Opinion: Commentary: Domestic Violence Awareness Month

Opinion: Commentary: Domestic Violence Awareness Month

The month of October marks Domestic Violence Awareness Month here in the Commonwealth. It was designated as such by the General Assembly in 1989 and is an annual reminder of how important it is for us to continue to work to prevent domestic abuse and to treat and support survivors across the Commonwealth.

Domestic violence is characterized as a pattern of coercive behaviors used by an individual to gain or maintain power and control over another individual in the context of an intimate, dating, or familial relationship. Forms of domestic violence may be criminal (physical assault or stalking) or not (verbal abuse or financial control). Approximately 27% of women and 11% of men in the United States have experienced sexual violence, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner.

Sadly, 31% of all Virginia homicides in 2014 were attributed to Family and Intimate Partner Violence. Thankfully, the number of homicides reported in recent years have decreased since 1999 when data was first collected. This decrease may be attributed to an increase in awareness, which is a step in the right direction. In order to continue combatting this crisis, we must promote awareness of domestic violence so that victims know they are not alone and that there are local organizations that will protect their anonymity and ensure they receive the help they need.

In 2016 in Fairfax alone, 1,605 emergency protective orders were issued against family or household members for acts of family abuse involving violence, force or threat, and 258 children were provided with Emergency Shelter with their parent or guardian.

Across Virginia, 5,732 adults and children received 191,759 nights of emergency or temporary shelter to escape domestic violence. Every month in Fairfax County, domestic violence hotlines receive over 240 calls with approximately a quarter of those victims requesting family abuse protective orders. Between 2010 and 2015, over 400,000 calls were answered by domestic and sexual violence hotlines in Virginia.

In my day job as the General Counsel for Christian Relief Services here in Alexandria, I work every day to assist domestic violence survivors and their families find safe, stable, and affordable housing while they get back on their feet. Our Safe Places program works with survivors in Fairfax County to help them become self-sufficient through financial planning, counseling, and legal aid. We assist survivors regardless of income, language spoken, or immigration status. Through this work, I have seen what a growing problem domestic violence has become, and have also been exposed to many things we can do legislatively in the Commonwealth to continue fighting against domestic abuse.

During this next session, I plan to put forward a bill that will increase the penalty for any person who deceptively installs or places an electronic tracking device and uses that device to track the location of any person without their consent. With the increased availability of GPS devices, this method of stalking is being used more and more by intimate partners to track and control their victims. This is especially concerning if victims are attempting to leave the relationship and escape to a safer location. Currently, tracking an individual without consent is only a Class 3 misdemeanor, which is on par with unintentional damage to property or a monument and only is punishable by up to a $500 fine. Harsher penalties should be put in place to deter this dangerous behavior. Continuing to allow this in Virginia with minimal punishment puts lives at risk.

Something that everyone can do to support life-saving work preventing domestic abuse is to purchase a “KIDS FIRST” or any Family and Children’s Trust Fund (FACT) specialty license plate through the DMV, which I have written about in the past, participate in the tax write-off program, or send tax deductible contributions to FACT’s office in Richmond. FACT was created by the General Assembly in 1986 to serve as a partnership between the public and private sectors to raise funds for the prevention and treatment of a wide spectrum of family violence.

To report a crime, call the Fairfax County Police Department at 703-691-2131 or, for emergencies, please call 911. If you or someone you know is experiencing any form of domestic violence, and you want to talk about options and resources available, call the 24-hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Hotline at 703-360-7273