No safety without sovereignty

The debate in Congress is still raging over whether to reauthorize the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). One of the major points of conflict between the champions of the bipartisan Senate bill and the deeply flawed Republican House version is over the power Indian tribes have to investigate and prosecute domestic violence crimes.

The Senate bill would restore Indian tribes’ ability to prosecute non-Indians who assault their Indian spouses or domestic partners. Dating back to the much-criticized 1978 Supreme Court case Oliphant vs. Suquamish Indian Tribe, only the federal government can prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians on tribal land. The decision was a disaster for tribes’ ability to protect their communities.

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The vast majority of violent crimes against Native women are committed by non-Indian men, and current law leaves a gaping hole in accountability for abusers and protections for victims. Tribes do not have the authority to hold these offenders accountable, and the federal government does not have the resources or the will. Federal authorities decline to prosecute 46% of assaults and 67% of sexual abuse cases in Indian country.

Violence against Native women is at epidemic levels, and has been for many years. A new CDC study shows that 46% of American Indian and Alaska Native women have been raped, physically assaulted, or stalked by an intimate partner. In Washington State, Native women are killed by husbands and boyfriends at nearly three times the rate of white women.

Safety for victims of violence and sovereignty for tribes go hand in hand. Some VAWA opponents are using misinformation and scare tactics to try to minimize the extent of violence against Native women and deny tribes the tools to confront it. Tuesday, June 26th will be a National Day of Action to support the real VAWA and its long overdue protections for Native women.  Make sure your representatives know where you stand.

Stand your ground?

Marissa Alexander fired a “warning shot” into the wall of her abusive husband’s house because she feared for her safety. She was charged with 3 felony counts of assault. She argued that she was protected by Florida’s “stand –your- ground” law, but the judge and jury disagreed. She was arrested the day of the incident and is now serving 20 years in prison.

Photo courtesy of Lincoln Alexander

People often say things like, “there ought to be tougher domestic violence laws,” or “why doesn’t she just call the police,” or “she should get herself a gun for protection.” Marissa’s story is the sad reality of why those things don’t always work. And it’s exactly why those of us who do this work get so frustrated with that kind of advice.

It’s pretty clear that Marissa Alexander was abused. Even her husband admits that he was abusive on multiple occasions. She had good reason to fear this man. And she was angry. Apparently, this anger is what got her convicted. The jury couldn’t reconcile that she could be angry AND fearful when she fired that warning shot. The lack of understanding about domestic violence in this case is shameful.

But this story also highlights how even laws that seem clear, can be interpreted in different ways. Even though no one was hurt; even though she had been threatened; even though she thought she had the right to “stand her ground;” Marissa was charged and convicted of felony assault.

The systems that we have in place to address domestic violence do not always work. We cannot rely on the police to always do the right thing. We cannot rely on a jury to serve up justice when they don’t understand the dynamics of domestic violence. The problem is messy and the solution is not cut and dry. Yes, improving our domestic violence laws is a good thing, but what’s really going to help women like Marissa is for us all to realize domestic violence is our problem to solve―not the police, not the justice system, not the women being abused.

Not our VAWA

This morning we issued this press release by Grace Huang, our public policy coordinator. 

The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV) is deeply disappointed by the outcome of the House of Representatives’ vote to pass H.R. 4970, a bill to reauthorize a new version of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This legislation weakens or deletes entirely some of the vital improvements in the “real VAWA” S. 1925, passed by the Senate last month by a resounding bipartisan vote of 68-31, including both Washington senators.

The House bill excludes Native women and LGBT people from protections from abuse, and includes devastating provisions that will endanger vulnerable immigrant victims. This bill would weaken crucial protections for battered immigrants that have been a part of  VAWA for nearly 20 years, by allowing immigration officers to consider uncorroborated statements from abusive spouses in immigration cases, putting victims at serious risk. H.R. 4970 would also limit the protections that allow immigrant victims who cooperate with law enforcement to eventually qualify for a green card, undermining law enforcement’s efforts and threatening public safety.

Domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking impact us all. The Violence Against Women Act should have remained a bipartisan bill that makes communities safer. We hope to continue to work with our delegation towards a strong, bipartisan final bill that builds on VAWA’s long history of successes and strengthens protections for all victims of violence.

Thank you Mr. President

President Obama is finally out of the closet. Last week, after years of dropping hints, he became the first president to declare his belief that “same sex couples should be able to get married.” New clarity and leadership is especially welcome as North Carolina becomes the thirtieth state to adopt a constitutional amendment banning marriage between same sex partners. So it seems like a good time for a refresher on why gay marriage matters (not just for gays!), and why Washingtonians should be paying attention.

  1. For better or worse (get it?), marriage is a really important civil and cultural institution. Denying GLBT people access to the civil right to marry cuts deeper than the rights themselves. It communicates that GLBT people are not equally valued or protected by law. And that makes us more vulnerable to violence at home and on the street.
  2. The anti-gay agenda is not just anti-gay. In North Carolina and 19 other states, the marriage amendment not only bans same sex marriage, but any type of civil union that is not marriage. Among other lost benefits, domestic violence and stalking protections may no longer apply to unmarried partners, gay or straight. When Ohio passed a similar amendment, courts denied domestic violence protections to survivors for two years until the state Supreme Court settled the issue.
  3. We’re all being played. Strategy memos from the National Organization for Marriage don’t mince words: “The strategic goal…is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks — two key Democratic constituencies.” This isn’t just about defeating gay marriage; it is about using homophobia and racism to keep people divided from each other and politically weak.

Marriage equality is likely to be on the ballot in Washington State this November. We have the chance to be the first state to defend marriage equality by popular vote. I’m ready for us to make history.

Building dignity

My introduction to the domestic violence movement was as a volunteer in a battered women’s shelter. It was founded in 1976, just a few years after the first battered women’s shelter in the U.S. It was a product of its time. We were explicit about our feminist politics. We saw our work as part of a larger agenda for justice that took on patriarchal power, institutional racism and state violence, and all forms of oppression and domination.

The shelter itself was a hundred-year-old house, with every available nook and cranny made into space for another bunk bed or more towels or canned food. We were scrappy and resourceful. We didn’t turn anyone away.

On the other hand, it didn’t occur to me back then to think about how our physical space set up survivors to have very limited control over their lives day in and day out. Multiple stressed-out families sharing bedrooms, too few bathrooms, and one small kitchen inevitably led to conflict, and then rules intended to manage the conflict, and then conflict over the rules. Not exactly a recipe for liberation.

Advocates in Washington State have been thinking about how to change shelter for the better. The result? Building Dignity: Design Strategies for Domestic Violence Shelter, a web-based tool-kit for making shelter spaces that help support our mission.

For me, watching this work unfold was a kind of revelation. The kind where you hear an idea for the first time and it instantly seems completely obvious. Shelter is a life-saving refuge. But our hope and vision has always been that shelter is more than a place for women to flee from danger. It is also a launching pad into a life after abuse. A place to restore dignity, reclaim choices, and rebuild relationships that have been eroded by violence. Building Dignity is chock full of creative and practical ideas to make this happen.

Gun love

My parents met at a gun club. I grew up in Georgia where guns are everywhere. I could get to at least one (loaded) at any given time in the house I grew up in. I played with them and showed them to my friends. Nothing catastrophic happened. I (and my parents) are stupid lucky.

Others have not been so lucky. Bullets have been flying around western Washington lately: an eight year old accidentally shot in her classroom, gun fights in south Seattle, children killed because they were playing with guns. The high profile shooting of Trayvon Martin in Florida has shone a light on the controversial stand-your-ground laws in many states. This “I have the right to fight back” attitude combined with easy access to guns is obviously a deadly combo.

You could argue that the world we live in is dangerous, and it is up to us to protect ourselves. As an advocate for victims of abuse, I am keenly aware that danger (even in your own home) is a reality for many families. I can understand the been-knocked-down-scared-threatened-too-many-times emotional roller coaster that has some folks turning to guns to feel powerful again, to feel safe. I also know that the majority of domestic violence homicides in Washington State are committed with firearms, and whether or not those who were killed are the victim (as are most) or the abusive partner, this act still ruins more than one life. Nobody wins.

Do guns really make us safer, or does it just make those who carry feel safer? Are more guns in our communities a recipe for safety? I’m not convinced.

Running for each other

I’ve had many false starts when it comes to fitness. I’ve started swimming, weights, yoga, and running, and then I stop. So when I started asking my friends to register for the 5K run/walk WSCADV is organizing, I had to face the fact that I’ve never  registered or trained for one myself.

To my friends who run, I tell them things like “I could never do that” or “it seems too intense.” My response sounds a lot like what I hear when I tell people what I do for a living. Domestic violence can be prevented, but it’s going to take all of us. You may not make it your career, but everyone can get involved in some way.

So instead of merely telling people to register for (maybe another) 5K in a disconnected way, I am investing in the process myself. I am committed to having fun, being enthusiastic, and focusing on my well-being. I am going to run regularly so that I am a confident, assured runner, and invite my friends to do the same.

And I also invite you to invest in the lives of domestic violence survivors, children, and yes, even abusers. Bring a renewed commitment and energy that you’ve never brought before by being curious, compassionate, and action-oriented.

I’m confident that I can (finally) complete training for at least a 5K, and I am equally confident that you can play a role in ending domestic violence.

I invite you to sign up for the Refuse To Abuse® 5K at Safeco Field if you have never run before. Please comment and let me know how it’s going. 

Ending homelessness

This was originally posted on the National Alliance to End Homelessness blog.

I’m currently at the National Conference on Ending Family and Youth Homelessness in Los Angeles, where a lot of creative thinkers are sitting together, learning from each other, and sharing creative solutions to reach the common goal of housing families and youth in the right way and the shortest amount of time.

There seem to be a few points emerging:

  • Shift program-based thinking to systems-based thinking. Systems, and not just programs in isolation, must address issues including the lack of affordable housing, limitation of shelter space, and long waiting lists for public housing. The key is to form inclusive partnerships which employ effective strategies to change the way a homeless assistance system responds to families in crisis.
  • Track and use data to your advantage. Data is the cornerstone of evaluation; without it, we cannot understand the performance of the system and whether the system is meeting the goals of the program.
  • Rapid re-housing/prevention works for the majority of families. It’s not just about housing; it includes wraparound services. The services may be “light touch services” (where someone needs assistance to pay off an old debt) whereas others may need advocacy from beginning to end.

We, as domestic violence advocates, cannot ignore the issues of homeless families, just as housing advocates cannot ignore the fact that domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as domestic sex trafficking, impacts the ability to gain and retain safe and stable housing.

I am extremely energized by the positivity and creativity, as well as the commitment that everyone has to end homelessness on a national level. Thank you, National Alliance to End Homelessness for hosting this conference.

Dear editor

We are really disappointed with the inaccurate coverage of domestic violence and family court in this Seattle Weekly article. We submitted the following letter to their editor.

We have deep concerns about Nina Shapiro’s January 18th article “Ripped Apart.”

Ms. Shapiro makes the important point that family court is significantly under-resourced, and decisions are being made about “the most precious relationships in people’s lives” with hearings that are far from comprehensive. Yes. This is a real problem in King County and across our state.

But Ms. Shapiro goes on at great length about how domestic violence allegations are used to manipulate the courts against dads and draws conclusions by presenting one side of the story. The Washington State Domestic Violence Fatality Review has studied domestic violence homicides over the course of twelve years in fifteen Washington counties. Inter-disciplinary groups reviewing these homicides found time and again that―even with the most violent abusers―courts failed to adequately address victim’s safety concerns and failed to understand how abusers’ controlling and violent behavior threatened the safety and well-being of their children. These findings are completely ignored by Ms. Shapiro.

We routinely hear about attorneys advising victims NOT to talk about the abuse they have experienced because it will bias the court against them. They remain silent out of fear that the court will think they are lying or trying to manipulate the system. This silence hurts children.

We agree that family court needs to be improved. But, whenever allegations of domestic violence are present, the focus should be on safety and the best interest of the children. We encourage The Weekly to exercise better judgment and present balanced material on matters such as this.

We need to talk

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a bit of a policy nerd. I’ve been watching the GOP primary extravaganza and heard something a couple of weeks ago that made me mad. (OK, there was more than one thing, but I’m only talking about one here). Mitt Romney went on the Today show and said that the increase in income inequality in this country is not a topic for public debate, but that it should rather be discussed in “quiet rooms.” And anyway, those that complain about the super-rich are simply envious. WHAT?!?

Don’t talk about it? What a blatant attempt to maintain a position of power and control. Hmmm, power and control―where have I heard that before? Now, I’m not saying that Romney is abusive because he said this (so shoo that bee away from your backside). But I would like to point out how insidious the desire to maintain power for the few is in this country. Whether or not this was intentional or naïve on Romney’s part, I don’t know. But the fact that he said he doesn’t want us talking about our growing economic divide AND that there hasn’t been a bigger showing of public outrage, point to how tolerated this kind of silencing is in our society.

Those experiencing abuse at the hands of their loved ones have for decades been told that it is not something to be talked about in the open—that it is “family business.” And this gives abusers a tremendous amount of control. Silence protects their power.

So what have we been doing to stop domestic violence? Talking about it. Talking in communities, schools, public forums about what domestic violence looks like, why it happens, how we can change it. The shrinking of the middle class is impacting survivors of abuse too, because less money means fewer good options for staying safe. Let’s start talking about that too.

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