Statewide advocates share stake in passing of VAWA

Mixed into a group of 11 people seated around conference tables were four women, all of whom thought, at least once in their lives, they would not live to see another day.

The women are survivors of domestic violence and spoke Friday as part of a roundtable discussion on the issue, as well as the need for continued federal support for advocacy and treatment programs in West Virginia. The event, hosted by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, also included local law enforcement and advocacy groups from around the state.

West Virginia received $3.9 million from the Violence Against Women Act in 2012, according to a fact sheet provided by the senator’s staff. These funds support services for domestic violence survivors, legal assistance and aids law enforcement in responding to domestic incidents.

“(VAWA) has significance in what we do,” said Ann Smith, executive director of the Shenandoah Women’s Center — a domestic violence shelter and service provider that serves the Eastern Panhandle.

Almost one-sixth of the organization’s budget is funded by the VAWA, Smith said.

“I didn’t know any better.”

Having been physically abused by her husband for several years, Alice — a survivor whose last name is omitted from this article for reasons of safety — said she had no idea services existed like the ones the SWC offers until a state police officer took her to the shelter.

“From there I actually learned to live and to learn that no woman or child should ever be abused,” Alice said. “Without them, I probably wouldn’t be here right now.”

Alice grew up in a poor family. She said when she married into an abusive relationship, she simply “thought that’s how it should be.”

“I didn’t know any better,” Alice said.

Uncounted victims

Careful to note that domestic violence transcends socio-economic status, Lori Fleagle said it could happen to anyone. Fleagle works as a Calhoun County advocate for the Parkersburg Family Crisis Intervention Center.

A survivor herself, Fleagle said she has worked as an advocate for 18 years. The Calhoun County project was actually a pilot program funded by the VAWA in 1996. Fleagle said the only trace of support for domestic violence victims there was a poster with a 1–800 number to the nearest shelter, located 2.5 hours away.

“No one had any idea what to do and how to help these women,” Fleagle said.

Since its inception, the Calhoun program has helped 963 first-time female clients, Fleagle said. That number does not take into account men and children under 18, which would significantly increase the number of victims.

“You can almost triple that number, which would come out to about 2,800 people in the last 18 years,” Fleagle said. “That’s a staggering amount for 7,500 people in Calhoun County.”

Agencies overwhelmed, challenged

Though $3.9 million from the VAWA seems like an adequate amount for funding statewide programs, agency officials said the number of domestic violence and sexual assault cases is on the rise. Agencies are overwhelmed by the amount of reports they receive.

Teresa Shumate, of the SWC, said 130 adults and 58 children were served by the organization from 2011 to 2012 for sexual assault.

“One weekend back in July I responded nine times on a weekend, Monday through Friday morning, for sexual assault,” Shumate said.

There are only nine sexual assault centers and 14 licensed domestic violence programs in West Virginia.

“We actually need to work on expanding our sexual assault centers across the state,” Smith said. “We do have volunteers, but we still are overwhelmed by the work that needs to be done.”

Brenna McDonald is the only sexual assault nurse examiner in Morgan County and said the work can be an uphill battle.

“Right now with policies and procedures and me being the only person, it’s a little difficult,” McDonald said.

McDonald said misconceptions about sexual assault also make it difficult for victims to get the assistance they need.

“A lot of people … feel sexual assault is more of a woman’s problem,” she said. “It’s difficult to try to get over that.”

Smith said it has become easier for agencies to partner with one another since the bill’s initial passing in 1994.

“VAWA has enabled, I think, domestic violence programs and sexual assault programs across the U.S. to not have to stand alone on this issue,” Smith said.

SWC works closely with local law enforcement, including the Martinsburg City Police, which has allowed advocates to do ride-alongs with police officers so they are able to be at the scene with domestic violence victims.

Lt. Glen Macher said many of the calls police officers respond to are related to domestic violence.

“It’s a very large part of our day,” Macher said. “I would probably be able to tell you it would be three out of 10 calls probably are related in some form to domestic violence.”

“That’s per day, per shift, per officer,” he said.

Overcoming abuse

Helping victims of domestic violence become survivors is a community effort, members of the discussion said. Lynn Ryan, of Morgantown, said she used every resource imaginable when the time came for her to escape an abusive relationship.

“It’s quite remarkable when I started thinking about coming here (to speak), I just started thinking about all of the things that helped me,” Ryan said. “It was a long process to get out of it.”

Patricia Greenley, another survivor, spoke of her 10-year marriage, during which she was verbally and mentally abused daily.

“I never thought that I would be a victim of domestic violence,” Greenley said. “Today I’m not a victim, because I’m here speaking.”

Greenley said she is “overly passionate” about helping others find their ways out of abusive relationships and said she believes it is her responsibility to reach out.

“I stand firmly on the fact that you have to be a voice for those who cannot speak,” Greenley said. “For a long time I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t sit here at the table.”

The need for VAWA

A historically bipartisan bill, the VAWA was not reauthorized in 2012 due to legislative gridlock, according to an earlier Journal report.

Rockefeller said he is optimistic that the 2013 reauthorization act will pass both chambers, as a provision involving immigration has been removed from the senate’s original bill.

“That’s not a malignant removal,” Rockefeller said. “That’s a tactical removal.”

The senator sees this compromise as a good move to get the bill moved through the House of Representatives — a move crucial to its implementation for the 2014 fiscal year.

“I think there’s a sense of hope that there’s more and more pressure, not of a bad sort, but of a human sort, on women to come through for this in the House,” he said.

“It’s one of the most gripping, moving, human pieces of legislation you can deal with,” Rockefeller said.

For victims, advocates and law enforcement alike, the need for VAWA is imperative.

“We’re going backwards if we don’t get this money, not forwards,” Fleagle said. “We will have wasted every dime that we have put into VAWA up to this point if we don’t go forward.”

Rockefeller said the 2013 Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act should be up for a vote in the Senate this Tuesday.

Originally published at on February 9, 2013.