Justice for Domestic Violence Victims Depends on Where You Live

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domestic violence

Photo by Moral Rights Asserted via Flickr

If you are a victim of domestic violence in Maryland, or in Akron, Ohio, you can count on prompt and efficient help from a rich array of counseling and community services, starting with law enforcement and other first responders, to get you through the ordeal.

But if you live in Nevada, or Alaska, you are likely to suffer alone.

A Crime Report investigation found significant differences across the U.S. in how states and cities deal with domestic abuse. A domestic violence survivor is likely to have a very different experience in a city like Akron, which receives hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding—than in Nevada, a state which currently ranks number one in the nation for domestic violence fatalities, and where there are only a few, under-resourced, under-funded programs for victims of abuse.

While experts debate whether domestic violence (DV) rates have increased or decreased in the U.S over the past decade—the clandestine nature of the crime makes it difficult to collect accurate data—many cities and states have taken action to aid abuse victims.

But others have not.

Despite differences in the range, level and quality of support, The Crime Report found that localities with the most effective services had several things in common:

  • An orientation towards the individual needs of each survivor, with services such as housing/shelter, food, finances, legal counseling, and therapy;
  • Collaborative services that include advocates, police, judges, and prosecutors who can keep batterers away from victims;
  • Sufficient funding or a sustainable commitment from local authorities to ensure support programs are adequately staffed, and are reinforced by training.

Interviews with women’s advocates, healthcare and counseling providers, and local authorities pointed to some of the country’s most innovative programs–and also some of the worst.

Here’s a sampling of what we found, which is not intended to be comprehensive.

THE GOOD

 Maryland

In Maryland, victim services focused on the individual needs of each survivor, while also assessing the level of danger a survivor might be in to reduce the risk of intimate partner homicide.

A trailblazer in the fight against domestic homicide, the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence (MNADV) created the Lethality Assessment Program (LAP) in 2005, which comprises 11 questions to help law enforcement and domestic violence counselors assess the level of danger a victim might be in, and connect her (or him) to immediate services.

The tool is primarily used by law enforcement, but it has also been adapted by nurses, social workers, hospital personnel, case workers, and court personnel.

The process begins when an officer arrives at the scene of a call for service. If the individuals involved are intimate partners and the officer discerns a “manifestation of danger,” the officer asks the victim the 11 questions on the Lethality Screen.

A full list of questions can be found here.

The interview, which takes less than five minutes to conduct, is adapted from Dr. Campbell’s Danger Assessment, an instrument used by clinicians and counselors to assess a victim’s risk of being killed by an intimate partner.

If a victim is at risk of injury or death, he or she can then be directed to the proper resources.

According to Trisha Gentle, the executive director of the MNADV, the tool has been helpful because it caters differently to each person.

“It’s all based on what the victim wants,” she said in an interview. “Some victims prefer not to go to a shelter. Some prefer to go to a shelter. There’s a lot of variance in what people want and need.”

Currently, 26 police departments in Maryland have implemented the LAP.

And so far, the program has been linked to a reduction in domestic homicides, according to the Battered Women’s Justice Program.

Massachusetts

Massachusetts was quick to follow Maryland’s innovative approach and created a program that employed the danger assessment tool, which could be turned over to the courts in criminal justice proceedings.

Massachusetts developed The Danger Assessment for Law Enforcement (DA-LE), which is used primarily by police officers to establish which victims might be in at elevated risk of homicide and severe/near-lethal assault. The model was launched by the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in 2005.

An officer in Massachusetts responding to a domestic violence call uses the DA-LE to collect a history of violence. The DA-LE consists of the same 11 questions found in Dr. Campbell’s Danger Assessment.

DA-LE is also designed for use in court proceedings, including bail.

Once a high-risk case is identified, a multi-disciplinary team of domestic violence advocates, local law enforcement, prosecutors, probation, corrections, and other community-based organizations implements case-specific intervention plans to mitigate the immediate danger.

“This close cooperation between team members closes gaps in the system that once allowed a predictable intimate partner homicide to occur,” according to their website.

New York City

New York City assists DV victims, but also pays special attention to immigrant and minority communities, who often don’t want to reach out to law enforcement.

One program they developed to reach as many individuals as possible is the Crime Victim Assistance Program (CVAP), which places a victim advocate in each police precinct in the city. Only a few years old, CVAP is a partnership between Safe Horizon and the New York Police Department (which funded the program).

Advocates assigned to each police precinct will:

  • Contact victims by phone or mail after a police report is filed;
  • Assist victims who walk into a precinct seeking help;
  • Help victims identify and address their most pressing safety concerns;
  • Help victims develop a safety plan that meets their individual needs;
  • Inform victims of their rights and options, and link them to available services;
  • Explore eligibility for victim compensation and help victims apply as needed’
  • Advocate on behalf of victims with various systems, such as criminal justice, housing, and public benefits; and
  • Conduct home visits with police officers.

According to Linda Fairstein, a former New York City prosecutor and former head of the sex crimes unit, CVAP is the most progressive domestic violence program in the country.

“It’s very radical,” she said, “and it’s an enormous step that I don’t think exists anywhere else. “And that’s all in addition to hotlines and support victim services.”

New York City also has a plethora of victim services designed specifically for minorities.

For example, the Violence Intervention Program (VIP) works primarily with domestic violence victims from Latin American communities. The organization came together 35 years ago and started as a small grassroots effort led by women of color in east Harlem.

Now, they have offices in Harlem, Queens and the Bronx.

“What makes us so successful is that we have deep roots in communities we work in,” said Kelly Guajardo, the communications manager at VIP.

“Our staff come from a lot of these same backgrounds and share identities with victims, and we do a lot of healing work that is culturally relevant.”

Guajardo noted that a lot of women they work with don’t want any kind of police interaction because of their immigration status.

Many immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, fear they or their relatives would be subject to deportation if they contacted authorities,  she said. “So we let the survivor lead. If they want to pursue a criminal legal strategy we support that, we accompany them to court, we help them get orders of protection.”

“Some folks want to leave a situation or repair a situation with the counselor they meet at VIP. “

New York also has two organizations specifically designed to aid Asian victims: Sakhi and WomanKind.

Sakhi, which means “woman friend,” was created in 1989 to fill what it defined as a “critical need.”  “In spite of an abundance of religious and cultural centers, professional associations, and ethnic-specific groups within New York’s large South Asian immigrant population, there was no place for women to address the silenced subject of domestic violence,” their website says.

In 2018, Sakhi advocates provided 350 clients with services including crisis intervention, support seeking safe housing, legal assistance, support groups, and counseling; 50 clients were supported into paid employment, 55 clients completed job skills training, and 57 clients had one-on-one interview preparation.

Akron, Ohio

Another important factor for a successful program is proper funding.

Women’s shelters for DV victims in Akron, Ohio receive large amounts of federal funding to aid victims, making them some of the most successful programs in the country.

For example, the Battered Women’s Shelter in Akron, which Ben Carson, Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has pointed to as a model program.

The shelter currently has 24 people who are benefiting from the program, which pays for rent, utilities, child care, schooling and transportation costs, and provides other social services and receives about $314,000 in federal funds each year.

Angela Ellis, an abuse victim, told the Akron Beacon Journal about her experience staying in the shelter that helped her get back on her feet again.

She found shelter there after fleeing an abusive relationship, and commended the service she received for a month and a half. She stayed there with her eight children.

The shelter helped her family find a house to move into and paid for their rent and utilities. “I don’t know how I would have made it through if it wasn’t for the program and resources,” Ellis, 29, told the Beacon Journal.

More, this month, Carson announced there would be a funding expansion for the shelter. HUD has now approved $1.7 million to be distributed to other Ohio cities for this purpose.

San Diego, California

San Diego is a leader in the field because the city has a plethora of victim services. The city alone has 21 different programs, which can be found on the County Sheriffs Department website.

According to experts, having a wide variety of programs for survivors of all backgrounds, including housing, financial services, and counseling, is crucial for moving survivors away from abusive partners.

“Having resources for victims to flee violence and find free housing quickly is the most important aspect,” Monica McLaughlin, policy director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), said in an interview.

The more resources the better, she said.

THE BAD

Nevada

Nevada is one of the states least equipped to deal with domestic violence. Advocates note the lack of resources for victims, cultural norms that resist outside help, and a lack of police training—all of which allows intimate partner abuse to proliferate unchecked.

Data show that Nevada consistently ranks number one in the nation for domestic violence fatalities.

Moreover, a Nevada woman’s chances of being assaulted by her partner at home are higher than the risk a police officer faces of being assaulted on the job.

One of the main reasons Nevada remains the number-one state for domestic violence fatalities (and is predicted to remain high on the list) is because of the scarcity of mental health services and social services.

John Malcom, the head of outreach and prevention education at Nevada’s Safe Embrace, one of the only programs for domestic violence in the state, said their program gets over 5,000 crisis calls each year and that they are “extremely strapped for services.”

Malcom noted the problem lies not only in a lack of funding and resources, but also a culture of abuse.

“People don’t see it as a prevalent issue,” he said.

We have a lot of vices in our [culture].Drinking is very prevalent here. Substance abuse is huge. We have a high divorce rate as well. All these things contribute to domestic violence because DV is a pattern of abusive behavior when one partner tries to gain power or control. We see that daily. It happens here all the time. All these things spike up the rates of DV.

Also, he noted, there was a lot of leeway with domestic violence laws.

For example, police only hold batterers for a small amount of time, he said.

It’s only 12 hours sometimes. A lot of law enforcement here are strapped. They are put in tough situation everyday here trying to help our community, and due to resources and work load, not able to take care of everybody. It leads to a lot of victims not getting help.

Alaska

Alaska faces the same problems when it comes to high rates of domestic homicide. The state has the highest homicide rate for female victims killed by a male perpetrator in the nation.

Data show 59 percent of adult women in Alaska experience intimate partner or sexual violence in their lifetimes, and almost 30 percent of Alaskans were not able to access victim services or encourage others to do so because of a lack of services in their area.

Notably, more than three out of every four American Indian and Alaska Native women are physically assaulted during their lifetimes.

The Crime Report contacted each advocate program in the state for a comment and did not receive a response.

SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE

Experts debate whether or not having harsh sentencing laws for abusers is a good or bad thing. Often, victims do not want to pursue legal action against their batterers, and would rather let the situation disperse. And sometimes, sentencing laws can be used to arrest the victim.

But other victim advocates argue harsh sentencing laws are crucial for keeping DV victims safe.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has multiple sentencing laws to incarcerate abusive partners, including strangulation laws that make it a felony to strangle a romantic partner, and strict gun laws to remove firearms immediately from a batterer.

Enacted last year, a strangulation law made choking a partner a second degree felony because the standard for aggravated assault was very high, and charges in DV cases would get thrown out unless a victim had very serious bruises, explained Zak Goldstein, a criminal defense attorney in PA.

“It makes domestic violence cases much more serious when it’s charged,” he said. “It makes it easier for prosecutors to get a conviction and tilts towards the victim to make it easier for them to get a win. ”

Recently, the Pennsylvania legislature also passed Bill 2060, which would force people with a domestic violence ruling against them to more quickly surrender their guns.

Under the new bill, people convicted of misdemeanor crimes of domestic violence or subject to final restraining orders must surrender their guns within 24 hours. A judge could agree to an extension or, in the case of an application for a restraining order, a settlement that allows a defendant to keep their firearms.

Twenty-nine other states, including Texas, already require people convicted of domestic violence to turn in firearms and prohibit all people under domestic-violence restraining orders from having firearms, according to data from Everytown for Gun Safety.

“It’s a huge deal,” said Lindsy Scott, the senior government relations specialist at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“We know that’s going to save lives; without a shadow of a doubt it will save lives.”

Megan Hadley is senior staff writer at The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers with reports about services in their towns or states that do a good job—and those that don’t.

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