Bringing Victims’ Voices to Federal Legislation

Sarah BuschDomestic Violence

Imagine that you’ve been the victim of domestic violence or sex trafficking. When you are ready, you contact the police to report the crime committed against you. The police put you in touch with a victim advocate, who helps you create an immediate safety plan for yourself and your children, if necessary. The advocate treats you with compassion and respect and assures you that what happened to you was not your fault.

Because where you’re living is no longer safe, the advocate puts you in touch with a local shelter where you are able to stay for a few weeks while you figure out what to do next. While you’re staying at the shelter, you receive food and clothes and are able to meet with an advocate to identify your goals.

You are also able to attend support groups with other people with similar experiences and you know that you are not alone. Your mental health suffers as a result of your experience, so an advocate refers you to a trauma-informed therapist who can continue working with you after leaving the shelter.

Your abuser has been charged, and you know you may be asked to testify in the future. While publicly reliving your experience will not be easy, with the support of your legal advocate you decide to testify, with the hope of preventing others from experiencing the same trauma you did.

After a few weeks, you are ready to leave the shelter. Your advocate helped you get an affordable apartment close to your job. Before you leave the shelter, you and your advocate identify outside resources that you can rely on as you continue to heal.

In a more ideal world, this would be a normal experience for victims of domestic violence or sex trafficking. Unfortunately, due to a wide variety of systemic and legislative issues, far too many victims face barrier after barrier as they seek justice and healing from their experiences.

For many victims, their real-life experience is far from the ideal scenario presented above. Imagine, instead:

Despite your hesitation, you call the police to report the crime committed against you. The police officer who responds is skeptical about your story and tells you that you got yourself into this situation. They take a report, but don’t give you any other information or resources.

Now you know you need to get out of the house. You call a local shelter and are told they’re full, try again later. You call several other shelters and find out that the only shelter bed available is four hours away. Without access to a car, you have no way of getting there. You’re left fending for yourself for an unknown amount of time until a bed opens up.

You are able to find a trauma-informed therapist by searching online, but when you call to make an appointment, you find out that they don’t take your insurance and the next available appointment is in six months.

You start looking for a new place to live. When you start submitting rental applications, you find out that because you and the person who abused you were evicted due to their drug use a few years ago, most landlords won’t rent to you. You apply for a Section 8 housing voucher, and discover that you’ll probably be on the waiting list for at least 2 years. Meanwhile, you have nowhere to live.

After a few months of couch-hopping, you learn that the case against the person who abused you has ended in a plea deal. You’re relieved to know you won’t have to testify, because ever since charges were made, the person who abused you, their family, and your old friends have been pressuring you not to testify and threatening to hurt you if you do.

This scenario may seem extreme, but these barriers are all too real for many victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking — and the consequences can be devastating.

But there is hope.

On July 27, 2020, advocates working with victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking had a unique opportunity to discuss these barriers — and ideas for how to eliminate them — with U.S. Representative Dean Phillips (D-MN3) at a roundtable discussion of domestic violence and sex trafficking.

Photo courtesy of MPR News

Advocates from local victim services organizations shared the experiences, struggles, and triumphs of their clients with Rep. Phillips. They identified key areas of legislation that they believed would improve the lives of those experiencing domestic violence or sex trafficking. These areas included:

  • Housing access and affordability
  • Reducing use of firearms in domestic violence incidents
  • Access to culturally and trauma-informed mental health services
  • Promoting victim-centered criminal justice responses

“If there was one thing we could do to keep women safe from domestic violence & sex trafficking, it would be making sure everyone in our state is housed.”

Michele Garnett McKenzie, Advocates for Human Rights

Across the organizations at the table, the most pressing legislative priority was affordable and accessible housing. Many victims are forced to stay with their abusers because it’s the only way they can keep their housing. While Minnesota made important progress towards #Housing4All in recent months, safe and affordable housing remains out of reach for many.

“If a gun is present, women are 5 times more likely to be murdered by their partners…The biggest response we’re hearing from police officers is that they are telling victims to remove guns themselves.”

Elsa Swenson, Missions Inc.’s Home Free Community Program

Lax gun control laws, insufficient enforcement, and lack of standardized practices place many victims of domestic violence in serious danger. While state law prohibits those who have been convicted of domestic assault from purchasing or owning a firearm, lack of enforcement and clarity about what actions police can take to secure firearms leads to many abusers maintaining possession.

The federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) reauthorization passed the House in April 2019 but has stymied in the Senate. The version passed by the House includes essential protections such as closing the “boyfriend loophole,” which allows perpetrators who assaulted a dating partner rather than a spouse to purchase or keep a firearm. It also improves enforcement of court-ordered firearm relinquishment. As Home Free Community Program Manager Elsa Swenson stated, even when judges order an abuser to relinquish their firearms, many law enforcement agencies are unwilling to remove firearms and instead instruct victims to do so. This puts the victim in a highly dangerous position.

“Survivors don’t want to have to come in and educate service providers. They want to [receive services] from people who get it.”

Nicole Matthews, Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition

Many survivors of both domestic violence and sexual assault experience mental health issues as a direct result of their victimization. 53% of women and 17% of men who experience domestic violence report symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CDC), and 71% of Native American women who have experienced sex trafficking suffered Traumatic Brain Injuries (MIWSAC).

Despite the significant need, mental health care is difficult for many in our community to obtain. In 2018, 24% of adults with mental illness in Minnesota were not able to receive the treatment they needed (Mental Health America), and victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking face additional barriers to accessing services. In addition, many providers aren’t trained to provide services that are trauma and/or culturally-informed.

It’s important for federal lawmakers to recognize the urgent need for these specialized services and work to make mental health care accessible to those most in need of these services.

Thank you, Representative Phillips

Sarah Busch (L) and Elsa Swenson (R) of Missions Inc. Programs, with
Representative Dean Phillips (MN CD3)

We are grateful to Representative Phillps for the opportunity to share our expertise and the lived experiences of our clients and those of our sister organizations. While the barriers facing our clients are significant, we are encouraged by your compassion and commitment to justice. Together we can create a community in which victims are protected and perpetrators are held accountable.

Sarah Busch is the Development Associate for Missions Inc. Programs.

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