors healing, health, and well-being are prioritized in seeking accountability. When we are pursuing accountability for someone who has caused harm, especially someone who is a public figure with institutional power, our narratives are absorbed with all the possibilities of how we can process them through our complex systems of judicial judgment and power. We often forget that another world is possible in which we center healing as the purpose of accountability rather than due process and the continuation of harm.  Another world is possible for our survivors, for those who harm, and for all of us.

Thank you to Fatima, Raven, and Mike for their thoughtful contributions to this conversation.


Talking about sexual violence may raise painful memories for you, a friend, or a loved one. If you or someone you know would like to speak with  a trained advocate and find support, here are two Virginia-based resources available 24 hours a day and 365 days a year:

Statewide Hotline at 1.800.838.8238 | Text:  804.793.9999  | Chat

LGBTQ Sexual Assault and Partner Abuse Helpline at 1.866.356.6998  |  Text: 804.793.9999  | Chat


Featured image: https://content.gmu.edu/sites/common/files/rotator-image/Justin_Fairfax.jpg

An Advocate’s Guide to the 2019 General Assembly Session  

It’s safe to say that Virginia’s 2019 General Assembly session will largely be remembered for the scandals that extended far beyond Capitol Square. Issues of race, sexual assault, and abortion access have put Virginia’s lawmakers and policy leaders at the center of ongoing nation-wide conversations on harm, healing, and those social and health policy issues that shape our communities. In case you missed it, the Action Alliance has released several statements, calling on advocates and social justice allies to address the injurious legacy of racism and white supremacy in Virginia and to seize these public conversations on sexual violence and harm as opportunities to ground ourselves in a collective mission of building a culture of consent and disentangling our accountability processes from that of the criminal justice system.

Despite the political scandals having marred this session, lawmakers did pass notable measures on topics ranging from consent education to electoral access and environmental justice. The following is a run-down of some of those measures that impact the sexual and domestic violence field directly and others that promote the world that the Action Alliance and our member-agencies are committed to building together. Please note, for information on specific bills that the Action Alliance supported and opposed this session, see the 2019 General Assembly Report.

ANIMAL CRUELTY IN THE CONTEXT OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

Two bills were introduced this session that would have recognized violations related to animal cruelty carried out with the intent to threaten, intimidate, coerce, harass, or terrorize an intimate partner. These bills were incorporated into another bill – referred to by animal rights activists as “Tommie’s Law” – which creates a Class 6 felony penalty for cruelly or unnecessarily beating, maiming, mutilating, or killing an animal.

 

BAIL & CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM

While a major focus of the 2018 session was reaching bipartisan consensus on modest increases to Virginia’s larceny threshold, criminal justice reform measures this year were largely put on the backburner. Measures to support data transparency with regards to Virginia’s pretrial detention/cash bail system were quickly defeated in both the House and Senate, in addition to broadening both discretionary parole for juvenile offenders and expungement for certain offenders. Meanwhile, the General Assembly moved to require the Department of Corrections begin reporting population statistics of those incarcerated in state correctional institutions, including making statistics available on offenders placed in and released from restrictive housing and Shared Allied Management Units.

 

CONSENT EDUCATION

Legislators approved measures to require Virginia’s high school family life education (FLE) curriculum to incorporate programs on the law and meaning of consent. Under current law, such elements are permissive in any high school FLE curriculum and those school districts that teach this content most effectively do so by partnering with their local sexual and domestic violence agencies.

 

CUSTODY & VISITATION

Every session, there are dozens of bills filed that would have negative impacts on child custody and visitation proceedings/outcomes for survivors who are parents. This year was no different. The Action Alliance spent a significant amount of energy working with allied advocacy agencies and bill patrons alike to prevent the introduction of a set of vague and inconsistent definitions of domestic abuse into the best interests of the child custody factors. Another measure introduced and thankfully defeated would have created an “equal or maximized parenting time” presumption clause in the best interests of the child custody factors – providing judges with the direction to consider maximizing parent-child time in cases “where appropriate”.

 

ELECTORAL ACCESS

While a large majority of this year’s measures to increase poll access, promote campaign transparency, and lift voting restrictions were dead on arrival, the legislature did pass no-excuse absentee voting. The passed legislation creates a seven-day window before an election in which voters can cast ballots in person without having to give an excuse. Enactment of this legislation will not go into effect until the 2020 election.

 

ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE

The General Assembly backed bipartisan legislation to hold Dominion Energy accountable for cleaning up toxic coal ash (a byproduct of burning coal). The legislation will soon be signed by the governor and will require the complete excavation of more than 28 million tons of toxic coal ash that Dominion currently stores at Chesterfield Power Station, Chesapeake Energy Center, Possum Point Power Station, and Bremo Power Station. This will help to protect the clean water and the health of families that live near these coal ash ponds. For more on environmental justice measures introduced this session, see the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy’s recap here.

 

EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT RATIFICATION

Virginia did not become the 38th state to ratify the ERA. The Senate passed a ratification measure, but it was defeated in a House Privileges and Elections Subcommittee chaired by Delegate Margaret Ransone. A procedural move aimed at bringing the ratification measure to the House floor, championed by Delegate Hala Ayala, was both hotly debated and narrowly defeated late in the session.

ERA Rally

Action Alliance staff members attended an ERA rally in Richmond, February 2019.

FIREARMS ACCESS

This session – like in sessions past – nearly every significant measure seeking to reduce offender access to firearms, prevent intimate partner homicide, and keep communities safe was blocked by the House and Senate. Including several bills that would have expanded firearm prohibitions to permanent protective orders, applied penalties for non-compliance with firearm surrender/seizure processes, provided communities with guidance on firearm surrender/seizure when necessary, and established emergency risk protection orders in an effort to increase bystander capacity to recognize and respond to red flags for escalating and lethal violence in communities.

 

HOUSING STABILITY

A package of bills aimed at reducing the likelihood of an eviction among low-income Virginians – the product of policy recommendations from the Virginia Housing Commission – has been cleared by the Virginia legislature and signed by the Governor. Virginia localities, including Richmond and the Hampton Roads area, have some of the highest eviction rates in the nation and the Governor has made expanding access to affordable housing a priority of his administration. These efforts certainly support survivors who often find themselves facing financial and housing instability as a direct result of the violence they’ve experienced.

 

IMMIGRANT ADVOCACY

The legislature blocked measures to grant immigrant communities access to driver-privilege cards, in-state tuition for DACA eligible students, and other legislation that would have supported connected and thriving communities. Most concerning is that the final state budget approved by the House and Senate eliminated funding for Census outreach in the Commonwealth, a move that will undermine a fair and accurate count of Virginians.

 

LYNCHING & VIRGINIA’S LEGACY OF RACIAL VIOLENCE

The House and Senate passed resolutions in which the General Assembly acknowledges “with profound regret the existence and acceptance of lynching within the Commonwealth” and calls for reconciliation among all Virginians. To this end, there were a number of impassioned floor speeches and testimonies provided by Delegates and Senators alike this session. In case you missed it, here is Delegate Jay Jones’ speech on the deep impact of racism in Virginia, promoting healing, and working to bridge racial divides and unify our Commonwealth.

 

PROTECTIVE ORDERS

Every session, there are dozens of proposed changes made to protective order (PO) statutes. In 2019, legislators agreed on several changes/updates to the process. One bill clarifies that if a court is lawfully closed and a full hearing for a preliminary protective order cannot be held within 15 days of the issuance, the hearing will be held on the next day that courts are open. Another change to current PO statutes requires any elementary or secondary school principle – who has an enrolled student for which a judge, court, or magistrate has issued a protective order for the protection of the child – to notify school personnel/educators who would have legitimate interest in such information that an order has been issued. This legislation also requires Virginia Board of Education to establish guidelines and develop model policies to aid school boards in the implementation of such notification. Finally, another bill requires that when a preliminary protective order is issued in an ex parte hearing where the petition for the order is not supported by an affidavit, the court issuing the order state the basis of the order including a summary of the allegations made and the court’s findings.

In the gallery

Action Alliance staff and members were recognized in the House Gallery this session during Legislative Advocacy Day in January.

REDISTRICTING

After several judicial interventions and over a year of pressure placed on Virginia’s lawmakers, a deal was struck to create a 16-member redistricting commission that would redraw the state’s legislative and congressional district boundaries, with a focus on correcting racial gerrymandering, after the 2020 census.

 

REPRODUCTIVE & SEXUAL HEALTH FOR SURVIVORS

Unfortunately, all of our priority bills (and those championed by our policy partners) were defeated this session. Including measures to expand the Family Medical Leave Act, repealing Virginia’s burdensome TRAP restrictions, as well as removing medically-unnecessary requirements currently placed upon Virginians seeking abortion care, enshrining access to birth control and bodily autonomy in our code, expanding ACA provisions for no-copay insurance coverage to include a broader host of reproductive health care services, and more.

 

SCHOOL SAFETY

A special committee on school/public safety convened shortly after last year’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, FL and produced a list of significant policy recommendations for Virginia’s legislators going into the 2019 session. Some of these recommendations, including changes to training for administrators and improving Virginia’s student-to-counselor ratio, passed the legislature.

 

SEXUAL ASSAULT RESPONSE & SERVICES

Three notable measures backed by the General Assembly this session will serve to provide sexual assault survivors with greater access to services and protection while supporting coordinated community responses to these issues. One bill directs the Virginia Crime Commission to study statewide access to forensic nurse examiners with a focus on recommendations for improving access statewide. Another bill removes Sexual Assault Response Teams and Multidisciplinary Child Sexual Abuse Teams from the list of those public entities subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. And finally, new legislation will prohibit employers from requiring employees to execute or renew any provision in a nondisclosure or confidentiality agreement that has the purpose or effect of concealing claims of sexual assault.

 

TRAUMA TO PRISON PIPELINE

While advocates during the 2018 session were largely successful in setting the stage for significant advances with regards to dismantling the trauma to prison pipeline in Virginia, legislators struck down most reasonable policy advancements on these issues in 2019. Measures to protect students from being charged with “disorderly conduct,” which is a misdemeanor and can come with a fine of up to $2,500 and up to a year in jail, were blocked this session.

For information on specific bills, including those that the Action Alliance supported and opposed this session, see our 2019 General Assembly Report.


Jonathan Yglesias is the Policy Director at the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance where he works with a team of advocates, movement minds, attorneys, and passionate policy nerds to coordinate the Action Alliance’s public policy efforts on behalf of survivors, sexual and domestic violence agencies, and communities in Virginia seeking to improve the prevention of and response to sexual and domestic violence. 

The Government Shutdown’s Impact on Survivors of Sexual Violence and Domestic Violence

As the nation enters the fourth week of an unnecessary partial government shutdown, federal funding for vital services to sexual assault and domestic violence survivors will come to an abrupt halt. As agencies cut back expenses to maintain essential crisis services, many of their other services and programs that provide vital support, resources, and healing are being temporarily reduced or eliminated.  

In Virginia, federal funds from the Department of Justice (DOJ) are the primary source of funding for these sexual and domestic violence services. These funds support crisis hotlines, accompanying survivors to hospitals in the wake of violence, legal advocacy and representation, emergency housing and transportation, trauma counseling for victims of all ages, direct financial assistance, and more. 

Domestic Violence shelters face an additional barrier since many of them rely upon funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for vital homeless prevention, shelter operation, and transitional housing services. Both DOJ and HUD are closed and staff that were brought in temporarily to process funding requests will be furloughed this week. 

 

Intimate Partner Violence is More Likely to Occur When Couples Are Under Financial Strain

Virginia is one of the jurisdictions most heavily impacted by the furlough which has resulted in curtailment of pay for more than 800,000 federal employees and the loss of work for an untold number of contractors.  Should the shutdown continue beyond January 25th, some of the more than 1,000 employees of Virginia’s Sexual and Domestic Violence agencies will also face the prospect of furloughs. 

Families that suddenly lose a substantial portion of their income, whether single parent households, couples with children, individuals responsible for elderly family members, or adults without dependents, can quickly tailspin into financial crisis. 

Two thirds of adults in the US have less than $1,000 in savings — and those losing their income as a result of the shutdown are no exception.  The financial stress of not being able to pay bills, heat your home, purchase fresh food, or keep your children in safe care while you are out of work can become a point of volatility in relationships. For survivors of intimate partner or sexual violence who are in the process of recovering from violence, financial stress triggers trauma responses that jeopardize healing. 

 

This Shutdown is Irresponsible and Dangerous to Our Communities 

No matter your politics, the partial government shutdown is unconscionable.  It jeopardizes public safety.  The shutdown throws individuals and families into crisis, and then pulls the rug out from under crisis services. It is not acceptable to demand that essential federal employees work without pay (something that would NEVER be tolerated in the private sector) and then refuse to do the job of governance.   

 

Your Support is Vital to Your Community Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Agencies 

Make a contribution to your community Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence agencies today! If you don’t know the name of your local agency, you can find the name and contact information on our web-site in the Help/Resources section:  Virginia SDVA Directory. 

Every dollar that you donate will stretch services a little further as the shutdown continues.  Agencies have had to cut back direct financial assistance for needs as varied as legal representation, trauma counseling, housing and medical care but local support could make a big difference.   

There may also be some unique needs for other types of donations or for volunteer help as agencies cut costs for travel, supplies and other semi-critical expenses. If you are available, reach out by phone or email and offer help.  

 

Policy Leaders Need to Hear from YOU 

You can also support your community Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence agency by reaching out to your Congressional representatives and the President to tell them to end the shutdown.  The budget impasse is a manufactured crisis.  The sad reality is that this crisis is being fueled by a xenophobic and racist policy proposal (i.e. the wall). We need both a budget AND thoughtful and compassionate immigration reform, and our Virginia policy leaders are capable of both. 

This is also an important time to let your state legislators know that increased state funding for Sexual and Domestic Violence Agencies is key to sustaining life-saving work throughout the Commonwealth. Please join us on Wednesday, January 30th, for Legislative Advocacy Day as we lift the voices of survivors and advocate for policies that will help prevent violence and ensure conditions where every person has the opportunity to thrive. 

Register For Legislative Advocacy Day (January 30th) Here: https://actionalliance.salsalabs.org/legislativeadvocacyday2019/index.html 

Find and Contact Your Representatives Here: https://whosmy.virginiageneralassembly.gov/ 

Reach Out to the President Here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/ 

 

 

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.  

On The Violence Against Women Act: Ensuring We Don’t Harm Those We Seek to Help

“VAWA has changed the landscape for victims who once suffered in silence. Victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking have been able to access services, and a new generation of families and justice system professionals has come to understand that domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking are crimes that our society will not tolerate.” –  The National Domestic Violence Hotline

The Violence Against Women Act is up for reauthorization in 2018. While helping to establish essential, coordinated responses to sexual and intimate partner violence, some advocates believe VAWA’s affiliation with the criminal legal system has also resulted in unintended consequences that harm survivors. VAWA reauthorization this year offers us an opportunity to create a VAWA that gets us closer to the world we want.

THE GOOD: VAWA PROVIDES MANY IMPORTANT, LIFE-SAVING SERVICES

First established in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has had a lasting impact on survivors of sexual and domestic violence, as well as the communities serving them. The Act has provided life-changing services for the survivors of violence. These services include:

Through these services, VAWA has not only worked to prevent violence through tools such as education, but also played a significant role in easing the burden on survivors. This is exemplified through its housing protections, as well as its ban on states charging rape survivors for forensic sexual assault examinations, among many other provisions.

According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rate of IPV against females [1] declined 53% between 1993 and 2008, after the passage of VAWA. Similarly, the IPV rate against males declined 54%. Furthermore, between 1993 and 2007, the number of homicide victims killed by intimate partners fell 29%. Based on data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, between 1993 and 2008, the reported rate of rape or sexual assault against females declined by 70%, and the reported rate of rape or sexual assault against males declined by 36%.

THIS YEAR, VAWA IS DUE FOR REAUTHORIZATION – A PERFECT OPPORTUNITY FOR REVISIONS TO THE ACT

Every five years, VAWA expires; with the last reauthorization of VAWA taking place in 2013, the Act is due for reauthorization this year. Over the past two decades since the initial passage of VAWA, the Act has been successfully reauthorized three times – each time with a set of revisions. VAWA’s first reauthorization took place in 2000 and allowed for additional protections for immigrants who are survivors of violence, a new program for survivors in need of transitional housing, funds for rape prevention and education, and an inclusion of survivors of dating violence. In 2005, VAWA’s reauthorization added programs for indigenous people who are survivors of violence. VAWA’S latest reauthorization, in 2013, added provisions targeting human trafficking, provisions for LGBTQ individuals, and provisions for tribal courts to have jurisdiction over domestic or dating violence offenses committed by non-Native people.

THE BAD: VAWA HAS HAD UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES THAT COULD HARM THE VERY PEOPLE IT SEEKS TO HELP

While VAWA has generally grown more inclusive and comprehensive over the years, it has also had unintended and unfortunate consequences. Passed with the intent to recognize and treat domestic violence as a serious crime rather than a private family matter, VAWA has contributed to the expansion of the role of the criminal legal system in cases of gender-based violence. Furthermore, the Act “encouraged states to adopt mandatory arrest policies that allowed domestic violence cases to move forward without the cooperation of victims.” One of the unintended consequences of such policies is that if police are unable to detect the primary aggressor at the scene of an altercation, they can simply arrest both parties – thus further contributing to additional trauma for victims of violence.

Mandatory arrest policies can also discourage some survivors from reporting domestic violence due to the fear that their partners, who may be the family’s only earner, will be immediately arrested and jailed. This means that domestic violence victims can actually be in even more danger, as they feel unable to seek help. In fact, a Harvard study, which used FBI Supplementary Homicide Reports, found that mandatory arrest laws actually increased intimate partner homicides – thus “harming the very people they seek to help.”

ADVOCATES SUGGEST REALLOCATING MORE FUNDS TO SERVICES FOR SURVIVORS INSTEAD OF INVOLVEMENT IN THE CRIMINAL LEGAL SYSTEM

Many advocates hope the next reauthorization will disconnect VAWA’s funds from its close involvement in a criminal legal system that often marginalizes people of color and breaks up families, thus leaving people more vulnerable to violence. Researchers have noted that VAWA’s connection to the criminal legal system fails to address the actual causes of intimate partner violence (IPV), which are highly correlated with economic distress. Additionally, the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence notes that “lack of employment opportunities, low wages, lack of affordable housing and social supports such as childcare dramatically affect the ability of battered women to escape violence and rebuild their lives.” If VAWA funding devoted to the criminal legal system could instead be reallocated to services – such as transitional housing – that help survivors of IPV leave abusive partners, we would be closer to achieving a victim-centered approach and ensuring that, in our response to violence, we do not promote a cycle of incarceration that ultimately results in more violence.

As we envision the future we hope to live in, we dream up a world where everyone is able to live safely without the threat or fear of domestic and sexual violence. Safety also means a nation where mass incarceration no longer traps more than 2.2 million people behind bars, leaving them and their families vulnerable to economic hardship and more violence. By reauthorizing VAWA this year, and de-carcerating it in the process, we can be one step closer to making this dream a reality.


Maryum Elnasseh is a rising junior at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite social change.

[1] The report does not address transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.

Featured image source: http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2013/01/04/debate-over-violence-against-women-act-centers-on-the-vulnerable/

On an Unjust Justice System: Innocent Until Proven Poor

Our country’s system of cash bail doesn’t work like you were probably taught. Every year, millions of people are coerced into paying money bail after they’re arrested in order to remain free while their cases are processed. Even though these individuals are still innocent in the eyes of the law, they and their families or communities are forced to pay non-refundable ten percent deposits to for-profit bail bonds companies. Rather than helping to ensure that defendants return to court for future court hearings (a reminder phone call works just as well), the cash bail system fuels mass incarceration and disproportionately impacts Black and low-income communities. 

Oftentimes, young children are fed certain beliefs to give them a basic understanding of how the world works. They are told that doctors make them feel better when they are sick, that prison is where bad people go so they don’t harm others, that their teachers are always to be trusted, that the justice system rights wrongs and makes the world a more just place.

As we grow older, it is imperative that we question the beliefs we were taught and analyze them for ourselves to search for the truth – if any – within them. Today, I ask you to challenge your beliefs about the “justice” system and its accompanying money bail system.

How many people does this affect?

Here in the land of the free, there are 646,000 people locked up in more than 3,000 local jails – of these people, 70 percent have yet to be convicted of a crime and are legally presumed innocent. Who are they, you may ask, and why are they there? According to data from the non-profit, non-partisan Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), fewer than 30 percent of those currently locked up in local jails were arrested for violent crimes. And the reason they are still there? It has a lot to do with the United States’ system of money bail.

Through the money bail system, defendants are required to pay a certain amount of money as a pledged guarantee that they will attend future court hearings. Defendants who are unable to come up with that money, however, can be incarcerated from the time of their arrests until their cases are resolved or dismissed in court – a process that can, sometimes, take up to 10 years. The Pretrial Justice Initiative found that most people detained pretrial will receive “dismissals, no jail time, or a jail sentence less than time served in pretrial detention.” It seems that the “constitutional principle of innocent until proven guilty only really applies to the well off.”

Bail amounts are often equivalent to a full year’s income

According to PPI’s research, which uses Bureau of Justice Statistics data, the median annual income for people in jail, prior to incarceration, was $15,109 – this is less than half (48 percent) of the median for people of similar ages who are not incarcerated. Since those in jail are drastically poorer than non-incarcerated individuals, it is oftentimes extremely difficult for them to pay the required bail amount. In fact, the nationwide median bail amount is almost equivalent to a full year’s income for the typical person unable to meet a bail bond.

Also important to note in these statistics is the fact that Black women had the lowest incomes prior to incarceration. This means that the money bail system especially harms Black women, as they are the least likely to be able to afford their bail amount. Many may have heard the story of Sandra Bland, a Black woman who died in custody in July 2015, after being unable to afford the $515 amount. Sadly, this story is not hers alone. In that same month, five additional Black women died in jails around the country waiting to post bail, the majority on minor shoplifting charges.

The money bail system further disadvantages people of color, as data presented by the Pretrial Justice Institute found that Hispanic men had a 19-percent higher bail than white men, while black men had bail amounts 35 percent higher than white men.

Cash bail often triggers housing, employment and custody crises

The bail system further exacerbates a system of poverty. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 71 percent of inmates were employed when they were arrested. As stated in the aforementioned article by Brave New Films, “there is no way to calculate how many of those people will lose their jobs because they can’t afford to bail out and will fail to come to work, or how many will lose their housing as a result of the downward spiral.” Additionally, people can also lose custody of their children during this jail time – thus leaving entire families more vulnerable to violence.

Huge profits for bail bonds corporations; a cycle of poverty for individuals

Like most instances of injustice, this has dire consequences not only on those directly affected, but on family members as well. One practice for families that cannot afford bail is to enter into financial agreements with bail-bonds corporations. A practice that is only present in the United States and the Philippines, these for-profit bail businesses require individuals to pay a non-refundable portion of the total bail amount to a bail-bonds company. Even if there’s no conviction, defendants and their families will never get that money back. Not only do these bail bonds “often leave families paying loan installments and fees even after a case is resolved,” but they can even result in property loss if a house or other asset was selected as collateral.

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Source: Prison Policy Initiative

Jurisdictions that limit or eliminate their use of money bail often have equally high – if not even higher – percentages of people showing up for their court dates.

Cash bail can/should be eliminated

Instead of utilizing the money bail system, which further disadvantages people of color, especially Black women, courts could adopt non-financial forms of release, such as release on own recognizance – in which a person is released “after promising, in writing, to appear in court for all upcoming proceedings.” Additionally, instead of arresting people, police could issue more citations – “orders to appear before a judge on a given date to defend against a stated charge” without having to serve jail time or be subjected to pay money bail. It is also worth noting that jurisdictions that limit or eliminate their use of money bail often have equally high – if not even higher – percentages of people showing up for their court dates.

You can help us TAKE ACTION

As we rethink our own beliefs about money bail, let us not forget those who are currently suffering the consequences of this unjust system. Currently, the Action Alliance is supporting Southerners on New Ground (SONG)’s Black Mamas Bail Out Action – a project to free as many Black women as possible (cis and trans) to bring them home to their families for Mother’s Day. Join us today in supporting this cause and reuniting families for Mother’s Day.

On May 10, the Action Alliance will host, “Getting Our People Free: What is Bail Reform and Why Do We Need It?”. This teach-in will be held 5pm-7pm at the Action Alliance office and is co-sponsored by the Richmond Chapter of Southerners on New Ground. Join us for community, conversation, snacks, and to learn more about how to end money bail.

Cover image source: https://www.injusticewatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/FullSizeRender-1170×889.jpg


Maryum Elnasseh is a second-year student at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite social change.

Healthcare is a Human Right

Ignoring medical need is violence.” – Coretta Scott King

As Virginia’s General Assembly began a special session last Wednesday to approve a state budget, all eyes were on Medicaid expansion. While we continue our fight to #SupportSurvivors and #ExpandMedicaidVA, it is imperative we remember that the latter is critical for the former.

From STI/HIV testing and treatment to forensic rape exams conducted by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner and ongoing visits with primary care physicians or counselors, survivors of sexual violence need access to a range of medical services not only in the immediate aftermath of violence, but over the span of their lives. These physical and mental healthcare services reduce the effects of trauma and help survivors rebuild their lives.

Although Medicaid currently provides health insurance coverage for almost one million Virginians, hundreds of thousands of people in Virginia remain uninsured. If Virginia does not expand Medicaid, many will remain in a coverage gap – having incomes above the Medicaid eligibility limits (in 2017, the limit was at or below $28,180 for a family of three), but below the lower limit for Marketplace premium tax credits.

For survivors who fall in this coverage gap and are left without health insurance, there may not always be many options to receive the proper care and medical attention they need. In fact, according to the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, the estimated lifetime cost of rape is $122,461 per survivor, or a population economic burden of nearly $3.1 trillion over survivors’ lifetimes (based on data indicating >25 million U.S. adults have been raped) with $1.2 trillion being attributed to medical costs. If Medicaid is expanded, 400,000 Virginians could get access to quality, affordable health insurance, which would result in more access to life-saving medical services for survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence.

93 percent

Source: Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance

Furthermore, Medicaid benefits include family planning services, comprehensive maternity care, treatment for chronic conditions, treatment for breast and cervical cancer, and long-term care services and supports. Additional services covered by many state Medicaid programs also include case management, transportation, and childbirth and infant education services. This means that if Medicaid is expanded, the burden on sexual and domestic violence programs to fulfill these needs would be reduced.

Join us in taking action now to stand with survivors of violence by supporting Medicaid expansion.

In fact, in 2016, 93% of survivors accessing sexual and domestic violence services reported receiving help with healthcare coverage/costs. This not only shows that healthcare is among the top priorities for survivors in Virginia, but further illustrates how Medicaid expansion may reduce the service burden for local sexual and domestic violence agencies.

Additionally, according to a report by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women who have experienced domestic violence are 8o% more likely to have a stroke, 70% more likely to have heart disease, and 60% more likely to have asthma than women who have not experienced domestic violence. If Medicaid is expanded in Virginia, more survivors of violence would have access to the life-saving medical services they need.

Regardless of income, all survivors of violence should be able to receive the medical and mental health services needed to help them heal. Expanding access to healthcare means better safety and wellness for survivors. Join us in taking action now to stand with survivors of violence by supporting Medicaid expansion.

Featured image source: Associated Press


Maryum Elnasseh is a second-year student at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she is double-majoring in journalism and political science, with a concentration in civil rights. At the Action Alliance, Maryum is an intern for the Real Story Internship. She hopes to use her voice as a tool to ignite

What really happened during the 2018 Session? An advocate’s guide to politics and new legislation in VA

The 2018 Virginia General Assembly (GA) adjourned “sine die” on March 10th – with legislators having passed 919 of the original 2,778 bills that were introduced during their 60-day session. A lot happened in those 60-days. But with all eyes turned to the ongoing debate over Medicaid expansion, one thing that didn’t happen was an agreed-upon state budget. Given this, House and Senate members will reconvene in Richmond for a governor-advised special session beginning April 11th. During this time, lawmakers will focus on the specific task of producing a $115 billion-dollar, two-year budget for the Commonwealth.

The following is an update on what really happened and how it really happened in the 2018 GA session, with a few sprinkled in predictions for where we’re headed and how that direction might impact everyday advocates, survivors of violence, and the communities and families that we serve in our work to respond to and prevent sexual and intimate partner violence in Virginia.

The political backdrop

With civic engagement and public protest on the rise in 2017, Virginia’s electoral base produced an unprecedented change in the makeup of the state legislature. Voters brought 19 new faces to the halls and committee and subcommittee rooms of the GA in 2018, with an overwhelming majority of these new faces being younger, browner, more immigrant, more LGBTQ, and more gender diverse. In both the House of Delegates and in our Governor’s Office, these new faces appear to be more reflective of and responsive to the various communities that make up our Commonwealth. These faces are also, overwhelmingly, Democrat. The 2017 elections brought the House of Delegates to a much more balanced split of 51 Republican seats to 49 Democrat seats. Needless to say, there was a vastly different energy abuzz in the GA this session. And with this new energy abuzz, there were also a set of new politics, voting strategies, and trends that quickly began to emerge within our legislature.

Data captured by Virginia’s Public Access Project (VPAP), a nonprofit nonpartisan organization providing insight into politics in Virginia, provides us with a clearer picture of the impact of this nearly even House split in 2018.  Looking at rates of recorded party-line votes – these are votes where Republicans or Democrats voted unanimously on an issue – we find that House Republicans were 57% more likely to vote party-line in 2018 than they were in 2017. That’s a jump from 20% Republican party-line votes in 2017 to 77% Republican party-line votes in 2018. Democrats, on the other hand, were slightly more likely to vote independently.

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Source: Virginia’s Legislative Information Service, URL: https://www.vpap.org/visuals/visual/party-line-votes/

While some political forecasters predicted more bipartisan collaboration in 2018, this wasn’t always how things panned out. Given the nearly house split and the new trends in committee and subcommittee party-line voting, those bills that sought to do things like make reporting easier and more trauma-informed for sexual assault survivors on campus, or require consent education as part of the Family Life Education curriculum, or protect LGBTQ Virginians from housing and employment discrimination – all wonderful steps in the direction of achieving equity and cultural change – were either defeated or significantly changed as a result of party politics and voting practices. Though our legislature may not be entirely ready for sweeping social change, the good news is that they did agree on a handful of bills that would be beneficial to survivors and the advocates who serve them. Let’s take a look at a few of those now.

Highlights from this session: laws impacting advocates and survivors

Changing VA’s Family Life Education Curriculum: Consent, Sexting, & Boundaries

Right now, education on the “law and meaning of consent” are permissive elements of the Virginia Family Life Education (FLE) Curriculum. Meaning that should a parent allow their child to participate in FLE programming in a public-school system that includes consent education teaching about consent might show up in school-based instruction. Building on their bills that made this possible in previous years, Delegate Filler-Corn and Senator McClellan set out to make the “law and meaning of consent” a mandatory part of Family Life Education in 2018. Unfortunately, these efforts were blocked, on party-line votes, by a House Education Subcommittee. However, the Senate and House did pass a bill that requires any high school FLE curriculum offered by a local school division to incorporate age-appropriate elements of effective and evidence-based programs on the prevention of sexual harassment using electronic means (read: sexting and digital harassment) and the importance of personal privacy and boundaries (read: bullying, harassment, and bodily autonomy). This bill also permits any FLE curriculum offered by a local school division to incorporate age-appropriate elements of effective and evidence-based programs on the prevention, recognition, and awareness of child abduction, child abuse, child sexual exploitation, and child sexual abuse (read: Erin’s Law). Just like the issue of consent education, any instruction on child abduction, abuse, or sexual exploitation is permitted but not required. The bottom line: these are improvements to the code, but we’ve still got some work to do!

Dismantling VA’s school-to-prison-pipeline

Early on in the session, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus announced a series of bills intended to curb the school-to-prison-pipeline and promote conditions that ensure every child reaches their full potential. Of the four major bills introduced, two of them were passed. Students in pre-k through third grade are now protected from being suspended for more than 3 days or expelled from attendance at school (with exceptions for “certain criminal acts”). Similarly, another bill reduces the maximum length of a long-term suspension from 364 calendar days to 45 school days (with certain exceptions). These bills set us in the right direction and offer our lawmakers the opportunity to engage in discussion with those communities and advocates who are directly impacted by the school-to-prison-pipeline or trauma-to-prison-pipeline. That’s a good thing.

Reducing perpetrator access to firearms

Unfortunately, bills like Delegate Levine’s HB405 – intended to prohibit a person convicted of sexual battery or assault and battery against a family or household member from purchasing, possessing, or transporting a firearm – were cast as unnecessary firearms restrictions and subject to strict party-line votes in the House and Senate. Bills to encourage universal background checks, close gun-show loopholes, and ban bump stocks met a similar fate. These bills were typically defeated in committee and subcommittee rooms or were never voted on at all.

#MeToo: Sexual harassment training for the Legislative Branch

DLike many other state legislatures around the country and amidst the cultural wave of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, Virginia’s legislature moved to adopt sexual harassment training as a requirement for the Legislative Branch every two years beginning in 2019. While the discussion over the what, when, and how of this training was highly debated on the House floor, the end result is a move in the direction of responding to and preventing sexual harassment in the legislature (pictured here are House Democrat and Republican leaders, Delegate Watts and Delegate Gilbert discussing the legislative response to #MeToo). This is an area of focus that we hope our lawmakers will expand on and learn from in future sessions, in an effort to build truly comprehensive sexual harassment prevention and response strategies. For examples of what this might look like – and what our Policy Team has been using in our ongoing communications with partners and lawmakers alike – see the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault’s timely white paper, Assessing Sexual Harassment Response and Prevention Strategies After #MeToo.

Resources, cell phone service, and lifted age restrictions for petitioners of protective orders

Building on prominent conversations from previous sessions, Senator Wexton’s original SB426 called for the Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) and court clerks in the Commonwealth to distribute information on the local sexual and domestic violence agency, community service board, and other social services to petitioners of protective orders (emergency, preliminary, and permanent POs). A great idea, highlighting the power of advocacy in restoring hope and saving lives in our communities, but one that also, unfortunately, created fiscal impact. After a series of twists and turns, this bill became one that would require court clerks to distribute DCJS’ Protective Orders in VA – A Guide for Victims and Domestic Violence Victims in VA – Understanding the Legal Process for Victims of Family Abuse to petitioners of protective orders statewide.

Another change to protective order statute this session – and one that we have reservations about – enables judges to grant petitioners of family abuse protective orders (and where appropriate, any household member of the petitioner) exclusive use and possession of a cellular device. While this new law certainly comes from a place of good intentions – ensuring that survivors of violence don’t lose access to their cellular device, including important data stored on that device – it also has the unintended consequence of allowing the respondent of a protective order access to everything that comes along with maintaining that cellular device: plan information including incoming and outgoing calls/texts, GPS, etc. In this increasingly digital age, it’s not uncommon for us to see a survivor be harassed, manipulated, and stalked through electronic means. Given this, the final bill also includes a brief caveat stating that “the court may enjoin the respondent from using a cellular telephone or other electronic device to locate the petitioner”. We are confident that survivors who are working with advocates in the process of petitioning for a family abuse protective order will be informed about these concerns and will be able to work with their advocate to determine what is best for them/their safety as part of a larger safety planning process.

Another interesting bill (HB1212), carried by Delegate Cline, changes Virginia code to allow a minor to designate a “next friend” in court pleadings and motions. This bill allows a “next friend” – which can be a parent, legal guardian, or individual designated to serve as the authorized representative of an individual who has been determined to lack capacity to consent or authorize the disclosure of information – to sign pleadings, motions, or other papers required by the court. Previously under Virginia law, a minor who was unable to afford an attorney could not sign court pleadings on behalf of themselves and a parent of a minor who was unable to afford an attorney could not sign court pleadings on behalf of their children. This was obviously a barrier to minors – and particularly those from low-income families – pursuing and accessing protective orders (or similar pleadings and motions) within the court system. This small change in the code should make it easier for both parents of minors without an attorney AND minors without an attorney to file for protection orders in Virginia.

Looking forward

As we prepare for lawmakers to reconvene in Richmond, finalize our state budget, and decide on whether or not to expand Medicaid in Virginia, the Action Alliance Policy Team will be working with our members, partners, and lobbyists to amplify the voice of survivors in the ongoing work of this special session and the roll-out of new legislation in 2018. With the intersections of domestic and sexual violence, poverty, and access to healthcare being such prominent issues with which our movement grapples, we anticipate program and survivor voices being important ones for our legislators to hear from. Be on the lookout (via Facebook, Twitter, email, etc.) for action alerts and calls for support from our Policy Team in the upcoming weeks! Please also be on the lookout for a full end-of-session report made available to membership by mid-April.


Jonathan Yglesias is the Policy Director at the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance where he works with a team of advocates, movement minds, attorneys, and passionate policy nerds to coordinate the Action Alliance’s public policy efforts on behalf of survivors, sexual and domestic violence agencies, and communities in Virginia seeking to improve the prevention of and response to sexual and domestic violence. Since 2007, Jonathan has worked in the anti-violence and public health fields in various capacities – coordinating primary prevention projects for a state coalition, managing Rape Prevention & Education funds for a state health department, supporting prevention and outreach projects on a college campus, and consulting with national resource centers on violence prevention and anti-oppression work. Jonathan is a sociologist by training and an outspoken advocate for Southern social justice work, LGBTQ youth empowerment initiatives, the movement for black lives, and any space in which people are re-envisioning a world free from violence and oppression. Jonathan is also a pop-culture + pizza + animal lover living in Richmond, Virginia with his partner, their 2 dogs, and a one-eyed cat.


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