Beyond Domestic Violence Statistics, One Woman’s Story Shows Federal Funding Is Crucial

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The man who physically abused Kristy is in prison now, and she is getting on with her life.

That means providing food, shelter and school clothes for her children. It means counseling for her and the kids, and applying for disability after the last assault left her with mental health problems that Kristy says forced her to drop out of school. And it means waiting in lines to pay bills and fill out paperwork for protection orders and public assistance.

The person who has guided Kristy through the bureaucracy and helped her family secure basic necessities is there for her in other ways, too. She kept the kids occupied while their mom stood in yet another long line. She drove Kristy and her son to register him for school to save them a long bus ride. She got on the phone, when a call came in from jail, to make sure it wasn’t Kristy’s abuser.

“Me and my kids, we have each other and that’s it,” said Kristy. “And now, we have Shannon.” Shannon Barkley is an advocate with the Domestic Violence Enhanced Response Team (DVERT) in Oregon’s Multnomah County. DVERT is partly funded by a grant through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which now hangs in Congressional limbo, its deadline for reauthorization looming at the end of the year. Since its enactment in 1994, VAWA has been reauthorized twice with little controversy and bipartisan support in 2000 and 2005. This year, House Republicans refused to consider the Senate’s expanded version of VAWA, which includes new protections for immigrant, Native American and LGBT victims.

The guiding principle behind DVERT is collaboration. Barkley’s employer, Volunteers of America, is one of 12 partner organizations in the DVERT program, which is tailored to reach out to people in high-risk situations where the pattern of violence suggests it could ultimately prove to be lethal.

“When you’ve responded to the same house as law enforcement five times in one week, you go out with kind of a jaded sense,” said Barkley. “It’s going to impact your work on how you’re talking to somebody, what you have the capacity to really hear about what’s going on. If she’s saying ‘No no no, I just fell and that’s how I have this bruise on my arm,’ are you just going to take it at face value, or are you going to investigate a little bit further?” Under the DVERT program, advocates with expertise in intimate partner violence are often sent out with police, and it can make a big difference for a victim.

“She is immediately going to be connected to services,” said Barkley. “There’s less time that he’s been able to intimidate her. There’s less time that unsupportive friends and family can say, ‘You’ve made your bed; you have to lie in it.’ “

That kind of victim-blaming is widespread in the United States, where three women are killed by an intimate partner each day. But lately other fingers are pointed at Congress, as the end of the year nears and VAWA, which directs federal dollars to programs for prevention and intervention in cases of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, dating violence and stalking, remains unauthorized. Meanwhile, talks on the so-called fiscal cliff have a near-monopoly on media attention. Mediaite reported recently that since December 5, cable television programs have referred to the term “fiscal cliff” in over 4,600 instances, while VAWA has been mentioned just 33 times.

Victims Would Pay the Price for DC Gridlock

Talks reported beginning on December 5 between House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Vice President Joe Biden’s office have produced little visible progress.

“I think the talks are serious, but the prospects dim,” an aide to the Senate Democratic leadership told Roll Call. “House Republicans don’t seem to be learning the lessons of the campaign and election,” which many have interpreted as a mandate for the GOP to drop its ultraconservative positions on abortion, rape, birth control and other gender issues after outrage against comments like Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s reference to “legitimate rape” lost elections for him and other party incumbents.

Reports and opinion editorials on VAWA are filled with statistics on the Act’s success in curtailing domestic violence and with criticism of a Congress already notorious for partisan gridlock. But the voices of survivors, and the people who work most closely with them, have been less prevalent.

“My children’s father tried to kill me,” said Kristy, remembering the night of the last assault. “He has always been abusive to me, and I have tried and tried and tried to get away.”

The barriers to leaving abusive relationships are many, including ineffective legal protection – such as lax enforcement of restraining orders – and financial insecurity. Of Multnomah County DVERT’s 220 referrals last year, 82 percent were people with low incomes. Even with current federal funding, resources for those who decide to leave are often scarce.

VAWA funds a motel voucher program for victims who need help with emergency relocation. “Before the middle of the month, all of our hotel voucher money is gone,” said Barkley. Shelters are overflowing and waits are long. Barkley said that in one instance, the Portland Police resorted to renting an outdoor tent camping site for a woman with no place else to go.

Kristy and her children are now in a different home than the one they shared with her abuser. Barkley helped Kristy enroll in a confidential address program, though Kristy fears her abuser may have learned of her new location through a relative. She said she and her children live on $620 a month plus food stamps. DVERT helped bridge the gap on rent at least once. Kristy will soon move on from the program, but her children still sleep with the stuffed animal monkeys Barkley gave them.

“She’s like a family member,” said Kristy. “There’s no way I could have gotten to where I am today without that program.” Kristy is seeking a divorce from her abuser, and she is embracing a new life.

“I’m ready to protect myself, and I know that I can.”

The fate of tomorrow’s domestic violence survivors is less clear as VAWA hangs in the balance.

If VAWA is not reauthorized, “We would have two years of our program and then pretty much, that would be it,” said Barkley.

Much Work Remains, But Will Funding Meet Need?

DVERT programs have been active in various cities nationwide over the years, but they are just a small window into the support engine fueled by VAWA.

Police Lt. Howard Black helped start up Colorado Springs’ now-inactive DVERT program years ago. “We definitely saw a reduction in recidivism rates,” he said. “It allowed us to get outside of the traditional system response, which is: We’re just reactive; we’re not proactive.” In Multnomah County, 74 percent of DVERT cases see a complete end to domestic violence after a full intervention, which typically includes prosecution of the perpetrator and a plan to ensure the survivor won’t need to turn to the abuser for necessities such as food and shelter.

“You’ll never get me to say that because of DVERT, we had less homicides,” said Black. “Lethality in domestic violence is very difficult to get your arms around. You don’t know what people are capable of.”

What is known is that VAWA appears to be working. In a December 11 letter urging Congressional leaders to bring to the House floor an inclusive VAWA like the expanded version the Senate passed, 120 House members told Majority Leader Eric Cantor, House Speaker John Boehner, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer to “move past politics” and consider VAWA’s results. According to the letter, since VAWA’s enactment, domestic violence has fallen by 67 percent, over 1 million women have obtained protection orders, and the lower frequency of domestic violence and sexual assault has meant a savings of more than $14 billion.