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