Friday, March 17, 2017

Training Law Enforcement on Working with LGBTQIA+ Victims

The St. Louis Anti-Violence Project (AVP) and CVAC are in the process of training every officer in the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department on working with victims who identify as LGBTQIA+. The LGBTQIA+ acronym covers individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, asexual, and the "+" denotes other sexual orientations and gender identities other than cisgender and straight.

Board members of AVP, two of whom are also CVAC employees, have been developing this training for two years with input from law enforcement and the LGBTQIA+ community. The impetus for this training came from observations of AVP and CVAC and statistics that show LGBTQIA+ victims were not reporting their victimizations to law enforcement and not seeking out social service assistance despite their higher likelihood of being victims of crime. With CVAC staff's experience in developing and administering curricula for law enforcement and AVP's expertise in the impact of victimization on and barriers to services in the LGBTQIA+ community, it is an ideal partnership.

According to SLMPD, there has not been training on this topic in recent memory. AVP and CVAC train officers to improve the way they treat LGBTQIA+ victims, while also giving a baseline of knowledge that all officers should acquire. Therefore, if there is a problem with the way an LGBTQIA+ victim is treated in the future, this training acts as an accountability measure and their CVAC advocate can intervene on behalf of that victim.

The topics in this training are the basics that any officer needs to know in order to respectfully address and individual who identifies as LGBTQIA+, to render services considerately, and to understand the unique concerns of LGBTQIA+ victims. Topics include:

Basic Terminology for LGBTQ identity: It’s best when presenting to a large group to not assume that everyone starts with the same knowledge base. Therefore, this training and all others that CVAC offers start with a review of basic language. While gay, straight, bisexual might not be new, some individuals have never heard the word cisgender. For those who haven’t seen it before I used it in the introduction or who have but never learned its meaning, this means that one’s biological sex assigned at birth matches the individual’s gender identity. 

Privilege, Oppression, & Intersectionality: It is one thing to look at another person and realize their life is more difficult because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It is another to then realize that those who do not identify as LGBTQIA+ are privileged. For example, straight people do not have to worry about being asked how old they were when they "decided they were straight." Cisgender individuals can use the restroom of their gender identity without worry about being victimized. Furthermore, multiple aspects of a person’s identity (e.g. race, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability) are interconnected and influence their life experiences. For example, a white gay man’s experience is different from a white lesbian’s experience and those are different from a lesbian woman of color.

Barriers to Service Provision: History of difficulties between the LGBTQIA+ community and law enforcement are highlighted. This includes a discussion of a study by Wolf Smith, AVP Board Chair, in which ze found that only a small percentage of LGBTQIA+ victims of domestic violence sought assistance from police or social services.

Victimization of LGBTQIA+ Individuals: Statistics show that LGBTQIA+ individuals are more at risk for many victimizations including sexual assault and domestic violence. Two thirds of trans women report experiencing sexual violence in their lifetime. Gay men are twice as likely as straight men to experience sexual assault. LGBTQIA+ individuals are more likely to be victimized, but less likely to reach out to law enforcement and social services.

Helpful Tips & Inclusive Resources: This section shows officers how they can support their fellow law enforcement officers who identify as LGBTQIA+, how they can more positively interact with the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as respectfully addressing individual members. Inclusive resources including CVAC, Safe Connections, ALIVE, and the St. Louis City Circuit Attorney’s Office Victim Service Unit are presented.

While AVP and CVAC are starting with training the SLMPD officers, this training is available to any other law enforcement departments, social service providers, LGBTQIA+ community groups, and any other groups who want to learn more about the needs of LGBTQIA+ victims of violence. The training is constantly being updated with feedback from participants and the community and this process will continue with each iteration of the presentation.

For more information on this training, check out the Pulse of St. Louis this Saturday, March 18 at 7pm on Channel 11.

Comments by Jessica M., Director of Community Engagement

Friday, February 24, 2017

Why I like working for CVAC and you can, too.

This week, CVAC posted two new positions for which we are accepting applications. These positions will allow us to expand our staff and services to better meet the needs of victims in the St. Louis area. Before you check out the job descriptions and requirements here, it might be helpful to learn why CVAC is such a great place to work. 

Dannielle (2 years at CVAC): The people are absolutely amazing. Working within the criminal justice system allows us to do outreach to fill gaps in services where victims often fall through the cracks. 

Peggy (16 years at CVAC): I love working at CVAC because the office culture really values self care. The work is hard, even if you feel you are meant to do it, but the staff is very supportive of each other. Working here is like being part of a family.

Katie (4 years at CVAC): I like working at CVAC because we have very few stipulations on who we can serve. If you feel you have been victimized, you can come to us for help. Because of this, we have a very diverse client population with diverse needs. 

Megan (2 years at CVAC): I enjoy working for CVAC because of my unique setting in the courts and the opportunities available to me within that setting. As a full time student pursuing my masters, I also enjoy the ability, support, and encouragement to pursue higher education.

Jessica (13 years at CVAC): I like working at CVAC because we are encouraged to form meaningful partnerships with other agencies. This allows us to constantly update our services and increase the quality of those services. We also can have a meaningful impact through public advocacy and training that affect victims who never directly receive our services.

CVAC is an equal opprtunity employer and diverse candidates are encouraged to apply.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Taking One More Tool Away from Abusers

In an El Paso court on February 9, federal immigration agents detained an undocumented woman after a court hearing (link). While these types of detentions happen on a regular basis, this one caused particular concern in the victim service community. This woman was in court that day to get an Order of Protection. The tip that led to her detention is speculated to have come from the person against whom she was filing the Order of Protection, her alleged abuser.

It is no great revelation to say that abusers will use any and all methods available to them to maintain power and control over their victims. While most people think of emotional and physical abuse, advocates often see sexual abuse and financial abuse in their clients as well. Withholding immigration documents or threatening to report an undocumented individual to authorities is a further extension of this abuse- one more tool that abusers use to maintain their control. This is true for both victims of domestic violence as well as human trafficking.

It is important for advocates, victims, friends, family, law enforcement, and courts to know, however, that there are legal remedies to prevent a situation like the one in El Paso. Victims of domestic violence may be able to apply for a U Visa which allows victims who cooperate with a criminal investigations to obtain a visa to stay in the United States and to potentially earn a green card. Under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), an individual who has been abused by a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident may self-petition to stay in the U.S. lawfully, to work, and to receive public benefits. Victims of sex or labor trafficking may apply for a T Visa which could grant them lawful residence, the ability to work, and a potential path to stay permanently.

No immigration process is quick or simple. While these are drawn out processes with no guarantee of success, simply spreading the word of their existence may help someone. Sharing this information could save a victim whose abuser is threatening to have them deported or who is hesitant to involve the police for fear of deportation. This can allow us as advocates and as a society to take one more tool away from abusers and to give that little bit of power back to the victim.

If you or someone you know is concerned about their legal status and they are a victim of domestic violence or sex trafficking, St. Louis has several resources available including:
Legal Services of Eastern Missouri
Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry
If both of these state they are unable to help a victim, they can call Crime Victim Advocacy Center at 314-652-3623 for intake and additional referrals.

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