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Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010

Never Again

Community efforts to end domestic violence

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A community-wide problem like domestic violence requires a community-wide response.

That’s why advocates for the survivors of domestic abuse and their families have created partnerships that combine medical, psychological, legal and housing assistance.

One collaborative effort, the Sojourner Family Peace Center, the result of a February 2009 merger of the Task Force on Family Violence and the Sojourner Truth House, provides comprehensive services for those who are trying to break the cycle of violence.

The Family Peace Center operates the county’s 24-hour domestic violence hotline (933-2722), which receives an estimated 16,000 calls per year. That call is often an abused or threatened woman’s first step toward seeking help, said Angela Mancuso, the Family Peace Center’s executive director. From there, the center provides an advocate to assess a client’s needs, which could be multiple—safe shelter, legal assistance and counseling for victims, children or abusers. Mancuso said the merger allowed the center to provide comprehensive help more efficiently to an estimated 30,000 individuals last year.

“As two separate agencies, as families needed our services, we were referring back and forth,” Mancuso said. “Clients were running to two different places and talking to many different people, repeating the often-painful details of their story. As one agency, that is eliminated.”

In addition to the Sojourner Family Peace Center, other resources for survivors of intimate partner abuse include the Aurora Sinai and Aurora West Allis medical centers, which operate the Sexual Assault Treatment Center of Greater Milwaukee (with a 24-hour phone line at 219-5555). That center provides medical and psychological help for survivors of sexual assault, as well as provides referrals to other agencies and the district attorney’s office. In addition, the Healing Center (671-4325) offers support to survivors of sexual abuse.

The need is critical. While violent crime appears to be dropping in the Milwaukee area, intimate partner crime—domestic violence or sexual assault—continues to represent a significant portion of crimes.

Mancuso said that the Family Peace Center is seeing “more lethality and more brutality and viciousness in domestic violence” in the past year, as well as more cases.

“The bad economy is not a cause for it, but it’s a catalyst to violence,” Mancuso said. “There’s a lot of stress, high unemployment, home loss and homelessness, and that can cause a lot of stress and pressure, particularly in households where violence has already existed.”

The Next Generation

Mancuso said that domestic violence is a learned behavior, which is why it’s so important to address the needs of the entire family, including the children.

“Kids absolutely have an idea if what’s going on is right or wrong,” Mancuso said. “But they may not think twice about bullying someone shortly thereafter [an incident at home]. It’s learned and that’s all that they know.”

Kent Lovern, chief deputy district attorney, said that the district attorney’s office is trying to target the homes where violence occurs and proactively attempt to break the cycle of violence in the next generation.

“What we’ve seen quite frankly in the prosecution of our young violent offenders who commit gang crimes and gun-related offenses is that the majority of these youngsters are growing up in households afflicted by domestic violence or child abuse,” Lovern said. “It’s easy to see their behavior as a predictable outcome of the domestic environment they grew up in.”

Lovern said the district attorney’s office has been working with other agencies, law enforcement, the faith community and the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) to find more holistic ways of reducing domestic violence and child abuse.

That could include screening families for underlying problems in addition to the domestic abuse crisis that brought them into contact with the district attorney. That could be referrals for mental health treatment, alcohol or drug counseling, or help in MPS.

“Rather than making our families go to 10 different places to try to deal with those problems, we’re trying to bring those resources to them in one setting,” Lovern said.

This increasing awareness of the cycle of violence could reduce crime in the future, Lovern said.

“You see the connectivity now between generations of kids who have grown up in violent households—for example, as adults, and then watching their kids come through [the criminal justice system],” Lovern said. “I think it becomes more clear that it’s a learned behavior and has to be addressed, and it requires a community-wide intervention.”

The Paid Sick Days Challenge

This effort to create a comprehensive approach to addressing domestic violence suffered a setback last year when a judge ruled that victims of domestic violence could not use paid sick leave to heal from the damage. Issues arising from domestic abuse, sexual assault and stalking had been listed as valid reasons to take paid time off of work according to the city of Milwaukee paid sick leave ordinance, which 69% of city voters approved in a November 2008 ballot referendum.

Immediately after the referendum passed, the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) filed a suit on numerous grounds to prevent the ordinance from going into effect. Judge Thomas Cooper rejected virtually all of MMAC’s arguments in opposition to the ordinance, except for the argument that the ordinance shouldn’t cover intimate partner crimes.

“This court holds [that] the term ‘sick leave’ does not reasonably, intelligently, and fairly comprise or reference domestic violence, sexual violence and stalking,” Judge Cooper wrote. “Even if this court held otherwise, this court still holds that ‘sick leave’ does not reasonably, intelligently, and fairly comprise or reference relocation or pursuit of a legal action in response to such occurrences.”

While the Milwaukee City Attorney’s Office is not appealing the ruling, 9to5: National Association of Working Women, which spearheaded the referendum, has filed an appeal. Oral arguments are expected to be heard in the next few weeks.

Tony Gibart, policy coordinator for the Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said his organization filed a friend of the court brief because paid sick days are essential for helping victims of domestic violence and sexual assault stop the violence.

“When you look at who’s disproportionately affected by domestic violence, it is individuals who are in low-wage work, who don’t have paid time off,” Gibart said. “It’s absolutely critical that they have just a few days to heal from the wounds, both physical and psychological, and also to take preventative action. In some ways that’s even more important—to take the step of testifying at the criminal trial, getting a restraining order, relocating.”

Mancuso of the Sojourner Family Peace Center said that the threat of losing one’s job to take time off for legal or medical reasons related to domestic violence often traps women in abusive relationships.

“You need your income, specifically in order to get your own apartment if you’re living with your abuser,” Mancuso said. “Why create another obstacle to keep someone in a violent situation? Because that’s what they might end up doing—just staying put.”

Gibart said it isn’t easy for a domestic violence victim to move.

“It’s not like you just rent a truck and you move your stuff,” Gibart said. “There’s probably just a narrow window in which you can relocate and get your children to safety. Anything we can do to make that process less burdensome really will save lives.”

UPDATE: BREAKING: Paid Sick Days Appeals Gets a Jan. 20 Court Date

The attempt to restore the paid sick days ordinance in Milwaukee just took a big step forward.

Late yesterday, Jan. 5, District IV Court of Appeals in Madison announced it will hear the case on Jan. 20, in Madison. There will be oral arguments.



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