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. 

The Power of Advocacy

In Virginia, sexual and domestic violence agencies (SDVAs) utilize a system called VAdata to capture information about the services they provide and the needs of people who access those services. For folks less familiar with VAdata, it is an incredibly useful data collection system that leads many an advocate to groan (show of hands if you love filling out data forms…anyone?) Although data collection can feel burdensome to advocates busily providing crisis intervention, counseling, and support to survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence, it is an often under-rated tool for advocacy.

Advocacy Works-FINAL11x22-2.jpgSo, what does VAdata have to do with advocacy? Since 2009, VAdata has included a data collection component, called Documenting Our Work, that tracks information on the range of services provided by SDVAs and the impact these services have on survivors and communities statewide. Documenting Our Work is unique in that survivors have the opportunity to tell us in their own words how their lives have been affected by the advocacy they have received from Virginia’s SDVAs.

This summer, the Action Alliance looked at the Documenting Our Work data from the past 5 years and the results resoundingly affirmed what we already knew to be true: ADVOCACY WORKS. Survivors consistently report that SDVAs help them build trust and restore hope. The overwhelming majority of survivors tell us they receive the help they need, whether that be help finding safe and affordable housing, help with immigration concerns, or help addressing emotional needs in the wake of traumatic life events.

Advocates are on the ground each and every day providing vital services to survivors and may not always get to hear about how powerful and life-changing is their work. We want advocates to know that, through Documenting Our Work, survivors consistently report that these services are making a huge impact in their lives. Don’t take my word for it – here are just a few examples of what survivors have said:

  • “The staff has shown me unending kindness and helped me better accept myself in this situation.”
  • “I know I am not alone.”
  • “They left me feeling empowered.”
  • “They are very positive and helpful people here. I wouldn’t be where I am today without their help.”

Want to see the data? We created this cool infographic to illustrate the power of advocacy in Virginia.

Kristen Pritchard is Prevention and Evaluation Coordinator at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, Virginia’s leading voice on sexual and domestic violence. She received her B.S. in Psychology and Human Services from Old Dominion University in 2012 and her Master of Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2015. Kristen travels across the state of Virginia to provide training and technical assistance to organizations on various issues such as reproductive coercion, healthy sexuality, and trauma-informed advocacy.

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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

Kristi visits centers across Southwest Virginia

One of the more exciting roles of the Executive Director of the Action Alliance is to visit the member sexual and domestic violence agencies. This is one important way we keep in touch with what is happening in our cause area across the Commonwealth. I decided to share my latest trip to Southwest Virginia with you.

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Tamy with Ms. Kitty

Monday: 

It is early afternoon and I am pulling up next to a huge, red Victorian house in Covington, Virginia. Tamy Mann, Executive Director, meets me in the parking lot, and it is not too long before Miss Kitty, the “Deputy Director,” joins us. Tamy and Miss Kitty give me a tour of the playground that was recently updated by the Rotary Club and then take me over to a garage/shed that is being converted into a group room, a play space for teens, and with the help of some community grant funds, new office space to accommodate a rapidly expanding staff.

Thanks to new federal Victims Of Crime Act (VOCA) funding administered by Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services money that comes from criminal fines and fees converted into vital victim services—Safehome Systems in Covington will have 24-hour staff on-site for the first time EVER. Those staff will welcome, support and counsel survivors in a warm and welcoming space thanks to Tamy and many members of the community who have worked hard over the past three years to complete major renovations to the shelter and offices and major improvements to the services offered throughout Craig and Bath counties. I spend a few hours with Tamy and her staff—and then leave them as they prepare from more interviews for nighttime and weekend staff. I head south and west…headed to Bristol on Tuesday.

A side note:  when you have been driving on country roads and have no idea where you are, but you are trusting your GPS, and then your GPS is telling you to turn on a country road that has a big, big sign that says “GPS not advisable on this route” what do you do??!

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Bristolopy

Tuesday:

Stephanie Poe, Executive Director of the Crisis Center greets me in the Center’s offices which are located firmly on the Virginia side of the VA/TN line that runs through Bristol. Stephanie heads up a small but mighty staff who are delivering a diverse set of services meeting a wide range of community needs. In addition to providing sexual violence services the agency operates a regional suicide hotline, manages a service that provides support to home-bound elderly and disabled adults, and fills community gaps for other crisis and support services, including the current support group for autism spectrum families. They do all of this with the help of a large and diverse group of volunteers and “Experience Works” employees who are all over the age of 55.

As I am leaving Stephanie shares the plans for their newest fundraiser: a new and improved version of “Bristolopoly!” As someone who LOVES Monopoly and has fond memories of weekend games that lasted for hours, this is just TOO COOL!

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Michelle Hensley

Wednesday:

Two visits today!! The weather is still beautiful, and the drive from Bristol to Gate City takes me through some beautiful countryside. There are three big highlights to this leg of my journey. The first is hearing about the plans Michelle Hensley, Executive Director of Hope House, is making after receiving a significant increase in state and VOCA funding. Hope House will be expanding to add sexual violence services—for the first time ever in this part of Virginia!!! Overall the staff size will double—making it possible to add a wide range of services for children and adults and making those services available 24 hours a day. Funds will also be applied to leasing a new outreach office—and moving staff offices out of the shelter will make space for 10 additional beds, which will truly be a blessing in this community where the shelter has been full since March!

The second highlight of this trip was meeting some of the new Hope House staff—what an awesome, passionate group of advocates. And the third highlight had to be the pastries.  They have one heck of a bakery in Gate City!!

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Hope House Play Space

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Marybeth Adkins and Kristi Van Audenhove

From Gate City I traveled down the road to Norton to meet with Marybeth Adkins, Executive Director of Family Crisis Support Services (FCSS). FCSS is another agency that is providing a wide range of community services—both sexual and domestic violence services, prevention education, and homeless prevention and shelter services. Sexual and domestic violence services are also expanding in this southwest community as a result of state and federal funding increases:  FCSS will be adding children’s services and like many other agencies, the funds also made it possible to reach the level of 24/7 staffing that ensures that survivors can reach a trained advocate any time of the day or night.

I enjoyed learning about a few unique partnerships that are working well in Norton. One of those partnerships is with a local movie theater that advertises the hotline number during each movie, provides movie tickets for shelter residents, and collaborates with FCSS to make safe space available for survivors. Family Crisis Support Services was also gearing up for a fun fall fundraiser while I was there—a flag football game between the Sheriff’s office and the fire department!!

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Jennifer Bourne

Thursday: 

Thursday morning I arrive at the Clinch Valley Community Action Agency just as Jennifer Bourne, Director of Family Crisis Services, arrives for work.  She takes me on a quick tour of the shelter (a spacious and well designed space that seems to be bustling this morning!) before heading up to her office. As I sit down in Jennifer’s office I am delighted by her bulletin board—a wonderful collection of posters, flyers, bumper stickers and more that provide a visible herstory of the movement!!

Perhaps most impressive of all is a flip chart page that is posted across the room with no fewer than 25 activities that are planned for October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Family Crisis Services has a high level of commitment to educating their community –about the issues of sexual and domestic violence, about the resources that are available, and about healthy relationships.  From a Porch Light Campaign to a PJ party—there is something for everyone!!jenniferbulletinboardsmaller

The new state and VOCA funds are making it possible for Family Crisis Services to expand sexual violence prevention programming from the high school to the middle school, add the service of sheltering pets, and provide professional mental health counseling for trauma survivors who need that vital service. There will also be 4 new staff at the shelter—making 24-hour staff available for the first time!!

From Tazewell I head north and east to visit the Women’s Resource Center of the New River Valley (WRC) in Radford. It is always a pleasure to see my long-time friend Pat Brown and to hear about how programs are evolving at the Women’s Resource Center. The Women’s Resource Center is one of Virginia’s very first sexual and domestic violence agencies and has been a leader in the field since those very early days. I spend some time with Pat talking about an emerging concern of Executive Directors across the state—how to bring their agencies into compliance with the new federal overtime rules by December 1. For agencies that have relied upon advocates to work flexible hours, to be on-call on weekends and overnight, to accompany survivors to the hospital and to court and to stay with them as long as they want and need an advocate, even when that is 6, 10, 12 hours or more the new overtime rules may be very costly to implement. Directors are balancing fair labor practices, which they value highly, with strong advocacy and support for survivors, which they value highly as well!

tazewellsmallerEven in this agency with nearly 40 staff, the VOCA funds and the state funding increases are making a difference. WRC has added Justice System Navigators to work on behalf of survivors in each of the localities they serve, a campus Outreach Specialist to provide dedicated services to students, and other outreach staff who will expand the reach of the agency—including connections with the LGBTQ community.  This was a great way to wrap up my trip—a cold beverage, some yummy nachos (thank you Laura Weaver), and a sense of having come full circle.

Kristi VanAudenhove is the Executive Director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She has been a leader in coalition work, advocacy and policy for nearly 40 years. 

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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

Supporting Survivors – A Hotline Responder Blog

It is July 1st, 2016 on a humid summer morning in Richmond, Virginia. Staff and hotline workers are gearing up for a special day at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. Today, for the first time in over 30 years, the 24/7 Virginia Family Violence and Sexual Assault Hotline is being answered solely here in Richmond, Virginia at the Action Alliance. Prior to this date The Action Alliance shared responsibility of answering the hotline with Project Horizon in Lexington, Virginia.

The day starts quiet as my coworker and I arrive at 7:45 to start our day. I call Project Horizon staff one last time to check for messages from the overnight shift. The overnight hotline staff worker expresses to me how busy of a night it was and wished the Action Alliance all the best with the hotline. I expressed my gratitude towards her and for the entire staff at Project Horizon for answering the hotline and supporting us.

My coworker and I unforward the lines and log into ICAROL, the system that allows us now to chat and text with survivors 24/7.  I made a cup of coffee, took a deep breath, and prepared for the busy day.

 

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The day starts off with a few calls here and there from domestic violence/ sexual assault programs across the state taking their lines back and checking for messages. I hear my coworker take a call from a survivor checking in for shelter in the Chesapeake region. She talks to her, gets her information, and calls the on call for the program in that area to relay the information that this survivor is in need of shelter.

Outside of the hotline room I hear the commotion of my colleagues getting ready to present a webinar to the new and existing programs that wish to utilize our hotline services. Currently the Statewide hotline answers for over 20 programs, which will increase with the signing on new programs starting July 1st.

The afternoon quickly approaches and I receive a call from a survivor of intimate partner violence who had questions about how to get a protective order. I listen to her story, provide emotional support, answer her questions and explain the process of obtaining a protective order, and safety plan with her. I also provide her with the number to her local domestic violence program and let her know what services they could provide to her to offer her additional support and encourage her to reach out to an advocate if she feels comfortable.

As our conversation begins to wrap up I hear my coworker answer the PREA line. PREA stands for Prison Rape Elimination Act and allows us to speak to incarcerated individuals who are experiencing sexual harassment or sexual assault. My coworker listens to his story, informs the caller what the PREA line does, collects his information about the harassment he is experiencing from a correctional officer, gets his consent to make a PREA report.

PREA.jpg

My coworker and I document our calls in our call sheet and VADATA and starting chatting about what we are going to eat for lunch. Our conversation quickly becomes interrupted by a call coming in from the LGBTQ line.  In addition to the PREA and statewide hotline, we operate a 24/7 hotline for LGBTQ survivors of intimate partner violence and sexual assault.

While I am on the phone, my colleague receives another call from a survivor from the Fairfax area who was recently sexually assaulted by her boyfriend.  When I hang up from the LGBTQ line I almost immediately get a call from someone in the Virginia Beach area looking for shelter. However, this time it was single female looking for shelter due to homelessness. My tummy growled as I connected her to local homeless services and shelters in her area. While we are a hotline for survivors of violence we get many calls that are not related to violence and still are a resource for those folks.

We quickly eat our lunches at our desk, talk about our pets, and discuss who is working the late night and overnight shifts for our first official weekend that is 24/7. We talk about our plans for the 4th of July Holiday. I let my coworker know that I am working July 4th among many of my other colleagues as well.  Working on a 24/7 hotline for survivors requires willingness of staff to work holidays and weekends that are often spent with families and friends.

The day continues in this fashion for the 8 hours that I am scheduled to work. My coworker and I receive calls, chats, and texts from survivors from survivors, family, friends, and professionals from all over the state seeking support for the violence they or someone they know have experienced.

Our work on the hotline is not always straightforward or easy, it is full of complexities. We hear about pain, anger, trauma, and sadness on a daily basis but our role is critical. We offer compassionate and trauma informed services and crisis intervention to callers around the clock and I am honored and privileged to work with survivors and the incredible the hotline team at the Action Alliance.

 

To reach the hotline call: 1.800.838.8238

To text us text: 1.804.793.9999

To chat: http://www.vadata.org/chat/

To call the LGBTQ hotline call: 1.866.356.6998  (Please note that you can also reach the LGBTQ line through our chat and text feature as well).

Jennifer Gallienne is a Senior Hotline Crisis Specialist and Outreach Specialist here at the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She has worked at the Action Alliance for 3 years and supports anti-violence work through other community organizations as well. 

 

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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

 

Serving Victims, Building Trust, Restoring Hope 

National Crime Victims’ Rights Week – April 10-16, 2016

On behalf of the 65 member Sexual and Domestic Violence Advocacy agencies who are at the center of the Action Alliance, the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance is pleased to observe National Crime Victims’ Rights Week 2016.

Virginia’s Sexual and Domestic Violence Agencies served more than 20,000 victims of domestic violence last year, and more than 7,500 victims of sexual assault. Those services included shelter for 3200 adults and their 2600 children.

More than half of the victims served had reported to law enforcement.  For approximately 20% of victims the violence resulted in missing either school or work30% had to relocate as a result of the violence. One in 5 victims reported that a weapon was used during the violent incident that led them to reach out for help.

As one of the only services available 24 hours a day in every community in Virginia, Sexual and Domestic Violence agencies also responded to more than 70,000 Hotline calls. About one quarter of those calls were from individuals who were not victims of sexual or domestic violence, but who had some other urgent need—most often homelessness, or a mental health crisis.

A snapshot of an “average day” in domestic violence programs across Virginia can tell you a little bit more about how our member agencies are serving victims. The National Network to End Domestic Violence conducts an annual point in time census with domestic violence service providers nationwide. On September 16, 2015, over a 24-hour period, Virginia’s 51 Domestic Violence Programs (100% of whom participated in the census):

  • Served 1,613 victims
  • Provided emergency shelter to 267 women, 3 men, 1 transgender adult and 224 children
  • Answered 565 Hotline calls

When asked about the specific types of services that each agency provided on that single day:

    • 98% provided individual counseling or advocacy
    • 33% provided a support group
    • 50% accompanied a victim to court
    • 25% assisted a victim with a disability
    • 20% worked with a victim on an immigration advocacy issue
    • 10% provided advocacy to an LGBTQ survivor
    • 57% helped a victim to access health care or mental health care services
  • 24% worked with one or more survivors to find employment 

Sexual and Domestic Violence agencies are providing a wide range of services to diverse survivors each and every day. Of course, there is another side to this story. The census also revealed that on that same day 55 adults, with 29 children in their care, could not be sheltered because space was not available. Agencies also reported being unable to meet the full needs for legal services, counseling, housing assistance and child care on that day—with one agency reporting that the need so far exceeded their capacity that 23 victims were on a waiting list of counseling services!!

This gap between need and resources—which we first identified statewide in 2012—was further exacerbated in 2015 as 14 agencies reporting eliminating 32 direct service positions as a result of reductions in fundingWe look forward to seeing a turn around in those numbers in the upcoming year as a result of increases in both state and federal funding!!

 

     Building Trust  

Sexual and Domestic Violence Agencies are based in principles designed to build trust, empower survivors and ultimately restore hope for survivors and communities. They are trauma-informed, recognizing the short-term and long-term impact of trauma in the lives of survivors and considering the impact of environmental, community and historic trauma on those victims from marginalized communities whose personal experience is compounded by this contextual trauma.

They are asset-based, recognizing the strength within each individual and cultivating health and wellness as a part of both intervention and prevention efforts. And they are committed to “justice for all” in a deep and meaningful way—addressing the root causes of sexual and intimate partner violence and recognizing and addressing the intersections of oppression not only in our communities, but in the lives of victims who are directly impacted by sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-immigrant sentiments and other forms of bias and discrimination. If we are to be trustworthy we must embrace the inherent dignity and worth of every individual.

 

     Restoring Hope 

Survivors tell us each and every day that Sexual and Domestic Violence agencies are meeting the goal of “Restoring Hope” in their lives.  Each victim we serve has the opportunity to complete an anonymous survey that evaluates the services they received and offers an opportunity to provide feedback.

From the thousands of surveys that have been submitted over the past 3 years,  we know that 85% of victims feel more hopeful about their lives as a result of the services they received.  Survivors report:

“I neededServing Victims. Building Trust. Restoring Hope., April 10-16, 2016 support in my hardest times and she was there.”

“I was 9 months pregnant, with 3 kids.  I had been strangled and almost killed.  Because of you I didn’t give up.  You helped my keep going on…you have helped us to see that there is light out there for me and I’ll be okay.”

And from a caller to the LGBTQ Helpline

“I’m so glad that you have a service like this because I cannot talk to my friends or family members.”

All Virginians should be proud that you have created a network of “services like this,” through public funding, through your personal donations, through your contributions of time and talent as volunteers and as board members, and as dedicated advocates all across the state.  You truly are “Restoring Hope.”

 

Kristi VanAudenhove is the Executive Director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She has been a leader in coalition work, advocacy and policy for nearly 40 years.

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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.

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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.

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Why Believe?

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Credit: Tim Meacham

Have you ever witnessed something so fantastic that you could not accurately describe it to friends or family? Have you thought, “They would not believe this?” Yet, you tell your story anyway. You tell it with vim and vigor, hoping that people believe the unbelievable. Some will believe you and speak to how incredible your story is. Some will not believe, but simply tell you that there has to be some underlying explanation that has not revealed itself. You feel validated by those that believe; and, for those that do not, you still feel accepted and certainly not denigrated. Yet, you desire for all to believe.

I have worked in public safety for almost 30 years. I have heard a lot of amazing stories, and experienced many, many more; some of these stories humorous beyond belief, and some of them tragic beyond comprehension. I know that were I to reduce what I have witnessed and heard to writing, there would be those that do not believe. I accept that. No one wants to believe some of the choices people feel forced to make just to survive. No one wants to believe some of the desperate acts I have witnessed.

As a younger patrol officer, I knew my functions were: 1) answer calls for service (reactive policing); 2) provide high visibility patrol and handle problems as I find them (proactive policing); and, 3) get to know the people living in my patrol area (community policing). In reality, I spent most of my time answering calls for service. That is the nature of the beast for law enforcement. You are supposed to handle a call to some resolution, quickly document your actions and head out to the next call for service. Resolutions were difficult to manage at times. Sometimes I could refer to another agency like Social Services, a counseling center, a church, or another government or non-profit organization. Sometimes I could refer the matter to my department’s Investigative Unit. Whatever the situation, though, I had to handle it and move on.
Even in the small agencies (where there are about 20 officers in the entire department), calls for service can stack up. There were times when I could spend some time working with community members who needed some extra help in navigating the problem, but I was always supposed to “stay in my lane”, which was patrol. Patrol, for almost every police department, is the primary function. When it came to community members reporting serious crimes, I was required to determine if I had enough information to call out one of our detectives. To do this, I quickly asked the: who, what, when, where, how, and why questions. Usually, most patrol officers can go through this information in about ten minutes or less. The thinking behind this efficiency is: 1) I have other calls for service to answer; and, 2) if this crime just happened, we are losing precious time locating the offender by standing around and talking about it.

Crimes that the above mentioned form of questioning fails are crimes of intimate partner violence. Intimate Partner Violence (or IPV) crimes include domestic violence, dating violence, stalking and sexual assault. With these crimes, it is not always as easy as who, what, when, where, how, and why. I have learned through many years and many, many calls for service that survivors of IPV experience a lot of abuse that someone would not be expected to tolerate. The reasons for this tolerance are as varied as the number of survivors. This is not assigning blame to survivors. I mention only to explain that everyone’s experience of abuse is different and people can exist with abuse in their lives for many reasons.

Survivors of IPV have some of the most extraordinary stories to tell. These stories can and will exceed a belief threshold. IPV survivors know their stories are extraordinary. Because a victim of IPV has experienced the extraordinary, the question format of who, what, when, where, how, and why cannot scratch the surface of what happened to them. Because IPV survivors have suffered trauma, they, most likely, cannot tell you everything about who, what, when, where, how, and why; although they want to. When IPV survivors tell this extraordinary story of what happened to them, they want to be believed.

When IPV survivors tell their story, they hear, “Why did you go back to him/her?”; or, “Why did you let it go on this long”; or, “Why did you drink (or get drunk) with him/her?”; or, “Why did you wear those clothes?”; or, “Why didn’t you ______ (call for help, scream, fight back, say, “no”)?” These are the questions they hear from friends and family. The IPV survivor blames themselves more than they blame the offender. The saddest encounter for the IPV survivor, though, is when the police ask those same “why” questions. The people sworn to protect and serve instead blame and denigrate.

I have had uncountable number of people tell me that someone stole something from them. I have had innumerable people tell me that someone broke something that belonged to them. I have had numerous people tell me someone broke into their house. I have had copious amounts of people that someone hit them. I do not ever recall asking those victims if their behavior led to the criminal behavior of their offender. Instead, I have accepted what they said, recorded what they said and applied my authority as appropriately as possible in their situation.
Survivors of intimate partner violence deserve the same respect as other victims of crime. They deserve more compassion and less hurried response. Most of all, survivors of intimate partner violence deserve to be believed. A simple gesture such as talking to them in a place that is safe is a great start. Telling this person that they do not have to convince you that they are telling the truth lets them know, from the start, they will be believed. Instead of asking the: who, what, where, when, how, and why, simply ask them to describe their experience and thank them for trusting you. This response can lead to them feeling validated in telling their story. It is that simple.

Have you ever wanted to be believed when you had an extraordinary story to tell? I have. This is why I Believe.

Tim Meacham is a detective for a Central Virginia university. He is currently assigned to investigate criminal complaints of sexual assault, dating violence and stalking. He has over twenty years of experience in Law Enforcement, beginning his career in 1990. Tim teaches sexual assault investigations for a local prosecutor’s office and the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

Tim earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 2009 from Liberty University in Criminal Justice, and earned his Master of Science in Criminal Justice from the University of Cincinnati, in 2011. Tim has worked for a private police department, a municipal police department and campus police department. His training background is in investigations, crime analysis, and accreditation.

Start By Believing is a campaign of End Violence Against Women International

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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

 

Perspectives of Mothers of the Movement: Alice Twining

“What will matter is the good we did, not the good we expected others to do.”

-(Elizabeth Lesser)

 

What does “A Mother of the Movement” mean to me? – Nurturing, loving; mentoring, encouraging; positive communicating; excited about others’ energy and drive for social justice.

First I think, “I am not a mother of the movement,” I have just been around a long time! I was a farm girl. I worked my way through school in Boston where I first learned about sexual and domestic violence from Antioch graduate students I taught: a co-founder of Emerge (Batterers’ Intervention) and a domestic violence advocate in Cambridge. What I would learn later in California was the sneaky power of a psychopath.

In 1987 I moved to Virginia, fleeing with my baby from an abusive husband. My sister, Mary, took us in and mothered us. She found a lawyer at HER Shelter with advice on legal steps.  I saw a therapist who helped me manage my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and secondary trauma. New friends at Virginians Against Domestic Violence (VADV) and the YWCA helped me recover. We worked, played, laughed, cried, sang and danced as we evolved with Virginians Aligned Against Sexual Assault (VAASA) into the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance (Action Alliance). Many advocates joined us. I focused my practice on assisting survivors and children who witnessed abuse, and joined the VADV (now Action Alliance) Training Institute to facilitate learning on violence and trauma, prevention and intervention.

I feel like I am always standing on the shoulders of mothers  – from Seneca Falls women in 1848 and Sojourner Truth in 1850 to Patricia Hein and others in 1983 who walked the halls of the General Assembly in flowered dresses and large hats (“To meet the legislators where they are.”). When I was asked to serve on the VADV Board, I did not think I could help since my self-esteem had been crushed in the two years I was married. I wanted to contribute, and was mentored and encouraged to do so. My work as a YWCA crisis counselor and at Samaritan House was invaluable: we listened to women and children. We mothered each other.

Our movement expanded with trainings by national experts such as Carole Warshaw. More of us learned how to lobby and build bridges with other advocates to get protective orders and other laws passed. I will never forget the day when hundreds of us attended the Senate committee hearing to add marital rape to sexual assault laws. The room filled with VADV and VAASA supporters wearing ultra-green-stickers: “Married Women Can Be Raped, too.” We brought the media with us. None of the committee members attacked the bill, and it became law. I know we made a powerful difference, and we continue to make a difference.

The social change I have observed in 68 years is remarkable: freedom to evolve past stereotyped gender roles, freedom to marry persons we love, and to establish norms based on equality for all. More profound is knowing the loving children and grandchildren we raised with values and prevention tools from our work. Looking back, it is a joy to be a role model and mentor.

(Dedicated to my late mother and my loving son, 30.)

Alice Twining is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, trainer and expert witness in the psychology of women and children, and trauma and its impact on survivors. She was a psychotherapist for 30 years, specializing in domestic violence, sexual assault and battered women who are criminally charged. She has been on the faculty of the Action Alliance Training Institute since 1997, and is also a Lifetime Member of the Action Alliance. She was Program Director of the YWCA Domestic Violence Program of South Hampton Roads and Program Director at Samaritan House in Virginia Beach. Previously, she served for fourteen years on the VADV Board of Directors, and was President of the Board for four years. She is a painter, gardener and a jazz singer.

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Two young women lost their lives to domestic violence in Prince William County last weekend.

Crystal Hamilton was doing what many of us do on Saturdays—she was at home with her family and making plans for her evening. She will never see her son become a teenager, graduate from high school, find the love of his life or perhaps even start a family. Her 11 year-old son has lost his mother and has endured a trauma that will forever change his relationship to his father, will forever leave him feeling unsure and unsafe. Ronald Hamilton is charged with killing Crystal, his wife.

Officer Ashley Guindon was doing what law enforcement officers do on Saturdays and every day of the week—responding to a 911 call indicating possible domestic violence. Having just started on the force, she will never know the feeling that comes with making a positive contribution to public safety. Whatever dreams she may have had for her future will never become a reality. Ronald Hamilton is charged with killing Officer Guindon as she approached his home and with shooting two other law enforcement officers who responded with her.

Crystal Hamilton is one of an estimated 50 people who will die in Virginia at the hands of their intimate partner this year. Like Crystal, most of those victims will be women killed by a current or former partner who uses a firearm.

Ashley Guindon is one of an estimated 50 law enforcement officers who will die responding to domestic violence in the United States this year. The majority of those deaths will occur as officers approach the scene…before they even have the opportunity to apply the skills they have learned for responding to domestic violence.

The media coverage and the response to these two deaths has caused me to pause and reflect in my work. Initial reports focused almost exclusively on the shootings of 3 police officers. There was immediate and heartbreaking coverage about the death of Officer Ashley Guindon and the fact that it was her first day on the job. Crystal Hamilton then became visible as coverage continued; she was often referred to as “his wife” or as “the victim” of domestic violence.

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picture credit: Fox5DC

The law enforcement community across the Commonwealth responded swiftly and viscerally to the killing of a fellow officer. Rituals reserved for this specific tragedy were there as a support and as a public statement in the wake of this trauma. These rituals gave language to the grief felt by colleagues. And as the posts from law enforcement officers past and present appeared on my Facebook page, as the articles appeared in the news, as policy leaders spoke in the media about Officer Guindon’s tragic death, I was keenly aware that those of us in the domestic violence victim advocacy community are nearly as invisible in the public conversations that follow domestic violence homicides as Crystal Hamilton was in the coverage of this event. Perhaps because we sadly witness these horrible deaths nearly once a week across the state. Maybe we are immobilized by the weight of all of the violence and trauma and death.

I can not help but wonder what might happen if we were no longer quiet in the wake of each domestic violence homicide. What might happen if we created public and powerful rituals around each death—to bring strength to the survivors, to help us through our fear and grief, to offer hope to our communities?

Two 29-year old women lost their lives on Saturday. They lost their lives to domestic violence–to a public safety and public health scourge that is preventable. Let us all remember both of these women as we continue to work together for safe and respectful relationships for all. ALL.

Links:

“Why Crystal Hamilton’s Life Matters Too”

#CrystalHamilton

Kristi VanAudenhove is the Executive Director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She has been a leader in coalition work, advocacy and policy for nearly 40 years. 

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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

The Cost of Freedom

Lisette D. Johnson – Survivor

Every day the price for loving the wrong person is paid with lives. Once you know this, it is impossible to ignore the news. For every one woman killed, there are eight to nine who survive an attempt. Survivors share emotional scars that intertwine with the very fiber of who we are, who we’ve become, and who our children have become. It ripples into families and communities.

The price is high. Beyond the emotional toll there is another cost of freedom; the dollar price tag not calibrated by studies. It is increased health care costs for victims of IPV (intimate partner violence) which can extend as much as 15 years after an abusive relationship is exited. Compound the extraordinary costs of survival from gun violence and the profound associated residual physical challenges. I personally know women left paralyzed, blind, brain and neurologically impaired who will require lifelong intensive medical interventions, some lifelong caregivers.

Guns and abuse are proven to be far and away the most lethal combination; not knives, bats or hammers as naysayers insist. Bullets are quick, they’re clean and shooting can be accomplished from a distance.
The cost of my freedom continued long past the initial trauma surgery and hospital stay in ICU. It includes two subsequent surgeries, periodic cardiac monitoring, extensive psychotherapy for the children and me, at one point with five therapists between the three of us, plus hospitalizations for a suicidal child. Inching close to $200,000; some, but not all of which was covered by insurance, my bills are minimal as compared to the bills of others I know.

Nothing could have prepared me for the fallout from the shooting. Recovering from the physical injuries and my trauma while navigating the solo parenting of two traumatized children proved emotionally impossible when combined with running a business with employees. I closed a business I had owned for sixteen years within months.

Some days I wonder if I’ll be done paying for someone else’s choice to shoot me. Beyond the abuse, beyond the end, beyond my children’s suffering, beyond difficult days, I failed to take into account my recovery was going to plateau. I had no way of knowing that I would continue to struggle with focus and memory, and be continually exhausted. I expected to bounce back. I took for granted that I’d be on top of things again, be sharp, have the energy and mental acuity to go out and create a living like I enjoyed before it happened. I could not have imagined how I would struggle with simple things that are so every day you don’t even know you are doing them. Acknowledging that others have challenges far greater than mine does not negate my own.

I am eternally grateful to wake up every day to another sunrise. Even my worst day now is better than my best day in my marriage. Still, there is no denying the layers of damage when I add it all up.

Lisette Johnson is a survivor of an attempted partner homicide/suicide. She is an advocate for those experiencing domestic and sexual violence and collaborates for violence prevention education and awareness.  

*Statistics: Jacquelyn Campbell PhD RN FAAN Anna D. Wolf Chair & Professor Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing Multi City Intimate Partner Femicide Study and CDC Injury Prevention and Control Division of Violence Prevention.

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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