Happy 20th Birthday, VAdata!

More than twenty years ago, America Online dominated the World Wide Web, floppy disks were disappearing, and music fans were avoiding the high cost of CDs by downloading music from Napster. When VAdata was first envisioned in 1996, domestic or sexual violence agencies did not use the internet as a primary resource or use email as a routine method of communication, but a group of dedicated sexual and domestic violence advocates saw opportunities for these technological advances to improve their work. They wanted to develop a way to collect information on the experiences of survivors of sexual and domestic violence and describe the services provided to them by agencies around the Commonwealth.

Happy 20th birthday, VAdata! This month 20 years ago, VAdata was born! Hear, Hear to 20+ more years!Without considering that the idea to create a database that “lived” online was groundbreaking, these advocates set out to create a data collection system that was responsive to users as well as responsible to survivors. From the beginning, statewide data collection prioritized the confidentiality and privacy of survivor data. This meant that Virginia was ahead of the curve when the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) prohibited the collection of identifying data in electronic systems in 2006. VAdata was the first electronic data collection system in the nation to collect information about sexual and domestic violence, and to this day, remains the only electronic data collection system that is managed by an advocacy agency. VAdata’s management by an advocacy agency allows its focus to remain survivor-centered, trauma-informed, and safety based as it has always been.

As VAdata comes of age, here are some reflections of its journey from a few of its creators. Happy Birthday, VAdata!


“What makes me most proud to have been involved in VAdata project is that survivors and interest of survivors was always front and center of our work. Yes, we were developing a data collection system to meet a variety of needs, including those of funders and policy makers. However, the project’s leadership understood that those data elements are personal information about survivors and their families and thus were committed to evaluating the impact of collecting and reporting ANY data element, no matter how small, on the survivors–in the short term and longer term; on an individual level and in the aggregate.”

–Kristine Hall, currently at the University of Virginia Medical Center and former Policy Director for the Action Alliance.

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“VAdata turns 20! When I started in this field back in the day, collecting information for grants was VERY different. We had ‘contact sheets’ that we filled out to document the services we were providing. I used pen and paper ‘tic’ marks to count the services that were being provided. My next endeavor was to use Xcel. So I created a looooong spread sheet. Because VAdata still didn’t collect everything I needed, I learned how to use Access to build our own data base.  Teaching Access to other staff was cumbersome. This helped but Access was still was not user friendly.

Then the most wonderful thing happened. VAdata was born! A lot of time and energy went into creating something that local programs could use safely and securely. The Action Alliance drew off a great deal of wisdom from other’s in the research and data community to make VAdata happen.

When I first began using VAdata, I still had to have a separate data base because it did not collect all the information I needed for each of our grants and work plans. However, over the years VAdata has matured and gotten better with age! I still use spread sheets as a check to VAdata, but I currently use VAdata exclusively for reports and work plans. In addition to using it for reports, I use VAdata to identify trends in services. I can pull data to help gather local data or data elements that are specific to something we are tying to define.

VAdata has made my data needs so much easier and much more advanced. So happy birthday VAdata and thanks for giving so much to local programs! YOU ROCK!”

-Robin Stevens, Services Coordinator at CHOICES, the Council on Domestic Violence of Page County.

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“In the mid 1990’s Madonna and Whitney Houston rocked the radio, Bill Clinton was President and there was a terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City. I was the Director of Empowerhouse (then RCDV) at that time. I remember working with the husband of one of the staff to develop our first data collection system, using dBASE. It was a life saver. We had previously been using multi-colored codes on the bottom corner of every client form, service document and hotline call sheet to tally our statistics for our VDSS grant reporting. The process of compiling the report took a good day. This was barely steps away from punch cards, but I digress and date myself.  Our fancy dBASE program reduced our grant reporting time by hours, but it was very far from perfect.

Y2K. For those of us who are old enough, the year 1999 may bring back waves of fear on what would happen come January 1, 2000. Would electric grid work? Would water flow? But more importantly, would our donated Compaq 286sx computers work? How would our statistics calculate properly? Birth dates were reflected in the computer by the last 2 digits of one’s birth year and circling back to 00 would muck with the calculations.

Thankfully, folks at the Action Alliance (then VADV) were forward thinkers. When new opportunities became available before Y2K, they geared up to develop a new data collection system for all domestic violence programs to use. The Action Alliance staff was a fraction of the size it is now and I’m sure that the small amount of grant funding they received to develop VAdata didn’t come close to covering the time that they invested. This was a big deal and every agency across the state had its own ideas of what this should look like. I joined one of the committees, because I, too, had ideas. We had an instant thirst for data and wanted to collect everything. One of our challenges was to differentiate the information we wanted to know from the information we needed to know. We sorted through all the potential data fields and landed with a minimized plan. 

While the Action Alliance staff worked with programmers, codes, technical issues and countless other problems, local DV agencies dealt with their own new problems. They were all going to need computers, but not all were there yet. Some had computers, but no access to the internet. They had to get additional phone lines or risk being bumped offline by an incoming call (dial up modems were our only choice!) The lucky few with computers and internet often had only one centrally located computer shared by all staff.

Technology might not have been part of our grassroots beginnings. And looking back you might not think that the first version on VAdata was cutting edge. But that’s where you might be wrong. VAdata was the first web-based statewide domestic violence data collection system. Virginia had the capacity to run reports for a single agency or for the whole state with just a few clicks while other states were still hand compiling their data. 

When VAdata was in the planning stages, there was so much excitement. Ideas being tossed out there on how it would look, act, the information we could gather to better help victims, survivors, caring friends, judicial system, professionals, etc. As it became a reality the excitement never left me, the Hotline Form that was created and in the beginning it turned out to be quite a few pages long, there were so many things we wanted to gather information on. Needless to say, there was quite a bit of tweaking done to bring it to a manageable size of questions that wouldn’t overwhelm the Advocate or Caller.

Our work today isn’t the same as it was Y2K. Thankfully we are adaptable to the changing needs of our communities and of families experiencing violence. VAdata doesn’t look the same today as it did then, either. She’s grown and adapted and has met just about challenge that’s come her way. Congratulations on your 20th Birthday VAdata, and thanks for keeping track of all the services we’ve provided!”

–Nancy Fowler, Program Manager for the Office of Family Violence at the Virginia Department of Social Services.

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“I was lucky to be part the VADV staff that traveled around the state to train all of the DV and SA programs in VA. Not only was VAdata new to us but the Internet and computers were very new to some of the programs. Some folks that came to the trainings had never had the opportunity to have worked with a computer. So not only were we training on VAdata we were also doing a quick 101 on Using Computers and getting on the internet. I remember one training where after we had gotten everyone on the mock VAdata internet, we were explaining how to tic off the check boxes on a form. We had told the audience to take their mouse and put it on the little square and click on it. We had one person say her mouse wasn’t working, when I got back to her she was holding the mouse against the screen covering the box and a lot more of the form and clicking away, as hard as I tried a little snicker still emerged from me. Happy Birthday VAdata, I still get excited with the information you’re able to give us!!!”

–Debbie Haynes, Coalition Operations Manager at the Action Alliance.

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“Where were you in the fall of 1999? I was traversing the Commonwealth with coworkers, introducing sexual and domestic violence agencies to VAdata, their new data collection system. Three years earlier, state funding agencies expressed a need for a Y2K-compliant database to collect, at minimum, federally required data from funded sexual and domestic violence agencies. The Action Alliance (then known as VADV) applied for and received funding from VAWA the first year those funds reached Virginia. For 3 years, a dedicated and creative committee met to design the country’s first internet-based data system, collecting data from survivors of both sexual and domestic violence. The committee included state coalitions, state funders, advocates and directors from SDVAs, university researchers, and database/internet experts.

Our relationship with technology was VERY different in 1999. Most SDVAs had no more than one computer, dial-up connections, and limited email experience. Most of us did not have cell phones, nor did we see a need for them. In the nonprofit world, the concept of an internet-accessed database was novel and ahead of its time. A few staff in SDVAs were excited, but most were apprehensive about giving up their paper and pencils for keyboards and monitors. Twenty years later, we know that while the learning curve was steep in 1999, we made the right leap into the future.

Like all technology, VAdata has done nothing but evolve and grow in 20 years. The VAdata programmers/system managers at Advanced Data Tools Corp. have assured that VAdata is supported by current and robust applications. The VAdata Advisory Committee has assured that the system is responsive to new data needs from funders, SDVAs, and policy makers. And they have done so while being consistently mindful of confidentiality and an absolute commitment to only collect data that will serve to improve quality of life for survivors and their children. Information from VAdata has been used to enhance intervention services, advance prevention efforts, increase funding, and inform policy. VAdata has been referenced in the VA General Assembly and even in the U.S. Congress.

I was the first VAdata coordinator and continued in that role for 20 years until my retirement in 2016. In writing this blog, I was asked to consider VAdata’s future. This request caused me to reflect on my personal growth as a result of my work with VAdata. I am by nature a “finisher,” and working on this project taught me A LOT about the value of thoughtful processing. My hope for VAdata is that it will continue to be a thoughtful process, one that embraces advancing technology while also being mindful of making the system work well for all of its cohorts and maintaining its core commitment to survivors as a tool that protects privacy and dignity while providing information to improve conditions for survivors and enhance prevention for everyone.”

–Sherrie Goggans, nurturer of VAdata from the late 1990s until her retirement from the Action Alliance in 2016.

 

Trauma is an underground river: On Charlottesville, Healing, and Transformative Justice

TRIGGER WARNING: Charlottesville attack, white supremacist violence, physical harm

…….

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Almost two years later, I still think about Charlottesville nearly every day. I hear the sickening thud thud thud thud thud of the car hitting people in rapid succession. I see projectiles in the air that my mind could only register at the time as bricks, not what they actually were: shoes knocked off feet from force of impact. I feel the shock of my body hitting the pavement as I tried to run. I remember the fleeting sense that this was where I was going to die. Trampled.

When I consider the arc of trauma in my life, Charlottesville looms large. Most days, it sits on my right shoulder; a dull ache and stiffness from being injured that day. On better days, it slumbers just beneath the surface. I’m not sure it was the hardest thing I’ve ever survived, but it was one of the most terrifying.

Charlottesville is for me both a shared trauma and a private one. I share the experience with the others who were there, and in a different way with the millions of people whose hearts squeezed tight when they bore witness to the horror through captured images. My love is the only person also there on that day with whom I’ve processed what happened. Only she knows how often those pictures hover in my mind’s eye and make my heart squeeze again.

Trauma is an underground river. It winds through invisible passages below the surface, often snaking quietly. Sometimes, though, it roils.

Two weeks ago, my love and I watched BlackKKlansman together. We knew ahead of time that Spike Lee had inserted footage from Charlottesville at the end of his film to illustrate how little has changed since the 70s. We prepared ourselves. It had been nearly 2 years; I thought I was ready to see the footage again with some detachment. But of course, I wasn’t. As we watched the grey Dodge Charger slam into the crowd, nausea rose up in me. My heart drummed like a hummingbird’s wings as I tried to steady my breath. My heart beats just as fast now as write this.

A similar-looking grey Dodge Charger picks up a student at our son’s high school on a regular basis. I’ve noticed it every Monday and Tuesday at 2:15pm in car line since the beginning of the semester. When its rumbling engine revs, it sickens me a little. The rational part of my brain knows it’s not the same car, but the primal part of my brain, the part designed to keep me alive, does not.

When the movie ended, my love and I rewound BlackKKlansman and watched the drone footage of the attack over and over again, pausing and searching the image for ourselves. Looking from that vantage point—a bird’s eye view—that blur there…was that us? Right there in the middle of the intersection? We must have rewound it at least 5 times, feeling grateful for the two cars that impeded his rampage and saved our lives, and sorrow for those who were caught between us and him.

We didn’t know at the time whether this was a single incident or the beginning of more attacks. We wanted to remain alive for our 3 amazing kids and the others we love, so we didn’t stay at the intersection after it happened. I still feel guilt for leaving the scene of the carnage. I wonder if the guy in the grey Dodge Charger feels his heart heavy with remorse looking back, or if he still feels justified in trying to murder as many of us as possible. I’d like to think that time for reflection has helped change his mind.

My father died a year before Charlottesville. I fell asleep many nights as my brain replayed how I held his hand after he died, my grief crystallizing as his body grew cold and stiff. It’s a memory weighted with gratitude but mostly deep sadness and loss. I wouldn’t try to summon the memory; it would just show up and take a stroll through my mind’s eye and my heart as I tried to drift off. After Charlottesville, my falling-asleep brain switched channels and started replaying Charlottesville over and over instead of my dead father. I felt relieved, in a way, for new images to fall asleep to. I wonder how morbid this would sound if I ever said it out loud.

My love and I recently honeymooned on the Yucatán Peninsula. It was magical. One day, we explored a cenote in the middle of the jungle. A cenote is a sinkhole that exposes groundwater underneath when the limestone rock above collapses. We swam through the underground cave, enveloped by a darkness so deep it felt palpable. It was other-worldly and yet not far from the 10-passenger Eurovan that brought us there. Creatures thrive there that are not meant to survive the light of day.

I wonder if a cenote is an apt metaphor for collective trauma: an interlocking network of unmapped underground rivers revealed only when the weight of the earth on top becomes too much to bear. Then again, maybe it’s a metaphor for grief.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what accountability and repair should look like in the wake of harm. I’m sure many others who live in Virginia have too, ever since the Governor’s yearbook was made public with racist images and the Lt. Governor was reported by two women to have sexually assaulted them. Both are serious harms, rooted in different kinds of interlocking, systemic oppressions. What should happen when harms like these come to light is not an easy question to answer.

I’ve worked in the movement to end gender-based violence since I was a student at Oberlin College. It’s the only profession I’ve ever known. In the 1990s, we fought hard for sexual violence and domestic violence to be taken seriously. Rape is a violation and should be a crime in all circumstances, no matter your relationship with the person who hurt you. If a man beat his wife, he should expect the full force of the community to come knocking at his door. Making something a crime affirmed that it was a serious matter and should be treated seriously. We said, “perpetrators need to be held accountable”, but often what we really were saying was “perpetrators should go to jail.” We began to conflate taking responsibility with punishment. We began to conflate accountability with incarceration.

I know now that we were mistaken.

We knew the criminal legal system could deliver neither accountability for perpetrators nor healing for survivors…or we should have known. Indigenous women and other women of color—in particular our Black sisters in the movement—cautioned us again and again not to choose this path, and we failed to listen.

Accountability is an active process that requires the person who has committed harm to take responsibility, acknowledge the impact, express remorse, and commit never to engage in the harm again. None of those things happen when someone is incarcerated. Incarceration punishes and isolates; it does not help us find our humanity–whether we are the ones on the inside of the bars or the outside. The system wasn’t built to help us heal.

IMG_6597Now, 25 years later, I and others in this work have started to reckon with this legacy: how and why did we manage to turn a movement that once held up liberation as our bright future into a profession that is so invested in and bound up with a system that puts people in cages[i]? How could we think more police, more prisons would bring freedom?

Almost everyone who commits violence has also survived it[ii]. How does it shift our perceptions when we stop thinking of someone as either a perpetrator or a survivor and embrace the complexity that most people who use violence are both/and? How would it change my perception of the driver of the grey Dodge Charger if I learned about the trauma he survived before he drove his car into a crowd of people? Knowing wouldn’t mitigate the harm, but perhaps it would shape a path forward beyond containment and retribution.

We’ve built a prison nation by incarcerating more people than any other country in the world. We treat people of color, poor people, people who are trying to migrate to save their families, and other historically oppressed communities as though they are disposable, and it diminishes our humanity. I often think about how my life would be different if I were seen only as the worst thing I’ve ever done, if I were never given the chance to grow and do better. What if everyone were given grace to fail and learn from it. What if we chose all of us[iii]?

I believe in redemption, change, and forgiveness, and I think and talk about it a lot with my friends and colleagues who strive for what we call a “radically hopeful future”: one in which we all thrive.

img_6595.pngBut if I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve ever really put those beliefs to the test. I may be able to think of the 20-year-old driver of the grey Dodge Charger as a wounded person, but can I also see him as someone capable of redemption? What would Marissa Blair and Marcus Martin, two people who were directly in his path, need from him, if anything, for healing and repair? What about the family of Heather Heyer, who died at the scene? Here we encounter one of the complexities of trauma, healing, and repair: each person’s experience and needs are different.

I recently read a piece written by a man who tried to kill a police officer when he was 17. Twenty years later, he and the officer met at the officer’s request. The man who wrote it is serving a life sentence for attempted murder. He apologized to the officer for the pain he caused him and his family, sobbing from the weight of his guilt and shame. He said the meeting was the best day of his life. I don’t know, but I imagine something lifted in the officer’s heart too. Perhaps the encounter was transformative for both of them.

We can and should ask more from people who commit harm, more than asking them to sit in a cell and live out their punishment. I wonder if we can think more deeply and with more complexity about justice, accountability, and healing in the aftermath of harm. Something beyond punishment and retribution. Something that strives to maintain the humanity and compassion that we’re all capable of giving and worthy of receiving. Something that could transform us collectively.

I wonder if we could truly stop seeing anyone as disposable, and begin to see all of us as worthy, no matter how badly we fail, how many we hurt. I wonder what would happen if we commit to choose all of us. I wonder how that might change us.

 

Kate McCord is the Movement Strategy & Communications Director for the Action Alliance and has been working in the movement to end gender-based violence for over 25 years. Kate is working with other coalition leaders across the country to mobilize toward a future in which all of us have what we need to thrive. She first wrote about her experiences in #Charlottesville in a blog post dated August 15, 2017.

#charlottesville #transformativejustice #accountability #harm​​ #whitesupremacist #domesticterrorism


Featured image: Kate McCord

Notes:

[i] Credit to Dr. Mimi Kim for unveiling this concept. Also see Dr. Kim’s related, fascinating paper, Dancing the Carceral Creep: The Anti-Domestic Violence Movement and the Paradoxical Pursuit of Criminalization, 1973 – 1986.

[ii] Danielle Sered, Common Justice. See her powerful 1-minute video here, a longer talk about “Violence, Restoration, and Accountability” (starting at 11:50) here, and a great podcast, On Restorative Justice: What Justice Could Look Like, featuring Danielle Sered and Sonya Shah.

[iii] “We choose all of us” is a sentiment first shared by one of my teachers, Norma Wong. Inspired by Norma’s words, the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence has created the beautiful “We Choose All Of Us” Campaign, a middle school and high school campaign to deepen our connections with one another and nurture transformative culture shifts.

TransformHarm.org is a resource hub about ending violence. It offers an introduction to transformative justice. Created by Mariame Kaba and designed by Joseph Lublink, the site includes selected articles, audio-visual resources, curricula, and more.


Join the work of the Action Alliance.

I’m Dreaming of a World Where Everyone Feels Safe Outside

Trigger warning: descriptions of street harassment.

“The first time I was catcalled, I was 11-years-old. Every day after school, I walked less than a block away from the bus stop to my house. One day, a man pulled up beside me in his car and rolled down the window and asked how old I was. When I didn’t answer, he told me not to be shy and that he was just having “a little fun”. I remember my heart starting to race – so fast that it felt like it was gargling in my throat.”Faith Brar

In fourth grade and walking by an apartment building. Nine years old and walking with her grandmother. Twelve years old and walking the family dog. Nine years old, walking out of McDonald’s. Six to seven years old, going to a bathroom. Eleven years old and at school.

These are only some women’s stories about the first times they were catcalled. From as young as six years old, children and adults alike are subjected to street harassment every day. In fact, according to two online studies by Stop Street Harassment, at least 99 percent of respondents say they have experienced some form of street harassment — including but not limited to verbal comments, honking, whistling, leering, vulgar gestures, and stalking.

A ubiquitous problem, street harassment is a serious part of rape culture that normalizes unwanted, non-consensual sexual advances. Furthermore, it is a way for harassers to assert their “power and privilege over a public space,” thus further perpetuating a cycle of gender inequality. Street harassment leaves those targeted feeling unsafe, threatened, fearful, humiliated, and violated. And it’s not just the actual harassment itself, but as one writer describes it, “the fear of what might happen next is haunting.”

A little over a year ago, in May 2017, Pussy Division – a feminist activist group – put up “CATCALL CRIME SCENE” yellow tape around Philadelphia as part of a public art installation to raise awareness about street harassment.

“If our tape is inconvenient or annoying, then think of how inconvenient it is being chased by men and too scared to say no because we could get hurt or even killed,” stated Lara Witt, the group’s spokesperson.

Inconvenient is an understatement. According to a large-scale research survey conducted by Hollaback! and Cornell University, 72% of American women[1] reported taking different transportation due to harassment. Globally, the numbers are even worse. More than 76% of Argentinian women reported avoiding an area in their own town or city because of harassment. 80% of German women and more than 88% of Italian women reported taking different routes home because of harassment, 80% of Indian women reported being unwilling to go out at night because of harassment, and 80% of South African women reported changing their clothing because of harassment.

Not only does street harassment intrude into victims’ everyday lives, hindering their freedom and forcing them – instead of the harassers – to sacrifice their comfort and convenience for their safety, but it is psychologically damaging as well. According to a 2008 study of college women, street harassment was significantly related to self-objectification, which has been linked to depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Another alarming study of 297 undergraduate women found that objectification was associated with decreased sexual assertiveness, which was associated with an increased risk of sexual victimization. This means that frequent harassment can often lead to diminished sexual assertiveness, which can leave people at a higher risk of sexual assault.

Furthermore, unwanted sexual advances such as street harassment can be “insidiously traumatic,” according to a study published in 2014. As one writer stated, “every instance of harassment contains the threat of violence: what if I don’t respond the way the harasser thinks I should? Will he follow me? Will he pull me into his car? What if I see him again when it’s dark, or I’m alone, or he has friends with him?” This constant state of fear that harassment could escalate to assault or other forms of violence can have serious impacts on individuals’ mental health. It is also important to note that street harassment can be triggering for survivors of sexual violence.

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Source: https://everydayfeminism.com/2012/10/5-excuses-for-street-harassment-we-need-to-stop-making-now/

Street harassment is often done with a sense of entitlement – entitlement to comment on other people’s appearance and bodies, entitlement that other people and their bodies exist solely for the harasser’s “visual pleasure.” This same sense of entitlement – entitlement to sex, entitlement to someone else’s body – is one that can lead to sexual violence.

This month, France passed a bill that outlaws catcalling and street harassment, making them punishable with on-the-spot fines of up to 750 euros. While extra policing might not necessarily be the answer, as it can lead to unintended consequences that disproportionately harm people of color, it is reassuring to see a nation take street harassment seriously and attempt to put an end to it. There are various other ways to address street harassment, from educating others about its detrimental impacts to using the Hollaback! app to report instances of street harassment and let others know that you’ve “got (their) backs.” Regardless of how each individual chooses to address the issue, what matters is that we keep the conversation going and continue to raise awareness on the prevalence of this problem.

In our fight to end violence and inequality, there is no such thing as an unimportant or “small” issue. Every instance of oppression is one that ultimately feeds into a greater cycle of inequality and violence. If we want to see a world free of violence, that must be a world where threats of violence, objectification, and harassment are not brushed to the side – a world where everyone feels safe to go outside.

[1] The report did not address gender non-conforming individuals.

Featured image source: http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/2013/09/stwtskickstarter/


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 has worked as the Real Story Intern since February, and this is her last post as an intern. We wish Maryum the best as she heads back to school!

Study Finds Majority of Crime Survivors Support Shorter Prison Sentences, Alternatives to Incarceration

A first-of-its-kind national survey released by the Alliance for Safety and Justice bucks conventional wisdom regarding the views of crime victims/survivors on incarceration.

Despite popular assumptions that crime victims/survivors support long sentences and prison expansion, the National Survey of Victims’ Views finds that survivors would prefer the criminal justice system focus more on rehabilitation than punishment by a 2 to 1 margin.

In fact, 61 percent of crime survivors support shorter prison sentences and more spending on prevention and rehabilitation to long prison sentences. The vast majority of survivors also prefer investments in education, mental health treatment, drug treatment, and job training to more spending on prisons and jails.

Alternative to incarceration

By a margin of nearly 3 to 1, crime survivors believe that time in prison makes people more likely to commit another crime rather than less likely. These views cut across demographic groups, with wide support across race, age, gender, and political party affiliation.

Support for reform and a new approach to safety and justice policy is strong even among survivors of violent crimes. The survey, which interviewed 800 crime survivors across the country, included both survivors of non-violent crime and survivors of violent crime including the most serious crimes of rape or murder of a family member.

“More than 2.2 million people are in prisons and jails across the country and the U.S. spends more than 80 billion dollars each year locking people up,” said Robert Rooks, Vice President, Alliance for Safety and Justice. “Yet the findings show that America’s investments in our current criminal justice system do not align with the views of crime victims or meet their needs.”

The survey finds that survivors of crime experience significant challenges in recovery and healing—8 in 10 report experiencing at least one symptom of trauma. The survey found 2 out of 3 survivors did not receive help following the incident, and those who did were far more likely to receive it from family and friends than the criminal justice system.

One in four people have been victimized in the past 10 years, but that impact is not evenly felt across the country. The study finds survivors of crime are more likely to be low-income, young and people of color; furthermore, people with the lowest levels of education, income and economic status are more likely to experience repeat victimization and serious violent crime.

New Safety Priorities

Instead of more spending on incarceration, survivors want a wide range of investments in new safety priorities:

  • By a margin of 15 to 1, victims prefer increased investments in schools and education to more investments in prisons and jails
  • By a margin of 10 to 1, victims prefer increased investments in job creation to more
    investments in prisons and jails
  • By a margin of 7 to 1, victims prefer increased investments in mental health treatment to more investments in prisons and jails
  • By a margin of 7 to 1 victims prefer increased investments in crime prevention and
    programs for at-risk youth to more investments in prisons and jails
  • By a margin of 4 to 1 victims prefer increased investments in drug treatment to more investments in prisons and jails

Everyone agrees

The full report, survivors’ profiles and a video featuring crime survivors are featured at
www.allianceforsafetyandjustice.org.


Alliance for Safety and Justice (ASJ) is a national organization that aims to win new safety priorities in states across the country. ASJ partners with state leaders, advocates and crime survivors to advance policies to replace prison waste with new safety priorities that will help the communities most harmed by crime and violence. Reprinted press release from Alliance for Safety and Justice. 

 

Survived and Punished: The story of a 14 year old girl and the system that failed her

Bresha Meadows of Ohio was 14 years old the night she is alleged to have shot and killed her father in what her mother describes as an act of heroism to save the family from his ongoing violence and threats of murder. That was in July 2016; she has been incarcerated ever since awaiting trial.

The system failed her long before that night.

Bresha on bus

Photo provided by Martina Latessa. Photo source: Huffington Post

In the months leading up to the shooting, Bresha’s grades dropped, she ran away from home twice, she told relatives that she was in fear for her life, and that her dad was beating her mom, threatening to kill them all.

In a 2011 petition for a Protective Order, Bresha’s mother, Brandi wrote, “In the 17 years of our marriage he has cut me, broke my ribs, fingers, the blood vessels in my hand, my mouth, blackened my eyes. I believe my nose was broken,” she wrote at the time. “If he finds us, I am 100 percent sure he will kill me and the children.”

Bresha is one of many girls and women of color who have survived and are being punished. Many survivors of domestic and sexual violence are targeted by systems of policing and incarceration, including juvenile and immigration detention, because their survival actions are routinely criminalized.

84% of girls in juvenile detention have experienced family violence.1

When adolescents are arrested for domestic battery, girls were more likely than boys to be defending themselves from abuse by a parent or caregiver.1

Free Bresha Teach-in poster

The Action Alliance, in partnership with the VCU Wellness Resource Center (The Well), and VCU OMSA (Office of Multicultural Student Affairs) will be hosting a #FreeBresha Teach-In this Thursday, April 20, 5:30pm-8pm at the Action Alliance office. Join us as we discuss the criminalization of youth of color, the trauma-to-prison pipeline, and the work being done in Richmond to reduce the incarceration of suffering and traumatized youth.

Rise for Youth has been invited to participate. Confirmed speakers for the #FreeBresha Teach-In include:

  • Fatima M. Smith, Assistant Director for Sexual & Intimate Partner Violence, Stalking, & Advocacy Services and Adjunct Faculty, VCU
  • Reginald Stroble, Assistant Director, Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, VCU
  • Jonathan Yglesias, Prevention & Community Wellness Director, Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance

From 1992 to 2012/2013, girls’ share of arrests increased by 45% and girls’ share of detention increased by 40%. Black girls were almost three times as likely as white girls to be referred to court. Black girls were also 20% more likely than white girls to be in detention, while Native girls were 50% more likely.1

To take action beyond the #FreeBresha Teach-In, here are 5 ways you can help Bresha:

  1. Write to Bresha
  2. Use the #FreeBresha curriculum to spark conversations in your community about trauma and overcriminalization of youth of color.
  3. Organize a #FreeBresha book drive for incarcerated girl and women.
  4. Donate to Bresha and her family via GoFundMe.
  5. Write an open letter to the prosecutors in Bresha’s case.

In Virginia, find out more about amazing groups working to shut down the trauma-to-prison pipeline locally:

  1. Rise for Youth
  2. Legal Aid Justice Center
  3. Performing Statistics
  4. Art180

 

1 Sherman, Francine T. and Annie Balck, in partnership with The National Crittenton Foundation and the National Women’s Law Center. 2015. “Gender Injustice: System-Level Juvenile Justice Reform for Girls.” http://nationalcrittenton.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Gender_Injustice_Report.pdf

Featured image source: #FreeBresha: A Night of Abolitionist Art & Action, Love and Struggle Photos, @loveandstrugglephotos


RSVP now to the #FreeBresha Teach-In: Overcriminalization of Youth of Color this Thursday, April 20, 5:30pm-8:00pm at the Action Alliance office.

Register now for April 26-27 Building Healthy Futures: Linking Public Health & Activism to Prevent Sexual & Intimate Partner Violence conference, where we will be talking more about the trauma-to-prison pipeline and work being done to shut it down.


Kate McCord is the Movement Strategy & Communications Director for the Action Alliance, a member of the Action Alliance’s Racial Justice Task Force, and has been working in the movement to end gender-based violence for over 25 years. Kate is working with other coalition leaders as part of the Move to End Violence initiative to mobilize against state violence nationally and shut down the trauma-to-prison pipeline in Virginia.

A Lifetime Legacy Day: We Believe You

Members join at the Lifetime level to show their commitment to engage in prevention and anti-violence work to solidify and strengthen the work of the Action Alliance.

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Annually, the Action Alliance gets together with Lifetime Members to celebrate their commitment to anti-violence work.This is an annual special event for Lifetime Members and their guests.

img_9203This year, our guest was Annie Clark – civil rights activist, co-founder and Executive Director of the survivor advocacy group, End Rape on Campus. She is the co-author, along with Andra Pino of We Believe You, Survivors of Campus Sexual Assault Speak Out. Annie joined the Lifetime Members group to speak on her journey from survivor to activist.

In 2013, authors Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, along with others filed a federal complaint against the University of North Carolina for mishandling sexual assault reports, and the government took their case. Annie and Andrea collected stories of experiences of trauma, healing, and everyday activism.

 

I love the Lifetime Legacy Luncheon because it gives me a chance to be in the same room with an incredible group of committed activists. Through this event we are able to honor multiple generations and their commitment to the work to end violence. 

Kate

Being a Lifetime Legacy member keeps me connected to the community of survivors and the advocates who work on their behalf. I am inspired by Annie’s activism and her book, and grateful to be part of celebrating the voices of survivors coming forth and grateful for their efforts to seek justice on behalf of all. 

Carol

 


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After the event, the guests enjoyed a complimentary day in the Botanical Gardens.

If you are not a lifetime member and want to join, please click here or contact Carol Olson at colson@vsdvalliance.org regarding membership or click on Join Us.

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

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

Mother’s Day for Peace

We tend to think of Mother’s day as a commercial ‘Hallmark’ greeting card kind of day to recognize mothers with cards, flowers and gifts. Celebrations of mothers and motherhood can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans and our current commercialism around the holiday, and the role of mothers in families is indeed deeply rooted in our lives and culture. Nevertheless, the often overlooked herstory of the day is more aligned with the work of advocates and activists promoting peace and nonviolence and resonates with the early organizing efforts of our foremothers Ann Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe.

The herstory of the day is grounded in honoring women’s commitment to the past, present and future of our families and the world at both personal and political levels. It honors those who acted on behalf of not only their own children but of the future generations. So as in the past we work today to recall the origins of Mother’s Day’s as a call to women (and men) to join together to rise up to oppose war and violence.

In the words of Julia Ward Howe’s in 1870 her Mother’s Day proclamation:

Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience ………

………In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

 

The full proclamation can be found at: http://womenshistory.about.com/od/howejwriting/a/mothers_day.htm

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picture credit: Janett Forte

“Mother’s Day is the legacy of Anna Jarvis and her mother Ann Jarvis. At the heart of the traditions around Mother’s Day are themes of honoring mothers, compassion, peace, reconciliation, and social action.”

Perhaps in honoring our mothers this year we can reframe our Hallmark holiday to one that recalls the shoulders we stand on and the gifts of our early foremother’s in organizing for peace this Mother’s Day.  We can consider the legacy we are leaving and we can remind each other that peace, kindness, non-violence, equality and stewardship of the earth are values we all hold and work towards- together for ourselves and for future generations.

Happy Mother’s Day for Peace.

Janett Forte is a ‘mostly’ retired social worker. She is a governing body member of the Action Alliance and has been involved in the movement to end violence against women for over 30 years. She previously worked at Virginia Commonwealth University and coordinated services in Chesterfield County through the Domestic Violence Resource Center, an office she designed. She started her advocacy work at the YWCA in Richmond.  Retirement life has offered opportunities for travel both personally and professionally to places including service trips to Haiti, Guatemala, Philippines and Honduras and pleasure trips to Hawaii, Costa Rica and Italy. Janett is the mother of one son, Sean. 

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

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

 

 

Mothers on Trial: Gender bias in the Courtroom

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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

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

 

 

In the Beginning: Perspective of Mothers of the Movement

I have been a member of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance (Action Alliance) for approximately 30+ years. Therefore, I have been a member since the late 80s. I became a member as a survivor and then gradually moved into various aspects of the Women’s Movement which has been synonymously linked to Virginians Against Domestic Violence (what the Action Alliance was called in the early years and their acronym was VADV). The sexual assault state coalition at that time was called Virginians Aligned Against Sexual Assault (VAASA). Both of these organizations merged into one organization approximately ten years ago.

My rationale for becoming active within the coalition in the late 80’s derived from their “fundamental principles” pertaining to victim services and how these principles fed my need to fight oppression and the passion to become familiar with every aspect of victimization. I devoured research and I still have an insatiable appetite for any and all research pertaining to victimization and trauma and recovery. I became the chair of the Women of Color Caucus (WOCC) and watched the caucus blossom into a membership of 40 women which thrived for three years. During that time I was facilitating support groups for a non-profit, creating my own non-profit, reading and participating in as much of the field of domestic and sexual violence and stalking as I could. I watched VADV morph into a viable organization of women who saw their dream of shelter structure and service delivery come true.

However, somewhere a transition occurred and the core of our work began to be dictated by what was beneficial to becoming renowned versus what is best for survivors. Upon reflection I cannot really put a finger on the actual time this occurred but it was the wave of the future which tended to narrow the scope of service delivery and impose restrictions and requirements that affected how we viewed provision of services to victims. The feeling of family and comradery was replaced by the mechanics of output and accomplishment. A few of us maintained contact and managed to preserve a sense of purpose, while some of us abandoned the vision of healing many future survivors, for the viability and aggrandizement of an organization. This happens to many organizations as growth becomes the goal opposed to being a viable entity in which output and productivity embraces the needs of the victims; promoting healing on a continuum while constructing and maintaining a place where victims’ voices are heard.

We should remember that we built our foundation on the mantra “Peace on Earth Begins at Home”. If we do not alter our course and remember our historical journey, who was at the table in the beginning, and the longing we had to maintain the belief that we are stronger together, we will lose our vision of our future. We believed strongly in diversity and maintaining ideologies which challenged the “majority culture” as we practiced the essential components of cultural competence and victim driven services. We have gravitated toward embracing the mainstream societal influences while overlooking or not comprehending this is not always beneficial to victims, especially the underserved populations. Is not this what sank the Titanic? The disaster was not caused by the icebergs. Yes, that is what caused the ship to sink but the captain’s belief that his ship was unsinkable caused him to stay the course which took him straight into danger. I urge us all to be aware of the distress warnings being heard from those who were tossed overboard for the good of the coalition. No organization is infallible. If we do not heed the cries of the survivors we will capsize. It is not what is seen that takes us down, it is what remains hidden.

Reverend Patricia Jones Turner, MA is a preacher, pastor, teacher, poet, trainer, counselor, educator, writer, and a motivational speaker who guides those who participate in her workshops into self-enlightenment.  Rev. Jones Turner says, “One cannot transcend the ‘world’s’  perspective without confronting and accepting our own inadequacies. It is in the acceptance of our ineptness that we come to understand we control nothing but should seek to give everything; thus fulfilling our destiny and accomplishing our purpose unto Heaven.” 

Links:

Our guiding principles  As The Alliance conducts its work, it is essential that survivors, the interests of survivors, and those impacted by sexual assault and domestic violence are at the forefront of all decision-making.

Interested in learning more about advocacy and prevention? Our Training Institute delivers forward-thinking and accessible education, training, and resources for professionals working on the front lines to address and prevention sexual and domestic violence. Register here for trainings.

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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

Restorative Justice: Restorative of Right Relationships, of Community.

On August 15, 1995 my sister was shot several times in the face and chest while she lay sleeping by a male “friend” our family had known since childhood. She was a wife and mother of 2 small children, a daughter, and a sister. Her family was shattered. Our family was shattered. The hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life was to tell my seven-year old niece that her mother was dead.

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picture courtesy of Jennifer Garvin-Sanchez

Because there was a confession and a plea-bargain, we had no day in court. It was all handled by the state prosecutor, and because my sister was not considered my “immediate” family because we both had families of our own, I was not kept in the loop by the police and prosecutor. I was not informed when the murderer was released from jail, finding out only through a picture of him through a friend of a friend on Facebook.
Neither I nor my family have ever received any communication from him, no explanation, no apologies. I am still waiting for an explanation.

Retributive justice is the idea that those who commit crimes should have to pay in some like fashion for the crimes they have committed. An eye for an eye. We have some innate sense that the scales of justice need to be balanced; offenders must pay in some way for the crimes they commit. Through paying for their crimes, they somehow rebalance the scales, and we feel in some way that justice has been served. But I never felt that way. Of course, he did not receive the death penalty, which would have been in-kind, but for me, that would never have balanced the scales, the only way to do that would have been to bring my sister back from the dead.

What I have been seeking is something else—restorative justice. The goal of restorative justice is a restoration of right relationships, sometimes through restitution, sometimes through talking, and a restoration of community. For example, a few years ago a neighborhood teen stole our motor scooter. A goal of restorative justice would be to re-establish right relationships between neighbors, perhaps having the teen work off what he had done through yard work, thus balancing the scales and restoring community. This lets the teenager know just how much hard work it is to work off $1300, and through getting to know us, it would have humanized us to him. So what if we were to redefine our concept of justice, to rethink it? This is not difficult to envision when it comes to teen petty theft, but in violent offenses it is much more difficult.

But I can imagine what might bring me some peace of mind. Crimes are not just a matter between the perpetrator and the state—all family members should be kept abreast of all developments in cases like these, including release of prisoners. Perhaps I do not want a restoration of a relationship with the murderer, but some kind of explanation why and an apology would go a long way in my healing. I long ago, intellectually, forgave him, but emotionally is another thing. Restorative justice sometimes involves a sit-down conversation between parties—I would welcome that. It is also important to realize that not only my family was shattered, but his family as well. Restorative justice involves reintegrating the offender into community, maybe not with my family, but with his. Judging from Facebook photos, his family has welcomed him back, but my family and his family have had no contact and no restoration of community or an attempt at an apology or understanding.

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picture courtesy of Jennifer Garvin-Sanchez

Perhaps an illustration from Africa would help our nation reformulate ideas of justice. After the genocide in Rwanda and Barundi, many perpetrators of the violence were put in prison. A few years ago, when they were about to be released, the community was worried that the survivors would retaliate—an eye for an eye. That is when the program Healing and Rebuilding our Communities was born (the Richmond Peace Education Center has since brought this program from Africa). This program brings together survivors and perpetrators in weekend-long settings to talk about the trauma that resulted from the violence. As survivors talk about their trauma, those involved in violent crime see the effect their actions have had. But they also begin to open up and speak about their own trauma, in a non-judgmental setting. What happens, then, is through the telling of stories, and seeing the others point of view, both sides begin to heal, forgiveness sometimes occurs, and community is restored. Even though it seems like it shouldn’t work–bringing murderers and rapists together with survivors–their experience is that it has rebuilt their community and prevented more violence. This is restorative justice at the most difficult level. But only through a rebuilding of right relationships, a restoration of community, and healing from trauma, will future violence be prevented. This is justice re-imagined.

Jennifer Garvin-Sanchez is affiliate faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University.  She holds a doctorate from Union Presbyterian Seminary, here in Richmond, and has lived in Richmond since 1986.  She is a board member of the Richmond Peace Education Center, and the producer, along with her students, of “A Time for Peace” radio segment on WRIR 97.3 FM.

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

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