Guns, Knives, and Social Media: The New Frontier for Abuse, Harassment, and Victim Blaming

Written by The Mary Byron Project Intern

If you were walking down a public street and suddenly noticed a man beating a woman to the ground, violently hitting her, you would know that you were witnessing abuse. You would not only label it as wrong but also hopefully take action—calling the police or intervening yourself.

If you were in a store at the mall, and you heard a woman screaming threats of violence and death at her partner you would again label this as wrong and know action should be taken, whether that is bystander intervention or contacting law enforcement.

So then why is social media any different? Instinctively our gut tells us it is wrong when we see someone being physically abused or threatened in public. We must realize that our lives our now online and online abuse via social media must be viewed with the same gut-wrenching disgust.

Zoe Quinn, a 28 year old video game designer, was at the height of her career when her ex-boyfriend published the “Zoe Post”—a deluge of personal information and lies about their relationship that led to online attacks and stalking. He was able to garner so much attention that other people began to harass Zoe. Suddenly, she and other female game developers were receiving death threats and tweets telling them to get out of the video game world.

Zoe was scared enough to approach the police for help even though many people told her to simply stay off the internet. As if that was the solution. As if that was possible. She told the Boston Globe, “In 2015, that’s like saying, ‘Oh, there’s an angry mob camped outside on your sidewalk, just don’t ever go outside again.”

And I can understand where Zoe is coming from. As a college student, the internet and social media are a part of every day of my life. Just staying off the Internet is not simple, and it’s not a solution.

Because the internet is such a critical part of our lives, it has also become an avenue for abuse.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence surveyed victims and found that social media is the number one type of technology abusers use to monitor, track, and impersonate victims. Social media is the second technology source used to harass victims, superseded only by texting.

An advocate wrote: “Facebook is the hardest for survivors to shut down or avoid because they use it to keep in contact with other friends and family.” Harassment forcing victims offline, off social media, is social isolation and is abuse. Isolation is an often used tool by perpetrators, serving as a way to maintain power and control. Ultimately abuse is about power and control and social media provides the perfect tool.

Online harassment through social media can be classified as cyberstalking. Cyberstalking takes many forms, including: harassment, embarrassment and humiliation of the victim, emptying bank accounts or other economic control such as ruining the victim’s credit score, or harassing family, friends, and employers to isolate the victim.

Many states have tough laws to punish some forms of cyberstalking. But while emptying someone’s bank account or ruining a credit score are obvious crimes, social media is a gray area. To some it may be difficult to understand the harassment Zoe has experienced because it is on the internet and not directed specifically at the victim so it should be avoidable and not as big of a deal.

Even the justices of the Supreme Court grappled with the issue of online harassment.

Anthony Elonis, the man at the center of a recent Supreme Court decision regarding his Facebook posts, used social media to threaten his ex-wife, the police, and even a local elementary school after his wife left him.

Ask yourself, would reasonable people consider the following posts frightening?

“There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.”
“Fold up your PFA [protection-from-abuse order] and put it in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?”
‘’If I only knew then what I know now . . . I would have smothered your ass with a pillow. Dumped your body in the back seat. Dropped you off in Toad Creek and made it look like a rape and murder.’’

To answer the question, of course they would. These are just a few of Elonis’ horrific posts about his wife. She sought out and received a protective order against Elonis but that couldn’t stop him from wildly posting threats against her on Facebook.

I can already hear people repeating what Zoe Quinn was told, “stay off the internet.” And similarly, that is how many police officers handle cases of online harassment. As if not seeing it would mean it doesn’t exist. This new type of victim blaming is dangerous because it asks victims rather than abusers to change their behavior.

Obviously it will take time for law enforcement to catch up with the technology, but why are we waiting for law enforcement? Bystander Intervention teaches us to step up when we see instances of violence. It is time that we view abuse via social media in the same light. Why are we tolerating this kind of behavior?

Social media institutions often hide behind the First Amendment to leave their sites unmoderated and open to abuse. Caitlin Dewey, a Washington Post journalist, reported abuse to Twitter after receiving a tweet that said, “get raped, you c***.” Twitter responded with a generic letter explaining that the content does not violate Twitter’s rules and therefore the tweet can be left online.

In an interview, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo admitted that Twitter has a problem with abuse and that the site has become an “ideal platform for harassment” and that they have been unable to deal with abuse for years. There is clear evidence that abuse is occurring via Twitter, and yet the site has not changed. I have to wonder, what would Twitter’s position be if 10 million Twitter users wanted different policies?

When victims are told to simply “stay off the internet” (an impossible task) and real action is not taken to protect victims, we leave them vulnerable and in dangerous situations.

While fears that the internet isn’t safe or that we put far too much information online are somewhat based in reality, the truth is that the majority of people on social media do not use this abundance of information for harm. It is similar to when physical abusers try to use being drunk as an excuse for abuse. Many domestic violence advocates will tell you, the majority of people drink and do not abuse. Alcohol does not make someone an abuser and cannot be used to excuse violence. Similarly, access to someone’s Facebook profile does not make someone an abuser. It is a conscious choice, based on a need for power and control, to abuse someone online and misuse the access to their lives.

Imagine a University of Louisville student wakes up one morning, looks at her phone and has over twenty texts waiting for her—all concerning some blog. She logs onto her Facebook and clicks on the new blog post. She starts scrolling and realizes it is an entire post with photos from her Twitter and screenshots of her status updates. It details her location, where she goes to school, and insults her behavior and viewpoints, persuading total strangers to comment horrible things.

“I feel bad for her parents.” “Too bad she’s such an idiot, she’s pretty sexy. I would tap that.” “I don’t know who she is, but I can tell she’s a slut.”

The worst part is when her parents call, her mom is in tears, questioning her for her posts, asking her why she ever posted photos on her Twitter? She calls a lawyer, hoping she can at least get her school location taken down. She knows who posted it, but can’t prove anything. Sadly, there is no real course of action—it would be too difficult to press charges. She spends the whole day in bed, feeling horrible about herself and regretting her every decision.

She is the victim, and yet she feels the blame for online harassment that put her in danger. She was using social media like 74% of internet users do and yet she was victimized, harassed, and abused.

Many fail to see the actual harm from online threats and harassment. If there’s no actual physical attack, what’s the harm in saying what you want online? But the harm from this type of abuse is very real. It is meant to instill life-altering fear, and it is very successful.

After receiving online attacks, death and rape threats, Zoe Quinn would see people in public and think “Is this one of the people that’s been sending me threats for the last six months? Are they going to tell people where I am?” Zoe left her job, the video game industry entirely, and moved out of the country. Fear created by the abuse forced her to abandon her lifestyle, her livelihood, and her sense of safety.

What is the solution? Of course it is impractical and ineffective to prosecute every person who posts a negative comment on Facebook. That’s not the problem or the needed solution. However, there is action that can be taken. For one, we can shift internet culture to make these types of posts unpopular and unacceptable. But also, online abuse should be handled by social media institutions. Twitter and Facebook must respond to complaints of threats and abuse. Our lives are now online, and so as a community of social media users we must create change and demand action by the institutions that make up our lives.

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Making Excuses for Brutality: The Alarming Responses to Ray Rice’s Violence

Our nation’s domestic violence problem has been featured in the news quite a bit this week after Baltimore Raven’s running back Ray Rice was suspended by the National Football League for a mere two games after knocking his then fiancé, now wife, Janay Palmer unconscious in an Atlantic City casino elevator. TMZ obtained security camera footage of Rice carelessly dragging her immobile body from the elevator doors, and it subsequently went viral. The NFL’s dainty punishment can only be described as absolutely and entirely horrifying. I would think that everyone would agree. I would be wrong. ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith suggested that domestic violence victims should educate themselves “about the elements of provocation” and because Rice’s fiancé had “provoked” him, he asserts, “It’s not about him then, it’s about you.” Goodness gracious, surely no one thought he was making any sense at all in saying that her tragic beating was her own damn fault? Wrong again. Whoopi Goldberg’s diatribe on “The View” communicated the message that if only women would learn to stop hitting men, we wouldn’t be having these problems. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the age old dilemma of intimate partner violence has been solved. It was the woman all along! I suppose it’s high time we pack up the office.

In all seriousness though, the way that our society is so quick to blame the victim, even in the most severe cases of abuse is demonstrative of the problematic way that domestic violence is perceived. Why would victims come forward, stand up for themselves, and experience the trauma all over again if only to be told, “You provoked this.”? The honest truth is that they wouldn’t and they don’t. Belying all evidence to the contrary, we continue to believe that domestic violence remains a crime that happens to invisible people. In a Huffington Post poll asking whether Goldberg’s remarks were accurate, the current standings are 80% yes and only 20% no.

Let’s take a closer look at our culprits of these detrimental paradigms.

The NFL:

Only two games. Though it is indeed difficult to watch, I implore everyone to take a close look at the TMZ clip again. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has suspended players for longer periods of time for DUIs and illegal tattoos. Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon is currently appealing a full year suspension for recreational marijuana use. Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis will sit out four games for taking illegal fertility drugs while trying to have a child with his wife. Again, Rice will sit for just two games. The National Football League’s actions have exemplified a stance that domestic violence is neither an egregious offense nor is preventing it a priority. Adding insult to injury, NFL officials have since issued statements acclaiming Rice as an upstanding man, assuring the fans that he just made a “one-time” mistake and is now back on the right track. A recent poll reports that 64% of Americans watch NFL Football; 73% of men, 55% of women. In an organization with that sort of breadth and reach, their response is nothing short of unacceptable.  We have to hold the NFL responsible for the role it is playing to belittle violence. Goodell and the NFL are implicitly approving domestic violence. And players certainly are not the only ones hearing that message.

Stephen A. Smith:

“Let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions.” Perhaps the worst part of Smith’s rant is the way in which he positions himself as a valiant defender of the women’s rights cause because he was raised by women. That does nothing to silence the crystal clear message that Rice’s fiancé was at least partially responsible for her assault. The way things are now, we teach girls a host of methods, tips and tricks to avoid assault, rape, and abuse but we spend considerable less time telling boys not to assault, rape, and abuse women. In a lackluster, prerecorded apology, Smith states, “My words came across that it is somehow a woman’s fault. This is not my intent. It is not what I was trying to say.” Legal analyst Mel Robbins offered an amazing reality check on CNN asserting, “In 2012, guys, Smith said the exact same thing regarding Chad Johnson. He used the words — in an incident with Chad Johnson, where Chad Johnson was accused of kicking his wife in the head that we got to look at provocation here and he said he was sick and tired of men being vilified, and ESPN did nothing and it flew under the radar screen….And here’s the other thing: He may have apologized, but it was pre-taped, and nothing says sincere like a pre-taped apology. And instead of having a bigger conversation about it — like, okay, wait a minute, you didn’t get to say what you meant? What did you mean exactly by that?”  It is truly unfortunate that misogynistic views like Smith’s are carelessly broadcasted over the airways.

Whoopi Goldberg:

Even after Stephen A. Smith was (rightly) suspended from ESPN for the week, Whoopi Goldberg defended Smith’s statements proclaiming that because Janay hit Rice first, she could expect nothing other than the treatment she received. She states, “If you hit somebody, you cannot be sure you are not going to get hit back… you have to teach women; do not live with this idea that men have this chivalry thing still with them. Don’t assume that’s still in place. So don’t be surprised if you hit a man and he hits you back.” What Goldberg does not acknowledge however, is the massive power disparity between the running back and his petite fiancé. Women indeed are not entitled to hit men under any circumstance aside from self-defense, but to say that she should not be surprised by what happened? The woman was struck by a blow so hard that she lost consciousness. And further, though her cohosts do reproach Goldberg for her statements, at the end of the segment, Sherri Shepard proclaims, “This is the one thing I don’t understand about Ray Rice’s wife: He knocked you out and pulled you out the elevator and you still married this man…” In essence, why doesn’t she just leave him? Definitely not looking in the right direction here.  At the point of physical abuse, emotional and verbal manipulation have usually already cast feelings of fear and guilt upon a victim. Many desperately want the abuse to end, but not the relationship. And if an abuser is promising to change, and the victim loves the abuser, then it is hard to walk away.

What’s really going on here?

Victim blaming. Why on earth are we so inclined to look for reasons why Palmer was probably asking for it? That Rice is a nice man who was simply provoked by his petite fiancé’s slap. In Ann Jones’ “Next Time She’ll Be Dead,” she articulately describes this practice:

“Popular discourse…fills our minds with prefabricated phrases, exonerating the abuser and blaming the victim. We understand that he was under ‘stress’ of one sort or another, while she was emasculating, cold, provocative, self-destructive, hysterical, masochistic, and free to leave. Although many people now agree in principle that it’s wrong to hit women, many of us also seem to believe that under certain circumstances it’s almost bound to happen. And those circumstances are so elastic that in effect almost every abused woman gets blamed…. And whether we blame battered women or pity them for their plight, we tend to think of them as a kind of pariah group, rather like prostitutes, who apparently choose to live “abnormal” and dangerous lives because of some peculiar kinks of background or personality. (After all, we think, she could leave.) Knowing public attitudes, abused women often keep silent out of shame and fear of being blamed, thereby appearing to acquiesce to violence. But if the abused woman appears complicit, so do we; making excuses for the abuser in this case, blaming the victim in that case, we approve violence. Is it any wonder then that battering continues?”

According to Smith and Goldberg, Palmer was bound to be assaulted by Rice because she provoked him, because she was violent first, and he must not have been that bad, because she stayed, didn’t she? These attitudes are far too common.

And lest we forget, charming Ray Rice, who is not behind bars, nor was he behind bars yesterday, nor will he be behind bars tomorrow. Despite being indicted for the assault by a grand jury, Rice will not be charged, nor will he pay a criminal fine, and his record will be expunged. In other words, he got off scot-free in the eyes of the law even though there was an enormous amount of tangible evidence.  Perhaps most alarming of all is Rice’s response. In a statement, he says, profusely minimizing the incident, “I failed in many ways. But Janay and I have learned from this.” I don’t know what his victim could have learned other than to fear her husband, but the media response carries many salient lessons that we certainly can learn from. The most apparent? We provide no shortage of excuses for abusers and accusations of victims.  How can we ever expect domestic violence to stop if we don’t advocate for those suffering from it? To quote Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”

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A Call for Action: Changing the Culture of Teen Dating Violence

Empowering young people with the tools and the language to decipher healthy relationships from abusive ones is imperative in order to quell the epidemic of teen dating violence. We often forget that dating violence, which encompasses physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse between two people in a close relationship, can occur at any age, and can be most detrimental for young people whose ideas about what is normal are still being formed. Among adult victims of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, 22% of women and 15% of men first experienced some form of partner violence between 11 and 17 years of age.  Absolutely paramount in the attempt to end a widespread issue like this is prevention through early education. We must make communication about this issue accessible to teens and introduce intervention before patterns of abuse are cemented. Studies demonstrate that parents and peers are the most effective avenues to reach adolescents and because parents, unfortunately, continuously prove too squeamish, too detached, or too ignorant, the greatest prospect of social change will be through popular opinion leaders and peers.

What does teen dating violence look like?
Dating abuse is a pattern of destructive behaviors used to exert power and control over a partner. When does a relationship cross the line between tumultuous and downright abusive? offers some warning signs: if your partner is checking your cell phone or email without permission, constantly putting you down, extremely jealous or insecure, exhibiting an explosive temper, isolating you from family or friends, making false accusations, demonstrating constant mood swings, physically hurting you in any way, possessive of you, controlling, repeatedly pressuring you to have sex, you are in a violent relationship. Technology and social media are an especially effective way that power and control manifest themselves in teenage relationships. In a generation that garners equal sustenance from smartphones and oxygen, how much texting is too much? Is he checking in or checking up? Does she get frustrated if you take too long to answer? It can be very hard for teens to distinguish dysfunctional behaviors from healthy ones, especially when this may very well be the first relationship they have ever been in.

Why does it happen?
While both young women and young men can be victims of dating violence, the majority of cases deal with abusive boyfriends. Why? Dating violence continues across generations in large part because of prevailing gender stereotypes or what Tony Porter in his Ted Talk calls the collective socialization of men. He posits that until we deconstruct and redefine the view of men as the superior, domineering, emotionless sex we will have problems of inequity in society that lead to accepted relationship dynamics of aggression and control. Young men are taught, explicitly and implicitly, that women have less value, are to be viewed as property, and objectified. These perceptions breed violence. Porter suggests that “my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.”
More recently, the Always commercial by Award-winning director Lauren Greenfield communicates a sobering message about the destructive nature of gender stereotypes around the idiomatic insult “you [throw, run, hit, etc.] like a girl.” At what point does run like a girl go from meaning run as fast as you can to run like a frolicking fool? The commercial demonstrates that the phrase “like a girl” becomes insulting as women get older and negative gender roles are deeply inculcated in their perception of self. As long as this inequity stands it will lead to power imbalances in relationships and contribute to the objectification and abuse of women.

How can we stop it?
Early education is key. Just as campaigns have successfully led to the vast diminishing of cigarette smokers and the almost ubiquitous use of seat belts, if we can spread awareness through middle and high schools with the hope of fostering the spirit of activism, perhaps the demeaning and controlling relationships will be stopped before they become lifelong habits. Currently, there are several state bills pending that will mandate education regarding dating violence in schools. If we educate the population, we will create an environment where a victim of an abusive relationship will have friends who know how to address them and additionally, someone demonstrating abusive behaviors will be reproached by peers. This can stop a young man from becoming a lifelong batterer.  We cannot underestimate the power of getting teens to simply tell someone “that’s not cool.” 

Mary Byron Scholars Program
The Mary Byron Scholars Program selects exceptional and dedicated young women in high school to undergo training to become community liaisons in the effort to prevent dating violence. They raise awareness at Assumption High School and throughout the community. Specifically, they conduct training sessions at male high schools geared towards getting young men involved in the cause and creating valiant bystanders. In April they spearheaded a Teen Dating Violence Awareness Week with three male high schools. Following the awareness campaign, the scholars led a fundraiser in which three boy’s high schools competed in Walk a Mile in Her Shoes® donning high heels and carrying purses in the international men’s march to stop rape, sexual assault and gender violence. By educating young men on healthy relationships, these young scholars are helping to promote vast social change. Eloquently put in his piece in the New York Times, Charles Blow writes, “Fighting female objectification and discrimination and violence against women isn’t simply the job of women; it must also be the pursuit of men…Only when men learn to recognize misogyny will we be able to rid the world of it. Not all men are part of the problem, but, yes, all men must be part of the solution.”  And not only are these young women doing fantastic work in their communities now, they will also be activists throughout their lives, communicating the message of gender equality and healthy relationships wherever their journeys take them.

Celebrating Solutions Programs
The Mary Byron Project’s Celebrating Solutions Program awards exceptional programs honing in on specific characteristics that make an action plan against domestic violence successful.
In 2004 the Mentors in Violence Prevention program won the Celebrating Solutions award for utilizing the coveted status of athletes as role models to address the problem of men’s violence against women. Every MVP session is co-facilitated by a mixed-gender, racially diverse group of former athletes. Their approach to prevention includes interactive playbooks to spark discussion about the ways that young men and women are taught how they can interrupt, confront and prevent violence by their peers. 
2009 Celebrating Solutions Winner SafePlace’s Expect Respect program pioneered legislation mandating that Texas schools address teen dating violence through policies, training, counseling for affected students, and education for students and parents. Their broad range of services for students throughout grade school and high school acknowledges that youth leadership is key to changing social norms related to intimate partner violence and ultimately breaking multi-generational cycles of violence. Research and experience demonstrate that youth need to see their peers as leaders and positive role models in order to adopt new, healthy attitudes and behaviors.

Taking Action
Breaking the cycle of teen dating violence depends on our youth. It depends on our ability to teach them to recognize and put an end to abusive relationships before they start. Dating violence will persist until prevention is made a priority throughout the nation. We must educate both young men and young women of all backgrounds and empower them with the strategies to recognize and react to teen dating violence. Through tried and true methods of peer education and support from popular opinion leaders, we can live in a world where being an activist is what all the cool kids are doing.

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2013 Celebrating Solutions & Roth Award Winners

Domestic violence remains one of the leading dangers for women in today’s world. An estimated one in five women will be a victim of abuse in her lifetime. With an issue so pervasive, so long standing, and so deeply ingrained in society, solutions are not easy to come by. The Mary Byron Project’s Celebrating Solutions Program hones in on specific characteristics that make an action plan against domestic violence successful. Through months of reading applications from all over the nation, The Mary Byron Project commemorates initiatives that present innovative solutions to broaden the scope of available services for victims to turn to, and ultimately create a world where there are far fewer occurrences of intimate partner violence altogether. 2013 boasted groundbreaking models for the nation to follow in shelters, housing, law, education, and medicine. Domestic violence transcends all dimensions of life and therefore must be combated with a multi-front approach. It is the honor of the Mary Byron Project to recognize these valiant efforts.

Greenhouse 17
A little fresh air can go a long way. Greenhouse 17 presents a creative and inventive solution to help victims rebuild their lives after violence has caused extensive loss and damage. Their solution is agriculture based healing. That’s right, aside from providing advocacy, emergency shelter, legal services and housing support, they also give victims the empowering opportunity to help cultivate the land on their beautiful 40 acre farm. Peaceful moments in gardens, where witnessing plants growing can inspire feelings of hope, serve to counteract stresses victims have experienced through their trauma. There is something very life-affirming about planting a seed and seeing it grow—the literal affirmation that confidence in the future is not futile. They benefit from these efforts and are able to eat the fresh fruits and vegetables which also teaches good eating habits. Further, through these efforts the farm plans to become an entirely economically self-sustaining program while offering survivors microenterprise opportunities. They are deeply committed to community involvement and garner support from local establishments. Greenhouse 17 redefines the meaning of healing and helps victims get back on their feet while learning life-long skills.

District Alliance for Safe Housing
Home should be a safe place. DASH posits that every survivor of domestic violence should have stress-free access to a roof over head where they can heal. Lacking a safe place to stay often traps victims and their children in abusive and potentially very dangerous situations. DASH’s innovative design for providing housing departs from the traditional model of shelter and housing for victims, instead offering emergency, transitional and permanent housing services to residents in an apartment setting, where they have leases in their own names and are able to transition in place rather than moving from one facility to another after completing each predetermined stage of housing. They call this program “Rapid Re-housing” and move victims into their own housing units immediately after they have escaped abuse and keep them housed for the long-term. The settling allows residents to have their own private space to heal and recover, conducting their lives as they would in their own homes. Their reach has been nothing short of astounding. In 2013, DASH safely housed 225 individuals (94 women and 131 children) providing over 800,000 safe nights. 350 women and families were placed into emergency, transitional and permanent housing. DASH also works to educate the community and has reached over 2,000 women and advocates. In an article by WUSA 9 DASH resident Janet M. Copeland offers a chilling testimonial: “When she gave me the key to open my door I fell to my knees and kissed the floor because I was so happy. I felt safe. It was like a new awakening. I was just so grateful. That’s the word. I was just so grateful that it was a place that I could go with my baby and feel safe.” DASH places victims in highly secure housing at undisclosed locations so they can rest assured that their perpetrator will not find them. And in the long-term, with DASH by their sides, victims can build a life free of violence in a home they can afford.

Rutgers School of Social Work
Domestic Violence is a complicated issue. In order to enrich the education of those serving in the field, Rutgers School of Social Work has crafted a certification program specifically pioneered for studies surrounding violence against women and children. They are the only university in the country to offer this program to graduate level social work students. Through in-depth courses, specialized field placements and supportive scholarships Rutgers tailors the program to create professionals who have the skills needed to work effectively and sensitively with survivors of violence. Graduates have gone on to obtain professional leadership positions working in the fields of domestic violence, sexual violence and child abuse in clinical and administrative venues. The program’s research, education, and training impacts communities and policies in New Jersey, the U.S. and throughout the world. Rutgers is leading the way in encouraging schools of social work across the country to implement a focus on research on violence against women.

National Crime Victim Law Institute’s Responding to Violence Against Women Project
Victims of domestic violence all too often become victims of the criminal justice system as well. The National Crime Victim Law Institute recognizes that historical and cultural myths and biases create unique hurdles to women’s access to justice. The NCVLI recognizes the necessity to curb the pretenses that intimate partner violence is a woman’s fault for staying in the relationship. They have launched the Responding to Violence against Women Project to focus on ensuring that victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and/or child abuse are empowered in their attempt for justice. The project ensures that service providers and lawyers responding to these victims have the knowledge and skills necessary to protect a victim’s rights, particularly in the criminal case against offenders. The victims are not merely pieces of evidence in the case against the defendants but persons whose independent voice and rights need to be protected so that they can heal from the trauma they have been through. NCVLI conducts research, hosts a myriad of trainings, issues legal publications on rights enforcement to aid practitioners, crafts model legislation and drafts public policy briefings. In short, NCVLI recognizes that the system is flawed and all too frequently puts the victims on the defense. If we want more women to come forward, to seek justice, to pursue protection, the system needs reform.

Every year along with the four Celebrating Solutions winners, the Mary Byron Project recognizes an outstanding program that specifically works with underserved populations with the Roth Award. Because domestic violence affects the full range of socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic and religious groups, there is a demand for programs specifically tailored to reach diverse groups.
Migrant Clinicians Network, Inc.’s Hombres Unidos Contra la Violencia Familiar (Men United against Family Violence)
The epidemic of domestic violence will not change until men join women in the fight. Hombres Unidos engages Latino migrant men in group dialogue, facilitated by their peers, to learn about sexual and intimate partner violence. They learn to define healthy relationships through knowledge, attitudes, behaviors and beliefs. The Austin Texas group recognizes the importance of using a culturally sensitive approach to address the issue of intimate partner violence across socio-economic and ethnic boundaries. They conduct workshops in the language most participants find comfortable, usually Spanish, and foster a safe environment for discussion and learning. By training 150-300 men annually, they create community leaders and activists among Latino men who can spread positive messages of respect and exemplify healthy behaviors to their friends and families.

The Celebrating Solutions and Roth Award winners generate a sense of hope in the continuing fight against intimate partner violence. Their superior efforts to improve the resources available to victims and their drive to educate the masses to create informed foot soldiers of change are integral in ultimately ending the stigma surrounding one of our nation’s largest public health downfalls. These promising initiatives will help to end the cycle of violence that still exists in profundity in this day and age. To see more outstanding programs that we have honored, visit our website.

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Campus Sexual Assault: Our Nation’s Silent Shame

Colleges and universities are being educated by Washington and are finding the experience excruciating. They are learning that when they say campus victimizations are ubiquitous (“micro-aggressions,” often not discernible to the untutored eye, are everywhere), and that when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate- George Will, Washington Post.

 Micro-aggressions? Belittling the trauma that college women have suffered into a phrase as dismissive as “micro-aggressions” is truly infuriating in this day and age. We live in a society that still questions “Well, what was she wearing that night?” and Will’s column simply perpetuates that mindset. The fact that a well-respected columnist for the Washington Post would belittle a victim’s anguish after harassment and/or assault only heightens the stigma that already surrounds sexual assault and accounts for the diminutive percentage of victims who actually come forward. So let’s delve deeper into this issue…

For many, the journey to college means the launch from the comfortable, nurturing nest of suburbia to a campus beckoning new experiences, new areas of study, new friends, and new jobs all far away from home. These years are often some of the most transformative where students enter as 18 year old boys and girls and depart at the ripe age of 22, young men and women with big plans and ideas. However, for an 18 year old girl entering college, she also enters an incredibly dangerous environment. Hampering the prospect of self-discovery is the dauntingly high risk factor for sexual violence on college campuses.  Statistically speaking, 20% of college women experience dating violence, yet these incidents go vastly unreported. Only 12% of these women will ever come forward. Perhaps victimhood isn’t as coveted as George Will suggests. These women are ashamed and frightened, not seeking attention and recognition. What’s more, when reported, the compulsory response from campuses under Title IX legislation often does not result in more than a slap on the wrist for the perpetrator. The mission of the Legal Aid Society’s “Legal Representation of Sexual Assault Victims on Campus” training I had the privilege of attending, was to elicit a response to attempt to quell this epidemic by giving lawyers and activists a fundamental understanding of how to provide legal representation to victims of sexual assault in campus administrative hearings and counseling on other legal options with both sensitivity and competence to the needs of victims specific to sexual assault. The hope is to empower young women to hold the system accountable for keeping themselves safe and comfortable in the learning environment.


Challenges Specific to College Campuses

Victims of sexual assault often want someone to know about the incident, but the shame and fear they feel following the event inhibits them from reporting even anonymously. This proves, again, that there are no “privileges” (as Will suggests) that accompany coming forward as a victim. They have a strong tendency to blame themselves, especially if they voluntarily consumed alcohol/drugs or engaged in sexual acts. They may have fears about the criminal justice system and may not trust the campus administration, and with good cause. Most frequently their offenders are not even required to leave their living arrangement even if it is near their victim’s. And reminders of the incident are often everywhere. The perpetrator might live in the very same residence hall as the victim. She might have to see him every day in economics class. Or in the dining hall. The rigor of academia coupled with the daily struggle of the psychological experience of being a survivor has a negative impact on the student’s grades, social life and decision making. They have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, dropout rates, and even report contemplation of suicide. In other words, being in the enclosed sphere of the college bubble exacerbates the trauma experienced by the survivor.


Title IX and the Clery Act

What rights do victims have if they do decide to come forward? Title IX dictates that “No person in the United States shall on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In cohesion with the Clery Act, the government holds schools receiving aid accountable for the action taken against dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. In the 2011 the Dear Colleague letter was published by the Department of Education stating, “Education has long been recognized as the great equalizer in America. The U.S. Department of Education and its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) believe that providing all students with an educational environment free from discrimination is extremely important. The sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime.” However, navigating the process to present a case to the school could be confusing for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. In an initiative to address the overwhelming statistics of sexual assault on campus, the White House launched an initiative against sexual assault…the same initiative Will bashes in his article. Their website offers advice on how to navigate the tricky process of filing a complaint and details the services that are available for the victims. There has been an effort to let victims know that, in Obama’s own words, “We’ve got your back.” But do we? Have there been real changes in practice? When administrative hearings often result solely in the perpetrator going to “sensitivity training”, do we call that justice?  


Lawyers getting involved

Gasps were heard and hands shot up from lawyers all around the room when the presenter explained the process of administrative hearings. Unlike a normal case, attorneys are not permitted to participate in the examination of witnesses nor the presentation of materials nor information unless they are specifically asked to do so by the hearing official, an unlikely occurrence. Rather the advisor (who need not be a lawyer) may confer and give advice to the student in a quiet, confidential and non-disruptive manner. The presenter, much to the amusement of the lawyers present, added that she personally prefers to use flashcards to communicate with the women she represents. There is merely a thin separator between the victim and the perpetrator and the victim must call witnesses, make statements and face the account of the other side, with her voice alone…. a large burden considering the trauma that she has gone through… Not to mention the fact the she is 18-22 years old with no experience in the ability that it takes to argue a good case. The system therefore is markedly geared towards the offender.

 And the clincher—the advice about the importance of mitigating the client’s expectations. It is essential going into the hearing for the victim to realize that there will likely not be any consequences for the one at whose hands she suffered. Schools are worried about their reputation and are hesitant to acknowledge the problem. The fact that there are 55 schools in violation of Title IX this year alone demonstrates a dysfunctional system. 


Remaining Questions

Why is it that the protocol for perpetrators of sexual assault is markedly different on a college campus than it is off of it? The law indicates that rape and sexual assault are felonies, yet in administrative hearings offenders are rarely even suspended. Until schools hold perpetrators accountable, it seems unlikely that these crimes will substantially decrease. But with antediluvian opinions from respected men like George Will that sexual assault is not an issue to be discussed, do we have any hope of real policy changes? While it is important to hear both sides of issues, the proposition that sexual assault and harassment are undetectable “micro-aggressions” merely takes several steps backwards in the quest for social justice. And proposing that being a victim is a coveted status? That those who find the strength to take action against their perpetrators are lying or exaggerating? It is this poisonous rhetoric that plagues our system. According to the Legal Aid seminar, it is absolutely essential that victims speak up even though the results may not be super satisfying. But why put victims through more than they’ve already experienced?  It seems as though the only solution would be a totally new approach on the collegiate system of appeals, and a complete change of priorities by people who have the ability to support the strange notion that victims of sexual assault deserve more.

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Only in Kentucky . . .

Only in Kentucky . . .

 Kentucky stands alone as the only state with NO civil protection for victims of dating violence.  That’s right . . . We are the only ones who fail to recognize that being a victim of intimate partner violence does not depend on where you live, but on the nature of the relationship you are in.

What does this mean to you?  Let’s take a common example.  My mom was 68 when my father passed away.  After a year or so, she entered the dating world, albeit somewhat tentatively.  She dated a man for about 6 months.  Had he become abusive, she could not have sought a protective order to keep him away from her because, at her age, she was certainly not going to live with him (or any man, for that matter).  Her ability to seek protection depends SOLELY on where she chooses to live, not whether or not she is being abused by an intimate partner.

Similarly, I have a 17 year old daughter.  If she dates a boy and he becomes abusive, she, too, cannot seek civil protection to keep him away from her, her home, or her school.  If she gets pregnant and has a child, she can get protection.  If she is responsible and uses birth control, she cannot get protection.

Sound absurd?  It is.  Your aunts, mothers, grandmothers, friends who are entering the dating world after a divorce or the death of the spouse cannot get protection from an abusive partner unless they put aside their values and live with their partner.  Your daughters, nieces, cousins, friends cannot get protection from abusive dating partners unless they get pregnant and have a child or choose to live with their partner, despite what their religious beliefs or family values might dictate.

Perhaps even more absurd than the current reality is the reality two members of the General Assembly are trying to create.  For more than five years, advocates and a few dedicated members of the General Assembly have tried, in vain, to bring Kentucky’s antiquated law in line with that of the rest of the country and make civil protection available for victims of dating violence.  For more than five years, we have failed.  But now 2 members of the General Assembly, Sen. Jared Carpenter and Rep. Gerald Watkins have a solution:  Give individuals with a protective order permission to carry a concealed weapon with no training and no permit. 

Essentially, let’s deny protection to the dating violence victims who so desperately need it, but arm those who are already able to obtain a protective order.  Seriously?

Let’s think this through.  We know protective orders are effective at stopping or reducing domestic violence.  A recent study by UK professor Dr. T. K. Logan found that protective orders stopped or significantly reduced violence in approximately 90% of all cases in a six month follow up.  We also know that presence of firearms, regardless of who owns them, significantly increases the risk of a domestic violence victim being killed.  A California study revealed that 20% of all women murdered were killed with a gun by an intimate partner.  When the woman owned a gun, that number increased to 45%, more than double.  More guns does not mean more protection; they mean more deaths.  Finally, women who kill their batterers (which would seem to be the point of these legislative proposals) serve an average of 15 years in prison, compared with the average two to six year sentence for men who kill their intimate partners.  This is true despite the fact that most women kill in self-defense.

All of this leads one to wonder:  What are Rep. Watkins and Sen. Carpenter trying to accomplish?  Neither has spoken in favor of HB 8 or SB 68, both of which would extend protection to dating violence victims, so it’s probably safe to assume that they are not looking to actually protect more women.  Do they want more women killed?  That’s what more guns in domestic violence situations will mean.  Do they want more women incarcerated for longer periods of time?  Because that’s what happens when women kill their violent partners, even in self-defense

What is it going to take to get our legislators to realize that being victimized by an intimate partner does not depend on your address but on the nature of your relationship?  Advocates and thinking people throughout the Commonwealth have been wondering this for years.  So instead of expanding protection to those who need it, we’re going to arm those who already have protection and expect them to take matters into their own hands?  This is inane. 

This is the NRA’s bill, so those in other states should prepare themselves for the same fight that we are now having in Kentucky.

Here’s the real question:   Is this legislative effort really an expression of concern for battered women or an expression of concern for the continued support of the NRA?

You decide.



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Domestic Violence Fatality Reviews: What They Do, and How to Improve Them

Each year, approximately 1,500 women are killed by their current or former intimate partners. That number is staggering – but it is only the lower limit of the number of fatalities domestic violence creates every year. Some victims kill themselves rather than having to endure ongoing abuse, while others kill their abusers. Abusers commit murder-suicides at an alarming rate. And still more victims die as a product of homelessness or other consequences of the violence. It is truly sobering to realize the immense toll that domestic violence takes each year in sheer human lives, on top of the pain and suffering it causes to its victims.

There’s no way to put a positive spin on these tragedies, but there are ways to make sure that domestic violence-related deaths do not occur in a vacuum. Ultimately, every domestic violence-related fatality is preventable at some step; sometimes police should have arrested the murderer on a previous DV call, sometimes advocates should have tried harder to get the victim to stay in counseling, sometimes one part of the court system was unaware of a piece of information that had come out in another courtroom. Consequently, each fatality provides a learning opportunity for organizations in the field – by recognizing what went wrong and what didn’t work, experts can try to stop future deaths from occurring. This is where the “domestic violence fatality review” comes in.

The Big Picture

The basic concept behind a DV fatality review is extraordinarily simple. Domestic violence is a complex problem, and preventing it requires the efforts of many different actors: law enforcement officials; the court system; victim advocates; health care service providers. Too often, these actors and agencies do not work in concert with one another – instead, they consciously or unconsciously undermine the efforts of other organizations or let victims ‘slip through the cracks’ between agencies. While each organization should want to conduct internal scrutiny of its own practices when a fatality occurs, internal reviews alone will never account for inter-agency gaps or failures in communication.

In addition to investigating agencies’ interactions, fatality reviews create valuable opportunities for participating organizations to benefit from one another’s expertise. Domestic violence advocates will typically have more nuanced interpretations of the reasons an abuser was still able to access his victim after she left, for example, while police officers will have firsthand experience attempting to assess the immediate danger an abuser poses. The specific knowledge experts can bring to the table helps everyone develop more effective policies, and having a fresh set of eyes evaluating agency responses and policies can help identify points of improvement as well.

Some may be confused by the single focus on DV fatalities, as opposed to preventing domestic violence as a whole. Many jurisdictions do have domestic violence prevention committees, where representatives from relevant agencies meet to discuss general strategies toward combating the issue. But fatality review has the benefit – loosely speaking, of course – of focusing on some of the worst cases of domestic violence, and cases in which the system spectacularly failed those it was meant to help. By probing these cases in-depth, it is possible to identify factors which, if changed, would also help victims of less severe violence.

What Fatality Reviews Do

There are currently about 175 domestic violence fatality review teams in operation, many of which are mandated by state statutes or executive orders, and several which receive funding from government sources like the Office for Violence against Women. Some reviews happen at the statewide level; others occur at a more local level before feeding into a statewide fatality review meeting. The National Domestic Violence Fatality Review Initiative (NDVFRI) serves as a clearinghouse for fatality review reports and recommendations, and provides technical assistance and sample data collection tools to individual review teams.

To be clear, individual teams greatly differ in how they approach the actual task of fatality review. Some cover only ‘closed’ cases – that is, cases which involve a murder-suicide or for some other reason don’t have a pending court trial. Others deal with ‘open’ cases, but make sure to adopt stringent confidentiality standards to protect the privacy of families and suspects. Some teams conduct interviews with the family members of the victims and their killers; others limit themselves to information gained from official records. Some are more open about who they include in the discussions, accepting input from religious leaders or school administrators as well as DV specialists; others have smaller meetings with less ‘outside’ input. For a particularly good example of a fatality review team doing things the right way, I recommend watching this brief video about the Montana Fatality Review Commission.

Output also varies between review committees. The FAQ section of the NDVFRI website lists several ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ products of fatality review. The informal products include better-educated and better-trained team members; greater awareness about other members’ jobs; and greater collaboration on other issues in the future. It certainly seems useful to unite representatives from various agencies (especially ones which often seem to be somewhat at-odds with one another) and give them a common goal and forum for discussion; I have no doubt that on teams like the Montana one, such discussion is frequent and very informative, but I will shortly discuss settings in which these informal products are less apparent.

The formal products, likewise, can include a variety of tangible resources: from case-specific reports that delve into the history of a particular abusive relationship to state-wide data collection that can greatly assist systemic changes in the future. The 2012 Georgia Report, which we’ve been touting as a model for future fatality review reports and data collection, offers a good mix of statewide statistics and focus on individual cases. It even has interviews with survivors of near-fatal experiences, providing an additional perspective that many review teams don’t seek out. The quality of reports and data collection, especially statewide data collection, vary immensely – but people from all over the country can look to the Georgia report and others for enlightening data and sound recommendations.

The NDVFRI website also publishes newsletters on a somewhat regular basis which detail ‘best practice’ approaches that have developed as a result of individual fatality review initiatives. In 2011, for example, Arizona started a six-month pilot program to increase strangulation convictions by improving forensic exams of strangulation victims – after fatality review reports from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Maine focused on the extreme lethality risk of strangulation. In general, nationwide data about the factors surrounding domestic violence fatalities can give advocates and policymakers increased ammunition to push for stronger victim services and protections.

As a whole, there seem to be several good reasons to adopt (in those states that don’t already mandate it) fatality reviews, as well as good reasons for existing teams to communicate with others and swap ideas across state lines. Unfortunately, it seems that any good idea in the world of domestic violence must overcome substantial roadblocks before it is effectively implemented across the board.

Improving the System

The most immediately apparent obstacle to conducting fruitful fatality review meetings is the lack of involvement many victims have with the system. Estimates hold that only a small percentage of domestic violence fatality victims had some form of contact with victim services before their deaths; the Georgia report, for example, puts the statewide number at 16%. The police were not previously involved in a significant number of cases, as well.  The Georgia team found that only 77% of victims had any contact with law enforcement before their deaths – and the Florida team concluded that only 35% of the decedents had previously reported domestic violence to the police. This might be expected, since the most severe cases are often those where the victim has the least opportunity to make contact with outside resources. But just because a victim didn’t have contact with the system before her death, this does not preclude a critical discussion of how future victims might be proactively involved in victim services or criminal justice. To put it another way, in the realm of fatality review, any data is useful data.

That being said, there are certain serious administrative issues that do hinder effective fatality review. As I mentioned earlier, the confidentiality of victims and abusers is of serious importance in a legal and ethical sense. Teams must be careful to either focus on closed cases, or to sign and honor confidentiality agreements suppressing any information that might identify an individual person rather than an aggregate. Some states have legislation specifically allowing fatality review teams to discuss otherwise confidential information. Confidentiality is not a critical roadblock to any fatality review team, but it is occasionally a sticking point nonetheless. Similarly, team members are frequently concerned about the confidentiality of their own statements within the fatality review proceedings, for fear that an admission that their organization made a mistake would then be used against them in a lawsuit. Certain states also have legislation exempting team members from legal liability for their statements while in fatality review.

One other administrative issue involves the simple problem of data collection. While individual reports and qualitative descriptions can prove very important and influential, there is still a clear value to broad-based data describing general trends: how DV homicides are committed, what services victims utilized the most, whether children were involved, and so on. A lack of standardized data collection procedures within a state can seriously impair the accumulation of useful data that can truly advance policymaking.

On top of all of this, unfortunately, the biggest impairment to conducting a successful fatality review is usually inter-agency tensions and a desire to defer blame. Even when all of the member organizations want to avoid future fatalities, and even when they recognize that some gap somewhere was usually responsible for the fatalities they review, tempers can flare when a representative from one organization points out that a different agency could have done something differently. For this reason, the NDVFRI emphasizes the need for a “no blame and shame” ethos – the notion that everyone should go into the room accepting that they or their organization may face questions and concerns about current practices, but that these concerns are motivated not by a desire to blame others for the fatalities at hand, but rather by a desire to prevent future deaths – but the site also emphasizes the need for organizational accountability. Not only must organizations be held accountable for their current policies, but they must also be accountable for future changes that will prevent similar tragedies from occurring. Unfortunately, interagency concerns about disrespect or public embarrassment also impede this future accountability.

As fatality review becomes more of an ingrained institution, these tensions may diffuse. As it is, though, meetings and Q&A reports are occasionally fraught with defensive retorts and attempts to deflect criticism, as opposed to a single-minded focus on the actual task of fixing a system that lets people die before they get sufficient help. This is unfortunate, since input from other agencies may provide the fresh pair of eyes needed to fix the flaws with an imperfect system. (As a side note, the “no blame and shame” ethos does not necessarily apply to the victims – sometimes, in an attempt to deflect scrutiny from their organizations, team members will turn to the victim’s proximity to her abuser at the time of the murder or other actions as an explanation for why the death occurred. This undermines the entire point of the session, which is to create a space where experts can talk about how they help victims leave potentially life-threatening relationships, and diminishes accountability in a particularly pernicious way. The presence of victim advocates who are willing to speak out against this sort of victim-blaming is instrumental in preventing the deflection of responsibility.)

What’s Next?

At the end of the day, the case for fatality reviews seems simple, and despite the problems, it certainly is the case that fatality review teams have prompted real and positive changes in domestic violence policies across the country. It’s also true that unlike many of the things we write about on this blog, the fatality review is an institution many lawmakers already see as important and have legally mandated. While the NDVFRI is the first to admit that it’s not possible “to prove in any scientific manner that fatality reviews reduce domestic violence or the number of domestic violence related homicides,” the benefits of these reviews in terms of improved legislation, improved policies, and improved interagency communication are clear.

I can’t help wondering, though, whether the fatality review is only a prelude to increased cooperation in other aspects. Last week, I wrote about the Jefferson County Domestic Violence Intake Center, which unites advocates and the court system to give victims the best possible legal advice. There are certainly other avenues for cooperation out there. A once-a-month meeting among people who care about domestic violence is great, but it’s by no means a substitute for more sustained partnerships. Hopefully more and more jurisdictions are wising up to this. As always, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts – are you aware of any advancements that have come about in your jurisdiction as a product of fatality review?

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