Monday, October 24, 2016

Have you opened a can of soda today?

Have you opened a can of soda today? If so, you had to exert about 22 pounds of force to do so. What does this have to do with domestic violence?

One of the most dangerous forms of violence in a relationship is strangulation. Victims of strangulation can die in as little as 3-10 seconds and it requires less force than most people think to cause fatal injuries. Back to the soda can example, the force needed to open that can is twice as much as is needed to close off a victim’s carotid artery. It’s 5 times as much as is needed to close off a victims’ jugular vein. Either of these can cause death or permanent brain damage in less than a minute. (source)

When an abuser puts their hands on the neck of a partner, they are saying to that partner that they are willing to kill. Death may result immediately, 3-21 days later as swelling and aspiration pneumonia set in, or years later with an increased risk of stroke or other cardiovascular consequences.

Besides the physical consequences of strangulation, victims with a history of non-fatal strangulation are six times more likely to be the victim of attempted domestic homicide than someone without that history and seven times as likely to be killed. Of note is that most of these homicides occur with a gun, not by strangulation. (study)

In 2009, Missouri was the first state to make attempting to strangle a partner a 2nd Degree Domestic Assault, a class C felony (MRS Section 565.073) in recognition of the severity of strangulation. Still, public awareness needs to catch up with policy. Victims, their families, and friends need to know how serious an instance of strangulation is, how its consequences can last for years, and the increased risk for homicide. They need to know how to report it, how to care for themselves after the crime, and what to look for in their medical future. They also need to know the realistic risks of their situation and how to protect themselves.

If you or someone you know is the victim of domestic violence, whether including strangulation or not, please call Crime Victim Advocacy Center at 314-652-3623 for help escaping the abuse.

Comments by Jessica M., Director of Advocacy & Community Services

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Changing Faces, Changing Spaces- We've Done This Before

For much of the history of scholarship and services on domestic violence, the crime has been viewed as perpetrated by males against females. This image informed policy and procedures for shelters, courts, police, and government. That image, however, must become more inclusive.

Research has shown that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals experience domestic violence at the same or higher rates than straight men and women. According to a Williams Institute study, bisexual women are nearly three times as likely as heterosexual women to experience sexual violence from an intimate partner. One third to one half of all transgender people will experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Bisexual men are also more likely than heterosexual men to experience intimate partner violence. Because of research like this and increased requests for services for LGBTQ victims of violence, the face of domestic violence is changing and therefore services must change, too.

LGBTQ victims of domestic violence face additional barriers to reporting the violence and receiving services. Scholarship has shown that victims face intimidation, isolation, financial control, and other coercion not to leave or report their abuser. In addition to the techniques that all abusers use to control their victims, LGBTQ victims may face fear of being “outed” if they report the crime, higher likelihood of preexisting isolation from family/friends, and systemic homophobia/transphobia/biphobia in the criminal justice system. Lesbians and gay men who report rape challenge the system’s inherent stereotypes that abusers are male and victims are women. Simply put, the system is not made for LGBTQ victims, at least not yet.

How, then, can the systems we have in place for female victims better address the changing face of domestic violence? This will be an ongoing discussion in the coming years, but to start, agencies can:
·      Provide services regardless of gender (a requirement of agencies currently receiving Violence Against Women Act funding)
·      Allow victims to self-identify gender, ask for their pronouns
·      Classify victims for groups/programs according to their gender identity
·      Target outreach and education programs to LGBTQ communities
·      Develop & implement trainings for law enforcement, courts, and other criminal justice system partners on working with LGBTQ victims of domestic violence

The change will not come easily, but we have been through this before. Advocates fought for decades to increase awareness of domestic violence; to improve the way victims are treated by the criminal justice system; to create support networks, advocacy groups, and shelters to pick up where society has not; and to make domestic violence an important local, national, and international policy issue. It is imperative, then, that advocates and policymakers turn this decades of experience and knowledge to likewise improving the way that LGBTQ victims of intimate partner violence are treated by society and what services are available and accessible to them.

CVAC's LAAW Programs offer free services to victims of domestic violence regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. For more information, call 314-652-3623 or visit

Comments by Jessica M., Director of Advocacy and Community Services

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

When Violence Becomes a Nuisance

Imagine for a moment being a victim of domestic violence and…
… your landlord tells you that the next time you need to call 911 to escape your abuser, you need to leave your house and go down to the corner store to do make the call.
… the police officer who has responded for the second time that night tells you that the next time you call 911, your property will be flagged as a nuisance property and your landlord will have to go to a hearing.
…. your landlord tells you that you are being evicted because you called 911 too many times and the landlord was fined for having a nuisance property.

All of these situations have happened to St. Louis domestic violence victims due in part to the Nuisance Property Ordinance.

What is a nuisance property?
According to Chapter 15.42 of the St. Louis Code of Ordinances, “A ‘Nuisance’ is a continuing act or physical condition which is made, permitted, allowed or continued by any person or legal entity, their agents or servants or any person or legal entity who aids therein which is detrimental to the safety, welfare or convenience of the inhabitants of the City or a part thereof, or any act or condition so designated by statute or ordinance.” 

This is commonly used to describe properties that are used for drug sales, prostitution, illegal firearms sales, and/or illegal gambling that require repeated contact by law enforcement and thus considerable public resources. Repeated contact may mean as few as 3 calls to 911 in a 12-month period.

What are the consequences of being a nuisance property?
If a property is flagged as a nuisance, a notice is sent to the owner or landlord and they are given 30 days to remedy the problem. If the situation is not remedied, the landlord or owner will be given a hearing after which, if found guilty of maintaining a nuisance, they may face a fine and up to 90 days in jail with escalating punishments for each additional offense. One way that landlords and owners may abate the nuisance is by evicting or removing the tenants of the property.

What does this have to do with domestic violence?
Domestic violence victims who have to call 911 on their abuser multiple times may get caught up in the nuisance property process. This means their landlords may face punishment and the victims may face eviction. Currently, the City Police Department’s Problem Properties Unit along with Aldermen and the City Counselor’s Office attempt to cull the domestic violence calls from the problem properties list to prevent them from being identified as nuisance properties.

Why is this important?
Domestic violence is one of the most under-reported crimes. Estimates range from 50%-80% of domestic violence incidents going unreported to police. Anything like the nuisance property ordinance that is perceived to punish domestic violence victims for repeatedly calling for help may decrease the likelihood of reporting and delay victims’ access to services and escape from the situation. 

Furthermore, with the demand for domestic violence shelter beds far outstripping the available supply, finding emergency housing for a victim facing eviction is a difficult task especially without the assistance of a trained victim advocate. Victims may also be denied future housing if their past landlords report that they created a nuisance in previous housing. Even if the cases are being removed from the nuisance list, however, there is still a lot of misinformation by landlords and the public that results in threats or evictions even when the nuisance ordinance does not apply.

What can be done?
The first step that advocates suggest is to formalize the exception to the nuisance property ordinance. Such a bill has been introduced as Board Bill #151, introduced by Ald. Megan Green and cosponsored by Ald. Sharon Tyus, Ald. Christine Ingrassia, Ald. Jeffrey Boyd, Ald. Scott Ogilvie, and Ald. Lyda Krewson. This would add language to the ordinance that “Notwithstanding any other provisions in this Section, a public nuisance does not exist solely: A. as a result of calls to alw enforcement officer of agencies for assistance in regards to alleged domestic violence. B. due to incidents of domestic violence.” This is not the only language that could be used, but it is a compromise that is currently before the Board of Aldermen that deserves serious consideration.

If the domestic violence cases are being removed from the list, why change anything?
This is the "if it ain't broke" like of argument. The exception for domestic violence victims, however, is not officially written into the statute. This process depends on police officers and government officials voluntarily excluding domestic violence cases from the nuisance property laws. As personnel or opinions change, however, this practice could be eliminated without explicit statutory language to mandate its continuation.

What comes next?
Changing the nuisance ordinance alone will not remedy the misinformation that the general public, landlords, and tenants have about the process. The Problem Properties Unit of the Police Department, domestic violence agencies, Aldermen, and neighborhood groups would all be well-served to develop and maintain educations programs to refute the misinformation about the nuisance ordinance and to notify victims and landlords of their rights and responsibilities.

What about other victims of violence?
Domestic violence victims are not the only victims who may be caught up in the nuisance ordinance. In September 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released suggestions for new protections for victims who need to access 911 services. These state that nuisance ordinances that punish victims for calling 911 may violate the Fair Housing Act to the extent that they are disproportionately applied to women, the most common victims of domestic violence. 

Further, HUD goes on to suggest that jurisdictions should repeal or revisit nuisance ordinances that implicitly encourage evictions or other sanctions for victims of domestic violence and other crime victims for using 911 services. Depending on the success of formally excluding domestic violence victims from the nuisance ordinance, St. Louis should next evaluate whether their ordinance similarly burdens victims of other types of crime and exempt them as well. 

LAAW Programs of CVAC serve thousands of domestic violence victims annually regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. If you or someone you know has been a victim of domestic violence, please call CVAC at 314-652-3623. 

Comments by Jessica M., Director of Advocacy and Community Services

Monday, June 13, 2016

Hate resonates.

Hate resonates. It ripples out from Orlando to touch lives in St. Louis and across the world. What happened in Orlando is not only a crime against the patrons of the Pulse Nightclub, but it's also an attack on all LGBTQ community members. This is how hate crimes are different.

I could recite the scholarly literature from my dissertation on hate and bias crimes that lists how hate crimes are more serious than other crimes, cause greater injuries, and evoke more trauma and increased likelihood of PTSD. What is at the heart of this matter, however, is that hate crimes target people for what they are, rather than who they are. While the crime in Orlando has not officially been ruled a hate crime, it certainly appears to be one. Those victims could have been any LGBTQ individuals as far as the shooter was concerned. The victims were interchangeable and he shot indiscriminately.

“I’m scared, scared that I cannot be who I truly am in public without grave harm to myself” That is the heartbreaking text that nearly brought me to my knees last night in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shootings. It was from a dear friend of mine who only recently has begun to explore her sexuality and gender identity. It’s from a dear friend of mine who has not been able to tell her family and most of her friends about her identity. It's from a dear friend who lives nowhere close to Orlando, but still fears and hurts. It is from a dear friend who has a trusted few friends that know her true self and who relies on the safety of LGBTQ-friendly areas and clubs to express herself. That perceived safety has been shattered for her and so many more people all across the country.

There’s really no answer I can give to her fear. All I can say is that I am scared, too. I’m scared for her and anyone else who suffers harm at the hand of hate. I’m scared that nowhere is safe for her. I’m scared that there’s nothing I can do to protect my friend. I’m scared that this will discourage her from being her true self. Most of all, I’m scared that hate will win. We can’t let hate win. 

If you are scared, angry, sad, hurt, or anxious because of the shootings in Orlando, you can call Crime Victim Advocacy Center for free counseling at 314-652-3623.  

Comments by Jessica M., Director of Advocacy Services

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Power of Imperfection

It is tempting to look for perfection. In many aspects of life, people have come to the understanding that perfection is unattainable. There is still, however, an idea of what makes a “perfect” crime victim. People imagine a grandmother on her way to church on Sunday morning who is struck by a stray bullet. They think of a woman jogging in the middle of the day who is dragged into the bushes and raped by a stranger in a ski mask. Not all victims fit those criteria, but in their stories is power.

If you have read media coverage of a crime that lists what a rape victim drank the night of her victimization or what the victim was wearing, you have witnessed victim blaming. If you have seen a story on a homicide that rattled off the victim’s previous arrests or convictions which may have happened decades ago, you have witnessed the blaming. All of this blaming points out what society deems as “imperfections” in the victim’s story, tarnishing to the victim’s reputation and credibility.

For years, victim advocates have fought the perception that certain actions somehow make a victim’s story less legitimate or worthy of empathy. Advocates have fought the notion that behaving anything less than what society deems “perfectly” makes someone less of the innocent, blameless victim. This standard does a disservice to the majority of victims by marginalizing their experience and shifting blame from the attacker to the victim.

When a victim isn’t “perfect” according to society, there is the greatest room to make an impact on society. No one will question the outrage created by the murder of a grandmother on her way to church. To have the same outrage when an individual with a checkered past is murdered at 2am in an alley is the test that victim advocates and allies must pass, a test that the media and the rest of society so often fail.

When an advocate stands next to a sexual assault victim while everyone around her is asking why she drank so much, why she went back to a room alone with the perpetrator, or why she was wearing a short skirt, that advocate is taking a strong stand against rape. That advocate is also taking a stand against society’s warped notion of what a perfect, blameless, innocent victim is by reinforcing that blame for the crime lies with the person who chose to rape another human being, not with the victim. The advocate can not only defend that victim, but also make an impact for future victims by moving the needle on society’s view of victimization.

There is power in “imperfection.” It is when advocates and allies stand up for the most marginalized victims of crime or those branded as “imperfect” victims that they take the biggest stand and can have the most impact. It is not always easy to stand by those who society has marginalized and blamed for their victimization, but it is one of the most important purposes of Crime Victim Advocacy Center since its founding in 1972 and up to the present day. We reject victim blaming and unattainable notions of perfection in favor of supporting all victims of crime simply because they deserve to be supported. Support CVAC, support crime victims, and find the power in imperfection. 

Comments by Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Why are there so many murders this year?

If I had a nickel for every time I have been asked that question over the last few months, I could afford to treat myself and maybe a coworker or two to lunch off a fast food’s restaurant’s dollar menu. I have heard this from clients, coworkers, reporters, classmates, family, and friends. I usually say that I don’t know, but I guess that’s not entirely true. The true answer is that the explanation behind the high homicide rate, at least in my opinion, is so complicated that it defies easy explanation and also easy solution. I could give an answer to every person who asks me, but they would probably regret asking after the first 15 minutes of my answer. Even such a long-winded answer from someone who has worked with the families of homicide victims for more than 10 years would certainly still underestimate the circumstances  and causes that have led us to this point in 2015.

Homicide rates are affects by nearly every aspect of society. Economy, education, family structure, legal and illegal drug use, weapons policy, gangs, community reactions to law enforcement, climate, geography and many more feed into the homicide rate. Neither a single one of these nor the sum total of these is an excuse for violence. They are just an illustration of the complexity of the problem that has vexed St. Louis for years and this year in particular. That is why there are so many murders in St. Louis, although the exact mechanism by which these interacted in 2015 is unknown at this time. We are a city with a lot of problems and most of those problems contribute to our violence rate. We are also a city with a lot of potential and human capital to put toward fixing those problems.

If the causes of murder are complex, the solutions are necessarily so. Many solutions to the high homicide rate only take into account one or two of these issues. We often find a solution to a problem within our purview or skill set because of how we define the problem. The solution presupposes the problem. If you are in control of the police department, this looks like a problem that can be solved with more officers. If you are a politician, it looks like a problem that requires a law change whether that is reevaluating drug policy, gun policy, or others. If you are a prosecutor, this is a problem that requires better cooperation with prosecution to reduce the number of murderers who get away with their crimes. If you are an educator, we need to increase student retention and quality of education. If you work with families, you may see the need for fatherhood initiatives to encourage men to be more involved in their children’s lives of programs to divert kids from joining gangs. The fact is, most of these solutions will probably affect the murder rate to different degrees and all are based in the logic of how and why crimes happen. A single leader or small number of them, however, cannot affect all of the causes of victimization.

Ultimately, we are holding leaders responsible for solving a problem that is so much bigger than their sphere of influence. That does not excuse them from their obligations; it just means they need to think bigger and more strategically to have a true influence on the violence that has plagued our city. 

Comments by: Jessica Meyers, Director of Advocacy Services & Special Victims Advocate

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Why Caitlyn Jenner Matters to Crime Victims

Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover has garned a lot of media attention this week. Some lauded her look. Others had more negative responses, choosing to call her "Bruce" or to use masculine pronouns when referring to her. Some individuals grumbled about America’s celebrity-worshipping culture and bemoaned the fact that there are more pressing issues than Caitlyn’s gender identity, like war and famine. To transgender individuals, however, the issue of self-intentity and self-expression can be just as much a matter of life, death, and health as those issues are.

By introducing herself to the world as a transgender woman, Caitlyn has taken a brave step that shines a light on a population that is still fighting for recognition and respect in the United States. Because of their marginalized status, transgender individuals are at increased risk for violent victimization. According to the Office for Victims of Crime:
  • one in two transgender individuals will be the victim of sexual violence in their lifetime
  • half of transgender women report being physically assaulted by an intimate partner after revealing their status as transgender
  • in 2009, half of the LGBT victims of fatal hate crimes were transgender women. 
However, in 34 states, transgender individuals are not legally protected by hate crime laws.

These high incidence of victimization among transgender individuals may be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Statistics and data collection from this highly marginalized population may not be telling the whole story. Furthermore, transgender victims of crime may not be seeking help through the normal channels that are available to cisgender individuals. The Office for Victims of Crime reports that only 1 in 5 LGBTQ+ victims of sexual or domestic violence get services through traditional providers like shelters, legal programs, and victim advocacy groups.

So, what can be done?
1. Learn your terms. For example- Gender is a social construct like girls wearing pink and boys playing with trucks. Sex consists of the genetic markers and genitalia that someone has. Transgender individuals identify with a gender that is not the one associated with their biological sex. Cisgender individuals are those whose biological sex and preferred gender identity coincide. Some individuals do not identify with a binary gender and may identify with both genders or neither. Learn what the letters mean in LGBTQ(IA+). Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words DO matter and they CAN hurt people.

2. Respect Caitlyn Jenner, but don't idealize her. Ms. Jenner is one of the first celebrities to have been in the spotlight as a male and also while transitioning to female. Caitlyn is absolutely gorgeous in her Annie Liebovitz photos, but she also has advantages that not all transgender individuals enjoy- besides photoshop and a professional photographer! 

Gender reassignment surgery, breast augmentation/reduction, facial resculpting/impants, and shaving of the adams apple are all costly medical procedures that many insurance plans don't cover. Ms. Jenner has ostensibly been lucky enough to have at least some of these procedures along with hormone therapy that can also be prohibitively expensive for some trans people. Her privilege also potentially insulates her from societal consequences to transitioning like job loss. Thirty-two states allow individuals to be fired simply for being transgender. Ms. Jenner was lucky enough to get a reality show, but that is of course not a typical outcome for trans individuals.

We must remind ourselves that "passing" for the other gender or how closely a trans person matches our societal norm of "masculine" or "feminine" is not the burden of proof for their acceptance. Individuals who identify as trans but cannot afford surgery, hormone therapy, or other medical procedures are no less worthy of the love and respect owed to all humans. Ms. Jenner is beautiful, but anyone who is able to express their true self even in the face of strong societal gender norms should be appreciated for their strength, bravery, and beauty, as well.

3. Demand better treatment. The criminal justice system and service providers should be called to task for their treatment of trans victims. Police Departments must be trained on issues as simple as how to address a trans person For example, when all else fails, ASK how that person how they prefer to be addressed or use gender-neutral pronouns. Also (not specific to law enforcement), lose the term "tranny" from your vocabulary. It makes anyone who uses it sound outdated and transphobic. Training like this is available and can be obtained through CVAC and its partners.

Whether they exclude them from their service population or just ignore the incidence, victim service providers are at least partially responsible for the small number of trans victims who seek services. CVAC's domestic violence programs are inclusive, but the name Legal Advocates for Abused Women Program predated that inclusivity and may deter trans individuals from seeking help. That is an issue that CVAC must address going forward. Not every service provider has to serve people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, but as a community, victim service agencies must make the effort to identify service providers, reach out to the LGBTQ+ population, and to streamline service provision across agencies.

Caitlyn Jenner is just one trans woman, but she has in her story the potential to expose the life or death struggles than many transgender individuals experience on a daily basis. High criminal victimization rates against transgender individuals are an important part of this picture. The information here is only the start of the conversation, but it is an important one that CVAC plans to continue with our partners.

Comments by Director of Advocacy Services