WASHINGTON — She told the Domestic Abuse Service Center in Minneapolis that the father of her children had pushed, grabbed and kicked her. Fearing he’d hurt her again, she asked for an order of protection and began making plans to head to a domestic abuse shelter.
A day later, she called the center and asked to drop the order of protection. She didn’t have another home to go to, and the shelter was full. She needed to work so she could keep going to school and didn’t have money for child care. Financially, she said she needed the abuser to watch her kids.
“One of the main reasons women do not leave abusive situations is because they are financially dependent on their abuser,” explained Lolita Ulloa, managing attorney of the Victim Services Division in the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, who told the story of that unnamed Minneapolis woman. “This reality is only exacerbated during an economic downturn.”
“Financial independence, simply put, can make the difference in whether a woman stays or leaves.”
Ulloa and others who work with domestic violence victims told a Senate panel Wednesday that they’ve seen a sharp spike in the number of cases they handle since the economic crisis began in earnest in late 2008. While research doesn’t exist to authoritatively link an economic downturn with starting domestic violence, experts said that anecdotally it appears that the added stress intensifies already abusive relationships.
Senate leaders said they plan to take up a reauthorization of the landmark Violence Against Women Act later this year, with a view toward amending it to provide more help to victims in financial need.
“The economic pressures of a lost job, home or car can add stress to an already abusive relationship,” Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said. “The loss of those resources can make it harder for victims to escape a violent situation.”
“Now’s the time to look at where the needs might be,” Leahy said.
Part of the problem, officials said, is that there simply aren’t enough resources to help everyone in need. Susan Carbon, director of the Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women, said calls to the national domestic violence hot line rose nearly 20 percent from 2008 to 2009.
A national one-day census of domestic violence services in September, 2009, showed more than 9,200 requests went unmet on that day alone. Extend that one day by 364 others, and one finds a simply staggering gap between the needs and the resources available to meet those needs.
This being the start of the reauthorization process, the suggestions were numerous:
- Ulloa asked for money to help victims on an “emergency basis,” so that finances won’t be an impediment to their or their children’s safety.
- Carbon suggested the scope of the Act be broadened so her office can pursue strategies to prevent domestic violence, rather than just respond to it.
- In tough budget times, how much money can be found? “My concern is that we don’t cut back on services,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said.
- Sen. Al Franken, adding to Klobuchar’s point, suggested more money be specifically set aside to combat domestic violence on Indian reservations where federal statistics show rates of sexual assault are far higher than the national average.
- Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions suggested more research on what works and what doesn’t, so that “people throughout the states that carry out these works know what things are effective and what things don’t work.”
- The Violence Against Women Act, as its name suggests, tends to target women, said Richard Gelles, dean of the school of social policy and practice at the University of Pennsylvania. More needs to be done, he said, to support male victims of domestic abuse.
- A contentious debate looms over exactly how much proof should be required before accused abusers are separated from their children.
- Another equally contentious question: Should the government step in and help fund lawyers for those who claim domestic violence in divorce proceedings?
“In the past 15 years, we have changed the way that our communities respond to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking,” Carbon said in her concluding remarks. “But there is still work to do if we are to reach our collective goal of breaking the cycle of violence that plagues families and communities across our country.”