Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett is poised to sign a bill into law that will enable more sexual assault survivors and young stalking and harassment victims to obtain protection from abuse orders. Under current state law, only a small subset of rape survivors qualify for such orders.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett is poised to sign a bill into law that will enable more sexual assault survivors and young stalking and harassment victims to obtain protection from abuse (PFA) orders.
Under current state law, only a small subset of survivors qualify for PFAs because the law requires that the assailant be a household member or former intimate partner. After the new law goes into effect, survivors who have been assaulted by strangers or acquaintances and who do not initiate criminal charges will be able to petition a judge for civil protection.
“While we want sex offenders to be incarcerated, sometimes there’s not enough evidence, sometimes the victims just can’t handle the process,” Diane Moyer, legal director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR), told Rewire. “It’s a very arduous process.”
PCAR and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery/Bucks), have been working to pass this legislation for the last decade. They say 28 states have similar protections.
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The new law reflects the reality that most rapes are committed by assailants known to the victim. Victims are sometimes dissuaded from filing formal charges in a system that often requires victims to go public about their trauma, and still results in statistically few convictions.
The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) estimates that 60 percent of rapes are never reported to the police.
“We get calls from college students … deciding whether or not to go through the university adjudication process,” said Kristen Houser, PCAR’s communications director. Campus-based adjudication processes do not result in criminal convictions; they only determine if the alleged assailant transgressed student conduct codes. Even when they are found guilty of violating student conduct, though, assailants are often given light sentences, such as a one-semester suspension.
“The thing is, you’re living on a college campus, and your sphere of domain could be so small,” said Houser. “You have a high chance of repeated run-ins, and for someone who has been sexually assaulted, that is really terrifying.”
As a result, in many cases, victims drop out of school, while their alleged attackers graduate.
An amendment to the bill provides similar recourse for stalking and harassment victims who are under 18.
Under current law, stalking and harassment victims who are minors cannot obtain a PFA unless their assailant is a current or former household member, family member, or former intimate partner.
Chatham University student Sarah Pesi, 18, discovered the law’s shortcomings when she was victimized by an adult male stalker at 12 years old, and discovered she couldn’t do anything about it.
“I got my first job as a soccer referee, and I really enjoyed my job,” Pesi told Rewire. While she was working, an adult male soccer coach began to follow her around the soccer fields. “You tell them to stop, and what you say doesn’t matter, and you don’t have control over what’s happening to you, which isn’t a good feeling to have,” Pesi said. “It was really stressful.”
Pesi and her parents tried to obtain a PFA to protect her, but discovered she didn’t qualify for one because the man wasn’t a relative and she hadn’t dated him—a rule that applied despite her being only 12 years old. So Pesi quit her gig as a referee.
“It affected my self-esteem a lot,” she said. “I was still supported by my parents, but for somebody who that’s their main source of income, and they support themselves, that’s a huge deal.”
Pesi did some research and discovered that seven in ten stalking victims knew their offender in some capacity, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The bill’s supporters have estimated that under current law, fewer than 60 percent of victims do not qualify for legal protection.
Two years after the incident on the soccer field, Pesi wrote a draft of a bill to expand PFAs for minors for a good government class. But she wasn’t satisfied “leaving it as something imaginary,” she said.
Pesi participated in GirlGov, a program encouraging girls’ participation in politics run by the Pittsburgh-based Women and Girls Foundation. The group provided mentorship and resources to help Pesi make the bill a reality.
“It’s been our number-one policy priority,” said the group’s CEO, Heather Arnet, who has accompanied Pesi to Harrisburg to rally support for her initiative “dozens of times.”
“They let me take the lead, but offered me information and advocacy and guidance, and support to get the bill actually … moving,” said Pesi. “Stalking has been framed as this personal problem. I knew it wasn’t going to help me, but it could help others.”
Six years after she first tried to obtain her own PFA, the new law is about to become reality.
“When I was 14, it was hard to be taken seriously,” said Pesi, who’s now a public policy major. “I’ve been surprised by … how long it can take it to get a bipartisan [bill] passed.”
Once signed, the “Protection of Victims of Sexual Violence or Intimidation” act will go into effect in July 2015.
The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.
Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.
Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.
Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.
“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”
“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.
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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.
But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.
“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.
The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.
“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.
Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms
Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.
Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.
“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.
Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.
“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”
Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.
Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.
State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.
So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.
This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.
“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”
“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”
Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.
“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”
Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.
Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.
“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”
For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.
These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.
“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.
By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.
“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”
By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.
States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.
A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.
As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”
At a town hall event in New York, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) told a young woman who was worried about sexual violence on campus that she should avoid attending parties with excessive alcohol.
“Being that I am a young female college student, what are you going to do in office as president to help me feel safer and more secure regarding sexual violence, harassment, and rape?” the first-year student at St. Lawrence University asked the Republican presidential candidate on Friday.
Kasich replied that in Ohio, “we think that when you enroll you ought to absolutely know” how to report sexual harassment “or whatever”confidentially, access a rape kit, and “pursue justice after you’ve had some time to reflect on it all.” Adding that similar rules should be applied nationwide, he continued that he has “two 16-year-old daughters, and I don’t even like to think about it.”
“It’s sad, but it’s something that I have to worry about,” the student noted.
“I’d also give you one bit of advice. Don’t go to parties where there’s a lot of alcohol. OK? Don’t do that,” Kasich responded.
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After the town hall,Kasich’s campaign tweeted, “Only one person is at fault in a sexual assault, and that’s the assailant.”
“Victims needs [sic] to know we’re doing everything we can to have their backs, and that’s happening in Ohio under John Kasich’s leadership,” said another tweetfrom the campaign.
However, Kasich’s comments had already begun to garner criticism from those who felt he was placing the responsibility for stopping sexual violence on the victims.
“Let me say this simply, so that the governor can understand—rape victims are not responsible for rape. It’s on all of us—men and women—to address campus sexual assault,” Ohio Democratic Party spokeswoman Kirstin Alvanitakis said in a statement, according to Cincinnati.com.
Others argued that Kasich’s statement was reflective of his past record on reproductive rights and women’s health.
“John Kasich’s plan for combating sexual assault as president is to blame women who go to parties. John Kasich’s pattern of dismissing the concerns of women is disturbing enough,” said Dawn Laguens, vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund (PPAF), in a statement. PPAF has already endorsed Clinton for the presidency.
“As Governor, John Kasich has implemented policies that reflect his disregard for women, enacting 18 measures that restrict women’s access to reproductive health care while nearly half the abortion providers in his state closed their doors. He eliminated domestic violence prevention and a healthy moms and healthy babies program, simply because they were provided by Planned Parenthood. A John Kasich presidency would punish women. We can’t let his dangerous agenda into the White House,” continued Laguens.
As ThinkProgress’ Alice Ollstein explained, not only did Kasich’s so-called advice seem to blame the victim, it “also perpetuates the disproved myth that there is a direct link between alcohol consumption and rape. In fact, incidents of rape have been declining since 1979, while binge drinking has been steadily rising during the same time period. While alcohol is present in about half of all sexual assaults, it’s also present in about that same percentage of all violent crimes.”
At least one in four undergraduate women are sexually assaulted during their time on campus, according to a September 2015 survey conducted bythe Association of American Universities.
Kasich similarly pitched the merits of confidential reporting of campus sexual violence during a February town hall event hosted by CNN, where he promised, if elected, to “use a bully pulpit” to “speak out” on the topic and push “legislatures to begin to pay attention to these issues.”
The Ohio governor’s state budget for fiscal year 2016 also included $2 million to prevent and respond to campus sexual assault. In October, the Ohio Department of Higher Education launched an initiative to “prevent and better respond to incidents of sexual violence” on all of the state’s college campuses using the money allocated by the budget.
However, Kasich’s 2013 budget contained a “gag rule” provision blocking funding for rape crisis centers that provide information about abortion. Among the other anti-choice provisions included in the budget was a mandate on ultrasounds for abortions and the reallocation of Planned Parenthood funds to crisis pregnancy centers, which regularly lie to patients in order to persuade them not to have an abortion.