Anti-domestic violence advocates concerned about future of programs

MARTINSBURG — State and local agencies are worried about the future of domestic violence and sexual assault victim advocacy in West Virginia.

Because the 112th Congress failed to reach a decision on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, a piece of legislation first enacted in 1994, organizations are questioning the availability of funding in the next fiscal year.

“It means a bit of uncertainty in the future,” said Tonia Thomas, of the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “With the act not being reauthorized, what it does is it puts the program in a holding pattern.”

This holding pattern makes planning ahead more of a challenge, said Sue Julian of the WVCAD.

“It makes it difficult to grow the program and expand services to the outlying areas of rural counties,” Julian said.

Ann Smith, director of the Shenandoah Women’s Center, said two of the agency’s staff positions are funded by the VAWA grants. Both SWC positions are sexual assault advocates who work in Berkeley and Morgan counties.

“That could directly impact the work that we’re doing there,” Smith said.

Created in 1977, SWC is the domestic violence and sexual assault crisis, treatment and prevention program in the Eastern Panhandle. With an office in Martinsburg, the agency employs 11 staff members and served 872 clients, according to its 2011–2012 annual report.

Though there have been domestic violence laws in the state since the 1970s, the VAWA brought domestic violence into the spotlight as a social issue that needed to be looked at seriously and responsibly, Julian said.

“In doing that, the VAWA has allocated funds to require in some instances and encourage in other instances, different responding systems to work together,” Julian said.

Smith, who worked at SWC before the VAWA was passed, said the legislation started a strong collaboration between law enforcement and domestic violence programs across the country, especially in West Virginia.

Both SWC and the WVCADV said response to and prosecution of intimate partner violence must be different, because the issue has different dynamics from what Thomas referred to as “stranger violence” or assault.

Different factors arise, such as the presence of children and custody issues, Thomas said. Tactics of control that a batterer will use also create challenges when responding to intimate partner violence, she said. These tactics can include emotional control, financial manipulation and sexual and reproductive coercion.

Julian said the fact that the VAWA reauthorization did not pass is “shocking,” since it has been regarded as a bipartisan issue in the past.

“We’re not sure what message to read into this, what message Congress is sending to all of us,” she said.

Smith said she found the situation frustrating and alluded that the financial issues of the country might have been why the VAWA reauthorization did not garner more attention from legislators.

Smith said the intensity of violence in the Eastern Panhandle has not only continued, but gotten worse.

“In the last two years, the number of times we’ve responded to the hospital for sexual assault calls has gone up dramatically,” she said.

The SWC sees cases of severe abuse regularly, Smith said. She described the obstacles domestic violence victims must overcome as “horrendous.”

“We’re hearing stories about food being withheld,” she said. “(Victims) are not allowed to have but maybe one meal every two days.”

One-third of homicides in West Virginia are related to domestic violence and two-thirds of women murdered in the state are killed by a family or household member, according to the WVCADV.

Domestic violence service providers cited lack of funding as the number one reason they were unable to serve victims, according to a 2011 census conducted by the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Julian and Thomas said it would be detrimental to West Virginia if the VAWA is not reauthorized during the next congressional session.

“If we can’t find new funding sources, we’ll have to make staffing cuts,” Smith said of SWC. “What that means is we can’t serve as many victims.”

Originally published at on January 6, 2013.