In New York City, the number of murders dropped by more than 40 percent between 2001 and 2015. But homicides involving intimate partners have not had a corresponding decrease: Between 2002 to 2013, they dropped 10 percent.
Officials in New York City have been working on a number of policy changes to address the continued issue of domestic violence throughout the boroughs. On Wednesday, they joined domestic violence service providers and advocates at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to discuss the ongoing crisis and the city’s latest efforts to reduce its toll.
“Domestic violence is one of the most difficult crimes to combat,” stated Kathleen White, an inspector with the New York Police Department’s Domestic Violence Unit. Though 2015 saw the lowest recorded number of domestic violence homicides to date, White noted that 70 percent of those killed by an abusive partner in New York City had never filed a prior domestic violence report.
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One of these policies, explained officials at the John Jay event, is a bill to expand the 2014 Paid Sick Leave law to include Paid Safe Leave. The bill, introduced in the New York City Council the next day, allows paid leave from work so that abuse survivors can address their immediate safety needs.
Furthermore, stated Hannah Pennington of the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, if a survivor takes fewer than three days off work, he or she does not need to provide documentation as to why they were absent from work. “This is very important because survivors don’t always want to tell employers about domestic violence,” she said.
In theory, this could mean that an employee could take two days off work to obtain services from a domestic violence shelter or resource; consult with an attorney; file a domestic violence report with the police; or meet with the district attorney’s office without having to provide a detailed explanation. Those who take more than three days off can provide a letter from a victim services organization, service provider, or attorney, or a police or court record. That documentation need not go into the specific details of the family matter.
The second policy places housing attorneys in each of the city’s five Family Justice Centers. This gives survivors help in removing abusers from their lease, restricting an abuser’s access to the home or, if they want to move, ending a lease without penalty.
The third policy involves the police: The New York Police Department will be using a new tool to track chronic abuse and, if an order of protection is violated, police will reach out to survivors to connect them with safety supports.
But fears of police violence and other abuses may keep many survivors from turning to city authorities. Audrey Moore, the executive assistant district attorney for the Manhattan district attorney’s office, said at the John Jay event, “It’s 2016. Many Black people are feeling distrustful of the criminal justice system.”
That distrust, she said, can lead survivors-particularly those of color, immigrants, and people from other marginalized communities, to question whether to report their loved ones to the system. But, Moore added, “I’m not sure how this affects reporting numbers.” Inspector White noted that the highest number of incident reports in the city come from the 75th precinct in East New York, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Liz Roberts, the deputy CEO and chief program officer of Safe Horizon—a national organization that works with victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, and human trafficking and is the entry point into the city’s domestic violence shelter system—agreed.
“Many New Yorkers are afraid to involve the city in their lives,” she stated. Those fears may stem from negative or violent encounters not only with the police, but also with child welfare officials or other social service agencies.
She also reminded the audience of the limitations of the criminal justice system when it comes to domestic violence. During her early years of domestic violence advocacy in Boston, Roberts recalled, she worked with a young pregnant woman who had sought help after being beaten by her boyfriend. Roberts supported her throughout the prosecution of her ex, who was sentenced to six months behind bars. While he was gone, the young woman picked up the pieces of her life and gave birth to a baby girl. When her ex finished his sentence, he sent her messages through friends and family members swearing that he had changed and asking to build a relationship with his new daughter. Through what Roberts called the constant “drip drip” of these messages through friends and family, the young woman relented and allowed him to visit. He killed her during that visit.
“That was my first lesson in the limitations of the criminal justice system,” Roberts recalled. It also made her realize that the risk of violence can continue for years, a risk that the criminal justice system is not equipped to address.
Indeed, “most of us don’t start by calling the police when we’re having a problem in the family,” noted Roberts. Instead, she pointed out to the reporters and advocates gathered in the room that people begin by talking with their informal support networks, such as family members, friends, or clergy—networks that their abusive partner may increasingly seek to isolate them from. If there are children in the household, abusers often threaten to call child welfare officials or wrest child custody if their partner discloses abuse or attempts to leave the relationship. “By the time they get to Safe Horizon, a survivor has heard threat after threat against themselves and their children,” Roberts stated.
Each year, she said, Safe Horizon’s hotline receives 100,000 calls. “We are often the first point of contact for a victim who is scared enough, desperate enough to reach out beyond their informal networks,” she added.
What needs to happen, Roberts stated, is a “culture change” and greater education about resources so that when an abuse survivor turns to her sister for help, she can get information about the available options. Similarly, other places and service providers that survivors turn to before calling the police, such as health-care providers, schools and houses of worship, need to recognize domestic violence and be able to direct them to resources.
Moore agreed. “Our biggest obstacle is that we don’t own this [domestic violence] as a society,” she stated. “We don’t educate our kids …. We need to teach our children from a young age about being a good person.”
The culture change needs to incorporate those perpetuating the violence as well. Moore also pointed to another reality—that domestic violence survivors may not want to press charges, but instead simply want their partners’ violence to stop. “There’s a need for programs to address this safely,” she stated, noting that abusers are often victims of trauma and violence themselves.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office has also recognized that the cycle of abuse will not stop unless those histories of trauma and violence are addressed as well. Moore announced that the office will be funding a trauma-informed program for batterers through forfeiture monies.