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.

4

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.

B

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.


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

Our Quest for a Safer World: Taking Every Instance of Violence Seriously

On February 14, a gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and carried out a mass shooting that left 17 people dead and more than 14 hospitalized. Soon after, reports began to emerge by those who knew the murderer – Nikolas Cruz – stating that he had been stalking a girl at the school. Another student said that Cruz had been abusive to his girlfriend and was expelled from the high school after fighting with his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. And another student said that he ended his friendship with Cruz more than a year ago, when the latter started “going after” and threatening one of his female friends.

But it’s not just Parkland—Cruz’s violence against women and his history of dating violence are not isolated incidents merely unique to him. According to Everytown for Gun Safety’s analysis of FBI data on mass shootings between 2009 and 2015, the majority of mass shootings in the United States—57% of them—involved the perpetrator shooting an intimate partner or family member, and in at least 16% of the cases, the perpetrator had a prior charge of domestic violence.

In the past three years since 2015, this trend has only continued, as exemplified in the following incidents, just to name a couple:

While the connection between intimate partner violence and mass shootings seems clear to many of us, responses to the issue have been troublesome. Similar to those who have been arguing that the solution to school shootings is to arm teachers, some people claim that arming survivors of intimate partner violence will prevent them from being assaulted or killed. This train of thought, however, is problematic for a few reasons.

According to data found by Futures Without Violence, “access to firearms increases the risk of intimate partner homicide more than five times more than in instances where there are no weapons, according to a recent study.” In fact, according to data found from a July 2014 testimony before the US Senate, gun access was found to be the strongest risk factor for victims of domestic violence to be killed by an intimate partner. Regardless of who owns the weapon, adding firearms to situations of intimate partner violence only increases the likelihood of fatalities.

Instead of putting the responsibility of prevention in the wrong place by expecting victims to arm themselves – which additionally puts survivors of intimate partner violence at a high risk for being sentenced to long prison terms when they defend their lives using a firearm – it is important to focus on preventing perpetration and holding offenders accountable.

Victim safety

Source: Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance

As we think about those who lost their lives last month in Florida—and the dozens more who have suffered mass shootings in the two weeks since – it is important that we work to change unhealthy societal norms, end the belittlement of sexual and domestic violence survivors, and take every incident of violence seriously.

“…perhaps it’s time our society started to think of physical abuse, possessiveness and men’s entitlement to act in those ways toward women as terroristic, violent and radical,” wrote the Rolling Stone’s Soraya Chemaly, in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016. “…so too should we consider domestic violence a form of daily terror. Three women a day are killed by intimate partners in the United States, and the majority of women murdered are murdered by men they know. There needs to be a dissolution between what we think of athes “domestic” violence, traditionally protected by patriarchal privacy norms and perpetrated by men against “their” women, and “public” violence, traditionally understood as male-on-male. Acts of public terrorism such as the one in Orlando would be less unpredictable if intimate partner violence were understood as a public health and safety issue, instead of as a private problem.”

“…Acts of public terrorism such as the one in Orlando would be less unpredictable if intimate partner violence were understood as a public health and safety issue, instead of as a private problem.”

In doing so, we will further our quest not only for a world free of sexual and domestic violence, but for a world where fewer families will grieve the losses of their loved ones to senseless killing.

Featured image: Candlelight vigil for the victims of the Parkland shooting. Gerald Herbert/AP: https://www.mysanantonio.com/news/education/article/The-Latest-Florida-school-shooting-suspect-12615831.php


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. 

Virtual Legislative Advocacy Week Is Here!

Join us online for statewide Virtual Legislative Advocacy Week (#VLAW18)! Starting Monday (the week of February 5-9), we will #AmplifySurvivorVoices and take to Facebook, Twitter, email, and phones to advocate for policies that enhance violence prevention and education, improve services for victims and communities, and support offender accountability.

You must register for Virtual Legislative Advocacy Week to gain access to our 2018 Virtual Advocate’s Toolkit, a handy interactive document which offers legislator contacts, sample messages and scripts, images, infographics, and strategies for how best to engage your legislators.

Why is legislative advocacy important?

Lawmakers can’t be experts on all issues all the time. Who are the experts on sexual and intimate partner violence? People who have been directly affected by sexual and intimate partner violence–and the professionals who help them–which is us! It’s our job to make sure that lawmakers who vote on issues affecting survivors are knowledgeable about the issues before they vote.

VLAW logo-red coverIs legislative advocacy a good use of my time?

Yes…because lawmakers listen to their constituents. Pretty much every contact you have with a legislator and/or their staff is noted in order to keep track of where constituents stand on any given issue. Lawmakers want to be accountable to their constituents…and it’s also in their best interests to do so. Plus, your voice/ knowledge/point of view is worth sharing!

Action Alliance Policy Priorities for the 2018 General Assembly Session

We know that the voices of survivors are amplified when advocates speak out. Take a look at our legislative priorities for the 2018 General Assembly session. See what issues resonate most with those you serve in your agency, which policies may have a direct impact in your area, and how you can contact your legislators and law makers in your area to advocate for changes that are trauma-informed and center the safety, privacy, and dignity of survivors.

Newcomer to legislative advocacy? This webinar’s for you!

If thoughts of interacting with your legislators terrify you, or trying to keep up with the legislative process throws you into a tizzy, this webinar (presented in PowerPoint style with voice prompts) may help you navigate some of the murky waters of the General Assembly.

You will be guided through learning about how Virginia’s government functions, how bills flow through the legislative process to become laws, and how to stay informed through the process. Click here to access the presentation.


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

New Law: Person’s Subject to a “permanent” Protective Order

As of July 1, 2016, a new law went into effect: 

Persons subject to a “permanent” Protective Order may not possess a firearm.

 What does this mean? Here are answers to frequently asked questions: 

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why is this legislation significant?

Domestic violence and firearms are a lethal combination. This new law is a critical step forward in limiting access to guns for perpetrators of intimate partner violence.

The new legislation brings Virginia in line with current federal law, which has prohibited for decades possession of a firearm for persons subject to protective order.  The problem is that it was virtually unenforceable at the state level because only federal law enforcement and prosecutors have the authority to act on federal law. This meant that it was very difficult—if not nearly impossible—to effectively remove guns from perpetrators of intimate partner violence.

The legislation provides an additional safety measure for victims choosing to seek a Family Abuse Protective Order against someone who owns a gun.  Prior to this legislation, there was no impetus on localities to address the presence of firearms in domestic violence.  The new law provides law enforcement, prosecutors and the courts a new tool for removing firearms from these dangerous situations and demands systemic action to ensure that violations of the law are enforced.

This policy alone will not eliminate intimate partner homicides, but it is an important and necessary step to reducing these preventable deaths.

 

2. What does the legislation do?

Prior to the new law, persons subject to a “permanent” Protective Order were prohibited from purchasing or transporting a firearm, but not prohibited from keeping firearms they already had in their possession.

The new law prohibits possession of a firearm for persons subject to a “permanent” Family Abuse Protective Order (the type issued after a hearing and lasting up to 2 years). Respondents have 24 hours to sell or transfer all guns or face being charged with a felony.

3. What does the legislation not do?

The new law only applies to “permanent” Family Abuse Protective Orders.

The new law does not apply to:

  • emergency or preliminary Family Abuse Protective Orders;
  • emergency, preliminary or “permanent” Acts of Violence Protective Orders issued by the General District Court. The “Acts of Violence” protective orders are not intended to address domestic violence.  They apply to situations where the individuals are not current family or household members, or are not former family and household members with a child in common.

The new law does not provide a plan for implementation.  It does not prescribe or layout a process for the voluntary or involuntary removal/surrender of firearms. It also does not describe a process for safely and lawfully returning firearms after the Protective Order has expired.

4. What issues should your community be discussing regarding implementation?

Because the new law goes into effect July 1, 2016 and does not tell localities “how” to make it happen, it is important that localities begin having discussions about how the new law will be implemented.  Below are a few key issues to consider:

IDENTIFICATION: 

  1. How will the courts identify respondents who possess a firearm?
  2. Will judges ask about respondents during the protective order hearing whether or not they possess firearms?
  3. Will petitioners be asked if the respondent owns a firearm? Will they be asked during the hearing?  Will a question be included on the petition?

NOTIFICATION: 

  1. How will respondents be informed that they are prohibited from possessing a firearm? Verbally?  In writing?
  2. Will respondents be notified at the time of issuance? At service? Both?

REMOVAL/STORAGE:

  1. There are numerous methods for removal: voluntary surrender, search and seize or a hybrid of the two. What removal options will be used?
  2. Will respondents be ordered to surrender firearms by the courts? To whom?
  3. What follow up is in place to ensure surrender/removal? Will the courts hold a review hearing to ensure removal within 24 hours?
  4. Will law enforcement inquire about firearms at service and allow voluntary surrender at time of service?
  5. Will law enforcement have the authority to search and seize at service of the order?
  6. What role can a respondent’s attorneys have in surrender and compliance?
  7. Once firearms have been surrendered or removed, where will they be stored and by whom? Law enforcement? Third party?  Firearm dealer?
  8. What is the process for storage? Receipt for firearms—proof of surrender? Fee for storage? Liability issues re: damage while in storage?
  9. What qualifications or procedures are needed for third party storage?
  10. What happens to unclaimed firearms?

RETURN:

  1. What, if any, process will be in place to notify petitioners if firearms are returned?
  2. What, if any, process will be in place to ensure firearms are lawfully returned? For example, not returned to a prohibited party?

For more information on the above, including best practices from other states:  http://efsgv.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Removal-Report-Updated-2-11-16.pdf

download

picture: DCJS

5. What’s next?

Key stakeholders will be convening soon to discuss numerous issues surrounding the effective implementation of the new law and to develop guidelines to assist localities. In the meantime, we encourage localities to consider policy, procedural and practice changes needed to enforce this new law to protect victims and help respondents comply.

Questions? Contact:  Kristine Hall at khall@vsdvalliance.org or 804-377-0335

Kristine Hall is the Policy Director at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She has supported Anti-Violence work for over 20 years.

_________________________________________________________________

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

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

 

 

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.

images (3)

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.

IMG_1329GroupBeforeSigningCeremony

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.

+

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.”

=

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.

 

_________________________________________________________________

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

Advocacy Day with NNEDV

That day the sun was out and the wind was blowing hard, but underneath the capitol you would not know it. It was the day that Hillary Clinton was named the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party for President of the United States, that Prime Minister Modi of India was visiting Washington, and that the powerful and articulate survival letter published in response to the Stanford sexual assault trial on BuzzFeed was circulating among the public consciousness. I was there for National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) Advocacy Day, along with other advocates from across Virginia to meet with our State Representatives. I felt inspired to be part of the communication process while seated with strong and committed women long at work and dedicated to using their voices advocating for those experiencing violence as a very real part of their daily lives.

13327465_10154385025311162_3333845016378808962_n

courtesy NNEDV

Come the new fiscal year, the additional funding made available will hugely affect available services that have previously been lacking. We both thanked our representatives for their part and expressed the importance of stabilizing future funding. Once survivors are able to access these essential services it would be detrimental to cut them off again as the budget fluctuates from year to year. Advocates involved in local programs were able express just how these resources are going bridge the gap for the survivors in their own communities on the ground. For example: did you know that previously there was only one dedicated therapist for sexual assault in Fairfax County with a population of over one million? Did you know that in South West Virginia there was only one court advocate for the region commuting hours in a day from one court house to the next and being forced to deny support to countless survivors? This will change for the better with new funding, Charlottesville as well as its’ surrounding counties will be able to engage in prevention work for the first time in a long time.

There is still much to be done. The tone of some meetings were most concerned with instances of false accusations of rape or how our cause threatens gun accessibility, conversations that demonstrated why we were there. We are still forced to turn away many seeking services– on one day in Virginia we turned away 170 families due to a lack of funding. We also face the issue of separating the needs of survivors from the general homeless population, when it comes to shelter policies. Striving to keep survivors in their homes when violence or assault is occurring, or realistically getting a plan in place within the 30 days’ time allotted for emergency shelter, is impractical for those we serve. Transitional housing allows for continuation of the supportive services this population requires, whether it be due to ongoing legal cases, pressing health concerns, or newly gained control over personal finances. The next fiscal years’ funding has not yet passed. It is being held up due in part, to “controversial” LGBTQ issues that are attached. Little time is left before break and then campaigning will begin for the upcoming election. In years like these it may be best to hope that the bill from last year carries through, and know that so much relies on those who occupy the seats in house, senate, and the presidency.

Leahy2

Sen. Leahy and Sen. Crapo – picture courtesy of NNEDV

Charlotte Hoskins is an intern in Development, Communication, and Policy at the Virginia Action Alliance. She is an advocate for caring about human diversity as much as biodiversity and allowing people to tell their stories. She has volunteered and worked with organizations dedicated to empowering community. 

_________________________________________________________________

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

 

Mothers on Trial: Gender bias in the Courtroom

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

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

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

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

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

genderbiasgraphic

credit: ndtv.com

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

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

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

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

childholdingscales

picture courtesy Virginia is for Children (facebook)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____________________________________________________________________________

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

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