Friday, February 17, 2017

It's All Part of the Job

At a meeting this week, our staff talked about the universal experiences of being a person who works with victims of crime. All of our staff members agreed they had the experience of telling someone where they worked and having that person recoil and exclaim what a difficult job it must be. And it is. There is no doubt about that.

The other universal truth we discussed was hearing of a domestic violence homicide and checking whether you or a coworker had worked with the victim in the past and whether you were working with him/her currently. It’s the sad truth of the work that if someone has been in the domestic violence field more than a handful of years, chances are they have lost a client to homicide. It could be someone you worked with for months, just spoke with once, tried to call and never reached them, or had worked with several times over the years. The losses never get easier, in fact, for some of us, they get more difficult. It's all part of the job.

Some advocates burn out and leave the field. Some advocates burn out and stay in the field. Some find a way to be resilient through it all. One of the most important ways I have found to stay resilient is to focus on all the good that CVAC does. In 2016, CVAC served over 7,500 victims of crime and family members. For those clients, CVAC advocates, counselors, and lawyers provided:
  • assistance for 2,370 Order of Protection filings
  • accompaniment to 330 court hearings
  • legal representation at 149 court appearances
  • 1,023 hours of counseling services
  • 133 free notary services
There are also services too numerous to mention that improve the lives of our clients and help them to move from crisis to resiliency. In 2016, 91% of clients felt they had better knowledge of the resources available to them and 85% felt they could better plan for their safety after speaking with a CVAC advocate. This is also part of the job. This is the part of the job that makes going through everything else worthwhile.

Comments by Jessica M., Director of Community Engagement

Monday, January 30, 2017

Choosing Your Life or Your Livelihood

If you had physical injuries from a domestic assault or a sexual assault, would you choose medical care or keeping your job?
If you had medical bills from one of those crimes, would you choose to get help from a victim service agency or keeping your job?
If you had a hearing for an Order of Protection for abuse or stalking, would you choose your safety or keeping your job?
If you had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from abuse, would you choose counseling or keeping your job?

These are every day choices that clients of Crime Victim Advocacy Center and other agencies have to make. Getting an temporary Order of Protection in the City of St. Louis can take the better part of a day plus at least one other morning in court for the full hearing. Going to the emergency room can take many hours. The average counseling client at CVAC attends 8 one hour sessions, some far more. Clients, many of whom are hourly workers, must choose between receiving the help they need to overcome the negative effects of domestic violence, sexual assault, and/or stalking and keeping their jobs.  Many clients do not get leave as a part of their employment or have used all of their leave with previous instances of violence. Thus, taking more time off could realistically mean being fired.

Victims are forced to choose between potentially life-saving interventions like legal assistance, medical treatment, counseling, or obtaining order of protection because they face losing their livelihood. A loss of job could mean defaulting on bills or loans, physical injuries that don’t heal properly, increased mental health issues, and homelessness. In a region where there are thousands of requests for domestic violence shelter nights annually that cannot be met, keeping victims employed and in stable housing is vital to their success and safety.

Crime Victim Advocacy Center, along with other victim service agencies and victims of all of these types of crimes, took to Jefferson City last year to testify on behalf of a state bill to guarantee unpaid leave to victims of domestic violence. This would have guaranteed that victims could keep their jobs while taking the leave necessary to receive counseling, victim services, legal assistance and to attend civil and criminal court. Unfortunately, that state bill did not make it out of committee.

At the St. Louis City level, however, a similar bill has been introduced. St. Louis Board of Aldermen Board Bill 261 would bring those protections to city residents. It would require employers with 50 employees or more to offer two weeks of unpaid leave to victims; employers of 15 people or more would have to offer one week of unpaid leave. This protects employees who would otherwise not be protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The bill will be heard this week in committee. As a city, as a county, as a state, and as a nation, we must make it clear that we don’t want any victim of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking to have to choose between their life and their livelihood.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Save VAWA; Save Lives

Every incoming administration has its own policies and priorities. On the day before President Trump’s inauguration, a report from The Hill identified several programs that his administration may eliminate. One of those is the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) grant program. Since 1994, VAWA through its 15 separate grant programs has provided millions of dollars to support services to victims of domestic violence, guidance to states and municipalities to improve the way domestic cases are investigated and prosecuted, and provided addition support for underserved communities.

Crime Victim Advocacy Center receives more than 20% of total revenue from VAWA grant programs. The end of those grants would affect CVAC’s legal program that provides free legal representation at Order of Protection hearings and for divorce and custody cases. The end of VAWA would cause a reduction in the number of counseling hours available to victims of all types of crime. Additionally, it would not only affect our victim advocate programs in the St. Louis City and County Police Departments, but also the number of detectives who investigate domestic violence cases.

VAWA funding is not just vital to the work of CVAC; it is vital to many agencies across the country. A full repeal of the funding stream could force the closure of agencies that serve vulnerable victims of interpersonal violence. These programs are often the victim’s only avenue to escape emotional, physical, financial, and sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner. It is not overstating the point to say that these programs save lives.

Besides the funding, VAWA is important as a driver of equality within the domestic violence movement. When VAWA was reauthorized in 2013, it contained a nondiscrimination clause. For the first time, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals were named as an underserved community. VAWA mandated that agencies receiving its funding provide services for anyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Funds were made available for targeted services from victim advocates, law enforcement, and courts to improve the response to LGBT victims of domestic violence. Without VAWA, these services might not otherwise be available.

Certainly, there will be more to say about VAWA and its potential elimination. No final decisions have been made as far as we know. Take this blog as a warning, however, that the potential to end these vital grants to police and domestic violence services is on the table for discussion and that this move would have far-reaching and disastrous consequences for services to domestic violence victims of all sexual orientations and gender identities. #saveVAWAsavelives

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

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 supportvictims.org.

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