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What We Need to Know About Domestic Violence

By Carol Corden

In New York City on any given night, almost 15,000 adults and children are homeless due to abuse by an intimate partner. Since October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and November is National Homelessness Awareness Month, it’s an ideal time to reflect upon the connection between domestic violence and homelessness.

Family homelessness is a growing problem nationwide—with more families living doubled up, in cars and vans, motels, and shelters, and a significant portion of the family homeless population is comprised of domestic violence victims.  A November 2014 report by the New York City Independent Budget office identified “domestic violence” as second only to “evictions” as a generator of family homelessness.  

Homelessness and domestic violence together exact a huge cost on our society.

Homeless shelters cost significantly more than permanent housing without providing any of the same benefits to their users. Homeless individuals and domestic violence victims are more likely to interact with the police, the criminal justice system, and hospital emergency rooms.

Homeless children, meanwhile, are less likely to attend school or to receive consistent medical care and are more likely to have physical and mental health problems. Because of the dual stigmas of poverty and homelessness, they are less likely to realize their potential as adults and more likely to continue the cycle of poverty. Children who have been exposed to domestic violence have a greater probability of becoming batterers or victims of abuse as adults.

While crisis shelter is important, it is not a long-term solution to the problems facing low-income survivors and their children.

In New York City, which has one of the largest specialized shelter systems for domestic violence survivors, far too many victims find themselves homeless and still at risk of abuse after a relatively short shelter stay—a discouraging outcome given the city’s significant investment in shelters. Many victims and their children find themselves doubled up with relatives and friends, seeking entrance to the general homeless system, or back with their batterers.

Permanent housing is the critical need that must be addressed if low income survivors and their families are to achieve long-term stability and safety.

For survivors with some economic resources or with the capability to become self-supporting, rapid rehousing may be the most cost-efficient and beneficial way for them to leave a dangerous situation. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has recognized rapid rehousing as an important tool for preventing or reducing homelessness. Providing survivors with assistance—including short-term rental subsidies—to find and qualify for existing affordable housing is a model that has been implemented in several parts of the country with positive results.

The success of this model depends upon linkages to landlords who have affordable housing and are willing to accept applicants, a mechanism for pre-screening and referring applicants, and the availability of voluntary support services once applicants are placed in housing.

For many homeless low-income domestic violence survivors, most of whom have children, success in permanent housing will require access to on-site services to help them remain stable and violence-free in their housing. Survivors often have never lived on their own, are socially isolated, and are still struggling with the trauma of abuse—as are their children.

Maintaining permanent housing—always a challenge for low-income households—is even more difficult for previously homeless victims of domestic violence who, after a short stay in shelter, find themselves in a new section of the city with no social network, while still involved with court cases and child custody issues.

Supportive housing—permanent housing with on-site services—has been successfully used for over 20 years to help chronically homeless individuals with disabling medical conditions remain stable in permanent housing. While the cost of providing intensive on-site services is high, advocates of this model have successfully argued that supportive housing is much less expensive than the cost to the public of homeless individuals who drain resources from emergency rooms, the police, the criminal justice system, and homeless shelters.

Supportive housing can be tailored to address the wide range of issues that victims of domestic violence confront.

An example of what works is the affordable rental housing provided by my organization, the New Destiny Housing Corporation, a New York City nonprofit that works to end the cycle of violence for low-income families at risk of homelessness and domestic violence by connecting them to safe, permanent housing and services. Since 1994, Destiny has developed ten permanent housing projects with units set aside for homeless domestic violence victims and their children. The essential elements of our service-enriched housing model can easily be replicated elsewhere.

They include:

  • A mix of populations—homeless domestic violence survivors and individuals and families from the general population—that does not stigmatize survivors and contributes to a non-institutional environment;
  •  Voluntary services that are client-centered and adapted to the needs of individuals and families who have experienced domestic violence;
  • A focus on housing stability, safety, and rebuilding social networks; and
  • Flexibility in adjusting services as needs change over time.

Given the diversity among victims of abuse, no single housing type will work for all homeless domestic violence survivors.

Rental subsidies, set-asides in public housing and in publicly funded new construction, and supportive housing are all necessary to reduce homelessness caused by domestic violence.

But there should be little doubt that permanent housing linked to voluntary supports remains the key service that homeless domestic violence survivors and their children need in order to move beyond crisis to long-term stability and security.

Carol Corden is Executive Director of New Destiny Housing Corporation in New York City. She welcomes comments from readers.

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‘It Should Not Hurt to Be a Child’

By Eileen King

April is Child Abuse Awareness Month, and it is an occasion for being reminded that  “it should not hurt to be a child.”  The soul-destroying, long-term consequences of child physical/sexual abuse and neglect obviously merit a year-round focus, but media attention to such awareness campaigns helps encourage parents, especially mothers, to seek help if they suspect child abuse.

At the same time, however, the long and exhausting journey that parents must take to secure protection for endangered children, often involving legal battles costing many thousands of dollars, is rarely mentioned.

Who wants to hear that no amount of money can assure justice in systems that disbelieve children and distrust protective parents?

It is, however, a grim reality.  Parents who act appropriately and lawfully to protect their children may be punished by family court judges for reporting abuse or for refusing to force their terrified child to visit an abusive parent.  

In the worst cases, custody is reversed and the protective parent may be denied any contact with his or her child.  The message: failure to be a “friendly parent” is worse than child physical or sexual abuse.

The non-profit agency I work for, Justice for Children, often finds itself on the front lines of complex cases of child abuse, arising during separation and divorce,  that may be litigated for years. Although Child Protective Services (CPS) investigates abuse reports, these cases are generally treated with suspicion and ruled out as “custody battles” despite urgent, compelling evidence.  

Rarely prosecuted by the State, intra-familial abuse allegations are relegated to a domestic relations court of equity where a serious crime against a child is reduced to a civil law question of property. Such courts, in  contrast to the traditional adversarial nature of a courtroom, allow judges to apply injunctions or writs instead of monetary damages, according to the principle of “fairness. ”

Family courts in most (if not all) jurisdictions are considered “courts of equity.”  A recent New York case in which the Court of Appeals was asked to decide whether a teacher imprisoned for molesting boys can see his own child illustrates the limits of an approach that considers a child just a piece of property to be divided.

The systemic failures and practices that place abused or at-risk children in the care or custody of a dangerous parent are well known, but it has taken over 15 years for these agonizing and sometimes tragic cases to be officially recognized as serious problems in our judicial and CPS systems.  

The Catch 22 nature of a parent’s duty to report, and penalties for failure to protect, sinks protective parents in the quicksand of family court litigation. Very little help is available from public agencies or non-profits.  Abusers know they have unparalleled opportunities to abuse and control their children and ex-partners with few consequences. 

Non-profit advocates have been working for years to get these issues before federal agencies. 

Last month, the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) held a Roundtable at George Washington University Law School, sponsored by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence with help from the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project.  Judge Susan Carbon, OVW director, , and participants from other federal agencies listened to a panel of mothers and a courageous 13-year-old share their experiences in family court. 

In the experts’ panel, we shared our extensive knowledge of how CPS and family courts can fail abused children and their protective parents.  A report on the roundtable will be posted soon on the OVW website.

Change must also happen in state CPS agencies and family courts. Court appointees (psychological evaluators, Guardians ad litem, children’s attorneys, mediators and parenting coordinators) should not evade oversight or consequences for negligent practices that harm children.  

Policies forcing children to reunite with their sexual assault perpetrators need immediate re-evaluation.  These are just of few of the many changes recommended by advocates and legal/mental health professionals.

The worst betrayal a child can endure is sexual/physical abuse or neglect by a parent.  Assuring a child that if they tell they will be protected, but then failing to protect heaps betrayal upon betrayal. 

We need to carry through on our promises to children.   This is the next  level of child abuse awareness our society needs!

Here are some further resources for anyone who wants to explore the issue further:

From Madness to Mutiny: Why Mothers Are Running From the Family Courts and What to Do About It, by Amy Neustein, Ph.D. and Michael Lesher, J.D., Northeastern University Press, 2005. www.upne.com/1-58465-462-7.html

Domestic Violence, Abuse and Child Custody edited by Mo Therese Hannah, Ph.D and Barry Goldstein, J.D., The Civic Research Institute, 2010. http://www.civicresearchinstitute.com/dvac.html


Eileen King is Regional Director of Justice for Children-DC.  She welcomes comments from readers.

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A New Criminal Justice Funding Infusion?

Criminal justice advocates are anxiously awaiting passage of the economic stimulus bill now quickly making its way through Congress. The reason? It could include up to $4 billion for justice system improvement projects. This would be a huge turnaround from December 2007, when Congress without warning deeply slashed the popular Byrne JAG program, which provides aid to states and localities, to a mere $170 million annually from $520 million--a sum that had itself been cut from previous years.

Republicans could still force cuts in the new bill, but the likelihood is that police and other justice system agencies could get a quick infusion of funds. At least one version of the bill could require spending plans within 60 days.

Are states ready to spend this money? Yes, they say. Maine, for example, would use funds to prevent the layoff of 7 agents on its statewide antidrug task force. The state also would fill vacant positions to prosecutor drug and domestic-violence cases, among other things. North Carolina would use money to continue drug treatment courts that would otherwise have to close because of a state funding shortage. It could also use aid to expand the number of delinquency prevention programs, including alternative schools for suspended and expelled students.

On the policing side, both the House and the Senate Appropriations Committee favor spending $1 billion on hiring police officers, roughly 13,000 nationwide.

The National Criminal Justice Association, which represents states and localities in Washington, says that three-fourths of the stimulus money could be used for personnel, which is one of the bill's main purposes. Now the question is how much will be available and when.

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