Category Archives: Pennsylvania

Women’s Law Project Files Title IX Complaints Against Pennsylvania State System Universities

On April 17th, the Women’s Law Project filed complaints with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education against nine members of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PSSHE), asking OCR to address the historical and ongoing failure of these universities to provide equal athletic opportunity to their female students. The nine universities are Bloomsburg, Cheyney, Clarion, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, and Shippensburg.

In a letter to counsel for PSSHE, Terry Fromson, managing attorney of the Women’s Law Project wrote:

“There is no excuse for the athletic disparities at these PSSHE member universities. Despite the fact that Title IX has obligated them to achieve gender equality for more than four decades, these universities have not undertaken genuine efforts to increase opportunities for or satisfy the athletic interests of their female students. It is time for PSSHE as a whole to undertake appropriate and ongoing measures to effectively and promptly address the inequities in their athletic programs.” Fromson added.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination by federally funded educational programs, requires schools to provide equal athletic opportunity, financial assistance, and recruiting support. To meet Title IX’s equal athletic opportunity requirement, a university must demonstrate that it meets one of three tests: (1) providing women with athletic opportunities in substantial proportion to their full-time undergraduate enrollment; (2) demonstrating a history and continuing practice of increasing athletic opportunities for women; or (3) effectively accommodating the athletic interests and abilities of women. Publicly available information strongly suggests that these universities are unlikely to satisfy any of these tests.

“Each of these universities has failed to provide athletic opportunities to their female students in proportion to the percentage of undergraduate women enrolled in the university. The disparities over the past ten years average between seven and almost 15 percent,” commented Sue Frietsche, senior staff attorney for the Women’s Law Project, who noted that collectively, the nine schools are missing over 900 athletic opportunities for women. “With OCR involvement and State System cooperation, this injustice can at last be corrected,” Frietsche added.

 

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Filed under Athletic Equity, Pennsylvania, Sports, Title IX, Women's Law Project

The Corbett Administration’s Unhealthy Pennsylvania Proposal

By Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney

Instead of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, as all of Pennsylvania’s neighboring states have done, the Corbett Administration has proposed a different plan in its Healthy Pennsylvania 1115 Application (“Healthy Pennsylvania Proposal), which it claims will extend health care coverage to 500,000 uninsured adults. On Monday, January 13, 2014, Carol E. Tracy and Tara R. Pfeifer of the Women’s Law Project (WLP) submitted comments on this proposal to Secretary Beverly Mackereth of the Department of Public Welfare (DPW).

In its comments, WLP urged Governor Corbett to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act rather than pursue the Healthy Pennsylvania Proposal. If implemented, the Governor’s proposed plan will negatively affect women, who make up a large percentage of Pennsylvania’s low-income population. The concerning aspects of this proposal include:

  • A Premium Requirement That Will Make Health Care Inaccessible.
    The Healthy Pennsylvania Proposal would impose a premium on individuals who make as little as $479 per month. This requirement would be burdensome for low-income Pennsylvanians, many of whom are women, and would likely result in loss of coverage.
  • Cuts to Health Care Benefits for the 1.2 Million Individuals Currently on Medicaid.
    The Healthy Pennsylvania Proposal places Medicaid recipients onto high risk or low-risk plans, both of which provide dramatically less coverage than what is available right now.
  • A Work Search Requirement That Creates Unnecessary, Costly, and Burdensome Obstacles to Obtaining Health Care.
    The Healthy Pennsylvania Proposal requires all newly eligible and many existing Medicaid recipients to prove that they applied for 12 jobs each month, even though the majority of people in need of Medicaid expansion are already working and the additional burden would be especially difficult for many Pennsylvanians currently on Medicaid, such as individuals with disabilities. Those who are unable to prove that they have met this requirement face severe consequences, including a lockout of coverage for up to nine months.
  • Severely Limited Access to Women’s Health Services
    The Healthy Pennsylvania Proposal seeks to (a) exclude coverage for family planning services, (b) prohibit the ability of Medicaid enrollees to choose the provider of family planning services, and (c) prevent access to robust provider networks by allowing enrollment in private plans offered outside of the Marketplace.
  • An Implied End to SelectPlan for Women
    The Healthy Pennsylvania Proposal does not explicitly state that Pennsylvania plans to end SelectPlan for Women; however, the threat is apparent. SelectPlan has extended coverage for Medicaid to uninsured women between 18 and 44 years of age whose incomes are below 185% of the federal poverty line since 2008, and it should be continued beyond its June 2014 expiration date.

Pennsylvania, which ranks 32nd out of 50 states regarding the status of women’s health, must do better to improve its citizen’s access to health care. To do so, Pennsylvania must shelve its flawed Healthy Pennsylvania Proposal and instead expand Medicaid.

For more information on each of these points, see WLP’s comments.

Also, for more information on poverty and women’s health, see the Women’s Law Project’s report, Through the Lens of Equality: Eliminating Sex Bias to Improve the Health of Pennsylvania’s Women.

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Filed under Health Care, Health insurance, PA Legislature, Pennsylvania, Women's health

Just Harvest Releases Barriers to Benefits Report: PA Health Program Fails to Deliver!

Aly Mance, WLP Intern

Just Harvest recently released their report titled Barriers to Benefits, which shows that Pennsylvania’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is failing to provide Pennsylvanians with the aid that they need.  Their research shows that there are chronic problems in the food stamp application process—particularly with the inability to successfully reach caseworkers and transmit paperwork.  These problems inhibit consumers from obtaining and maintaining benefits, hurting Pennsylvania families.

The numbers are shocking.  Just Harvest’s research found that 85% of their test calls could not reach a human being, and 66% of surveyed Food Stamp consumers reported disconnects while trying to reach caseworkers. 30% of survey participants also reported that the paperwork they provided was not processed in time for their health benefits to continue without interruption.  40% of survey participants reported waiting more than an hour and a half at the office to talk to a caseworker in person.  The numbers are clear: The County Assistance Offices are unable to properly respond to their workload, and it is having a negative impact on Pennsylvanians.

Just Harvest concludes their report with a well-thought out list of recommendations that the state’s Department of Public Welfare should take to improve the ability of citizens to obtain aid through SNAP.  The list of recommendations includes improving the phone systems, creating a system for confirmation notices when paperwork is received and alerts if documents are missing, regularly reporting data on dropped calls or lost documents to the public, increasing staff, and enforcing the standard that caseworkers treat all consumers with dignity and respect.  The Department of Public Welfare should certainly consider and act upon these recommendations in order to improve the SNAP program and better serve PA consumers.

It is important for us to remember, as Just Harvest points out in their mission statement, that “hunger is a symptom of poverty and that poverty is a product of social and economic injustice.”  We need to improve programs like SNAP in order to better the socioeconomic situation of Pennsylvanian women and their families.

For more information on Just Harvest, visit their website at http://www.justharvest.org.

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Filed under Economic Justice, food stamps, Pennsylvania, Welfare, Working poor

ALERT: ATHLETIC EQUITY REPORTING LAW UNDER ATTACK IN HARRISBURG!

Just last week, the first annual athletic gender equity reports were due from public secondary schools under a new state law that passed on June 30, 2012.  The Equity in Interscholastic Athletics Disclosure Act (or Act 82 Article XVI-C) requires secondary schools to provide annual, publicly released reports containing information about school-sponsored athletic programs in order to improve schools’ compliance with Title IX and work towards achieving gender equality.

Sadly, efforts are currently underway in the state legislature to interfere with this law before the first reports are even publicly released.  On Tuesday, October 22, House Bill 1734 will be considered by the House Education Committee.  House Bill 1734 would repeal several crucial provisions of this important disclosure law.

  • HB 1734 would eliminate the requirement that schools report the      total value of booster club purchases for each team. (Significantly, this portion of the reporting law does not even take effect until next year.)  Some schools blame the inequality of their athletic programs on booster clubs, but in fact, schools are responsible for ensuring that boys and      girls have equal opportunities and experiences. HB 1734 would allow schools to remove from their annual reporting the privately raised money being poured into boys’ teams.
  • HB 1734 would repeal the requirement that, for the first year only, schools include the dates when each team was established. This      easily available information shows whether schools have a history and continuing practice of expanding the girls’ athletic program.
  • HB 1734 would sunset all reporting after just three years.

Passing HB 1734 virtually guarantees that parents and students will have to turn to other, more burdensome ways of learning about their schools’ compliance with state and federal gender equity laws.

The participation gap between boys and girls in interscholastic athletics is widening.  See Decade of Decline: Gender Equity in High School Sports, Sharp Center & Women’s Sports Foundation, Oct. 2012.  Now is the wrong time to retreat from the mandate of equal opportunity and fair treatment for our girls.

What you can do:

  • Contact your state rep and urge him or her to vote NO on HB 1734 and stand up for gender equality.
  • Visit your local public high school’s website and see what its Equity in Interscholastic Athletics Disclosure report has to say.
  • Can’t find a report from your school? Contact your school’s Title IX officer and ask where you can get a copy of the report.
  • Can’t find your school’s Title IX officer? Call your school’s superintendent and ask who the Title IX officer is and how you can get a copy of the Equity in Interscholastic Athletics Disclosure report.
  • Not getting the information you are entitled to? Call the Women’s Law Project: 412-281-2892 or 215-928-9801.

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Filed under Athletic Equity, Gender Discrimination, Girls, PA Law, PA Legislature, Pennsylvania, Sex Discrimination, Sports, Title IX, Women's Law Project

Pennsylvania is Failing Women

By Kate Michelman and Sue Frietsche

So much for Pennsylvania as the birthplace of freedom and democracy. A report last month from the Center for American Progress offered some alarming statistics about the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the way   it treats the six million or so women who live here, assigning us a “C-” grade, and ranking our state 28th of the 50 states on women’s rights.

In fact, a quote from the report reads, “Pennsylvania stands out as one of the states that is among the worst in the nation for women. Across 36 factors of economic security, leadership, and health, Pennsylvania ranks 28th in the nation for how women are faring. This illustrates the long path ahead before women in Pennsylvania can get a fair shot at achieving economic security, reaching success, and living a healthy life.”

It goes from bad to worse in the report, whether it’s the fact that we scored a “D+” on economic factors for women (e.g., the 76 cents we still make to every dollar a man makes or the fact that 15% of us live in poverty), a “D” in leadership (our entire Congressional delegation contains one lone woman, and we hold less than 37% of the managerial positions in the state despite being 52% of the population), or a “C” in health (there is only one OB/GYN for approximately every 20,000 women in the state, we have the 12th highest infant mortality rate in the country, and our lawmakers are making it as difficult as possible for women to get reproductive health care).

It is beyond dispute that when the women of Pennsylvania do well, their families do well, their children thrive and communities prosper. That is reason enough for Pennsylvania to start climbing up from the bottom rungs of the 50 states.

But there is an even better reason, and simply put, it’s that Pennsylvania women deserve an equal shot at a good life. They deserve a state where they are treated equally at home, at work, and at school. They deserve a seat in the boardroom and at the table of government. They deserve a chance to live and work safely, with dignity – even when they’re pregnant or raising a family. They deserve the basic economic security essential to getting and staying healthy. They deserve the freedom to decide whether or not to have children in accordance with their beliefs, not under the boot of other people’s politics or religion.

So what can you do? Read the report, get motivated and do something about it. Get involved by getting smart about who you’re electing (or not electing) into office. Become an educated, vocal participant in exercising your civic duty, whether it’s visiting your legislators, writing letters to the editor, helping out at the polls – whatever inspires your civic passion. Above all, make your voice heard by voting, because Pennsylvania badly needs you in order to get back on the right track for our state’s women.

We’ve made great strides in the last 50 years, but a report like this shows we have miles to go. The women and men of Pennsylvania need to unite to effect real change for women, whether it is access to healthcare, economic security, or freedom from violence. And we need to pick up the pace while we’re at it. It’s simply taking too long to reach a place of true equality.

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Kate Michelman is co-chair of WomenVote PA, an organization that educates, engages, and mobilizes Pennsylvanians to make equality a reality for women. She is also president emerita of NARAL Pro-Choice America and author of “With Liberty and Justice for All: A Life Spent Protecting the Right to Choose.”

Sue Frietsche is a senior staff attorney in the Western Pennsylvania office of the Women’s Law Project.

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Filed under Domestic violence, Economic Justice, economic security, Family Violence, Health Care, Pennsylvania, Pregnancy, Reproductive Rights, Violence Against Women, Voter turnout, women voting, Women's health, Women's Law Project, women's rights, WomenVote PA, working mothers, working women

PA Dropped More Than 9% Children, Pregnant Women & Families from Medicaid!

Aly Mance, WLP Intern

According to a new national report covered by the Philadelphia Inquirer, there has been a dramatic drop in Pennsylvania’s Medicaid enrollment.  According to the Kaiser Family Foundation report, Pennsylvania dropped more than 9 percent of children, families, and pregnant women from Medicaid over the past year.  This percentage is nearly triple that of any other state in the country.  Pennsylvania’s total Medicaid enrollment also dropped 5.3% during the time period of the report, June 2011 to June 2012.  This is the sharpest drop in any state in the past 5 years.  Meanwhile, in other states, Medicaid enrollment is on the rise.

It should come as no surprise that the timing of the report coincides with the time when the Corbett administration directed state workers to conduct expedited reviews of thousands of backlogged cases.  The result was a decline of more than 80,000 insured children over several months.  Enrollment in Pennsylvania’s smaller Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) also fell during this time.

In addition, while the state did not change existing enrollment policies, it did report that they were more thoroughly applying existing ones.  The state indicated that this could result in more cases being closed for failure to submit documentation.  Many cases backlogged early in the Corbett administration were closed—the person’s insurance terminated—because of lack of documentation.  Community Legal Services of Philadelphia filed a complaint over the disenrollment and threatened to sue the state, resulting in an agreement to send follow-up letters to more than 100,000 Medicaid recipients who had their insurance terminated for this purported “lack of documentation.”

While other states are streamlining their Medicaid enrollment processes to ensure that people who are eligible for Medicaid receive it, Pennsylvania and the Corbett Administration are trying to attack people who they believe are taking advantage of the system.  These attacks result in people who truly deserve to receive Medicaid being denied coverage.  In recent years, Congress has prohibited states from saving money by making major eligibility changes or imposing new enrollment restrictions in Medicaid programs.  Because Governor Corbett cannot outright cut Medicaid, the biggest item on Pennsylvania’s budget, he and his administration are searching for every back handed way to deny Pennsylvanians the aid they qualify for.  Not only is Governor Corbett refusing to expand Medicaid, he is crippling it, and children and families are suffering the most.

Learn more about healthcare reform, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), and how it will affect you.

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Filed under Government, Health Care, Health insurance, Medicaid, Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Passes Yet Another Restriction on Women’s Health Care

Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania General Assembly gave final approval to House Bill 818, a measure that would force insurance plans that cover abortion care to stop providing that coverage in the state health insurance exchange. The Legislature also rejected an amendment to the bill that would have allowed insurers to provide coverage when abortion care is necessary to preserve a woman’s health.  Governor Corbett signed the bill as originally proposed into law on June 17, and it will take effect as the new health care exchange comes online later this year.

The new law states that insurance providers operating in the Pennsylvania exchange may only provide coverage of abortion care when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest or if the pregnancy would cause imminent death. This ignores the medical needs of women who are not in immediate risk of death but for whom continuing a pregnancy could result in serious harm or health risks.  The proposed amendment that the Legislature rejected would have at least protected these women for whom abortions are crucial to maintaining their health.

HB 818’s supporters tried to argue that the bill simply prohibits “taxpayer-funded” abortions, but abortion care was already ineligible for public funding.  Unable to ban abortion entirely, our policymakers appear determined to make abortion care unaffordable and inaccessible. This misguided approach to health care not only infringes on women’s rights but could also endanger a woman’s health.

Though it passed, the bill faced spirited opposition in both chambers of the General Assembly. One of the dissenters, freshman Representative Erin Molchany, told her colleagues in the first speech she ever made on the house floor, “House Bill 818 is a bad bill, full of unintended consequences . . . this house is making decisions for women in this state—deeply personal decisions.  While all of us come from different professional backgrounds, we are all legislators—not medical professionals, not insurance companies, and for the most part not women.”

Most people agree that politicians shouldn’t be allowed to take away a woman’s health coverage just because of where she gets her insurance.  People rely on their health insurance to provide coverage for unexpected medical situations, and all women deserve the peace of mind that comes with knowing that they can obtain the health care they need—whether or not that includes an abortion.

It is a shame that Governor Corbett didn’t take a page out of conservative Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s playbook.  Late last year, Gov. Snyder vetoed a measure similar to HB 818 because “insurance companies and private buyers of insurance should be able to conduct their own affairs.”  It is a sorry day when even free-market politics and the interests of private businesses have to take a backseat to restricting women’s health care and infringing on women’s autonomy.

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Filed under Abortion, Abortion Access, Health Care, Health insurance, PA Legislature, Pennsylvania, Philadephia Daily News, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Reproductive Rights, Women's health

How Long Will Equal Pay Take to Achieve?

By Terry L. Fromson, WLP Managing Attorney and
Kate Michelman, President Emeritus of NARAL Pro-Choice America and Co-Chair of WomenVote Pa, an initiative of the WLP

The Equal Pay Act became law fifty years ago today.  Unfortunately, we remain far from achieving the goal of the law.  Nationwide, women are paid only 77 cents for every dollar paid to men, a 23 cent gap which adds up to over $10,000 per year.

These pay disparities have real-life negative consequences for women and their families.  Just last week, the Pew Research Center reported that women are the sole or primary source of income in 40 percent of American households with children under age 18.

The wage gap varies by state and city.  Pennsylvania’s gender wage gap mirrors the national average at 77 cents paid to women for every dollar paid to men, putting the Commonwealth in the bottom half of all states in terms of pay equity. Within Pennsylvania, the gap varies by municipality; in Pittsburgh women are paid 73 cents to the dollar paid to men, while women in Philadelphia are paid 80 cents to the dollar paid to a man.

Minority women suffer a greater disparity.  Nationally, African American women are paid 70 cents to the dollar paid to men.  Hispanic women are paid only 60 cents for every dollar paid to men.  The wage gap in Pennsylvania for African American women is 72 cents to the dollar paid to men.  Hispanic women in Pennsylvania fare worse, as they are paid only 58 cents to the dollar paid to men.

Comparing the pay of Pennsylvania women to just white non-Hispanic men highlights the combined effect of race/ethnicity and sex on pay.  In Pennsylvania, white non-Hispanic women are paid 75.2 cents, African American women are paid 68.1 cents, and Hispanic women are paid 55.5 cents relative to the dollar paid to white non-Hispanic men.

At the same time, women in Pennsylvania are more likely to be poor than men, and female-headed families are three times more likely to live in poverty. For these families, the gap between what employers pay them and what employers should pay them may make the difference between feeding their families healthy meals, keeping a roof over their heads, and having transportation to work.  The wage gap increases economic insecurity for Pennsylvania families.

While the wage gap fluctuates based on occupation and education, women are paid less than men in almost every occupation despite almost identical qualifications. Women are paid less even though they are earning the largest portion of college diplomas.  At the rate that this gap is changing, the wage gap will not be closed for over forty years, almost 100 years after the adoption of the Equal Pay Act.

The underlying cause of the wage gap is sex discrimination ¾ plain and simple.  Employers pay women less than men.  Employers offer them fewer jobs and fewer promotions and pay them less for the same work.  This ongoing sex discrimination is aggravated by a number of additional factors.  Gender segregation persists in the workforce, with sex stereotypes driving women into low-wage, often part-time jobs, predominantly occupied by women.  In these often minimum wage jobs, women are subjected to wage theft, when they are shorted hours, forced to work off the clock, not paid overtime, or not paid at all.  Overlaying this picture is the further diminishment of wages due to assumptions about pregnancy and caregiving responsibilities at the time of hire and the lost time from work and the work force due to family responsibilities disproportionately borne by women when employers fail to provide men and women with accommodations and flexibility to address their families’ needs.

We need to bring America closer to the promise of the Equal Pay Act.  The Paycheck Fairness Act, currently pending in Congress, seeks to eliminate gaps in the Equal Pay Act that make it difficult for women to get the information they need in order to know whether they are being subject to discrimination.  Today, a majority of employees report that they are either prohibited or actively discouraged from discussing their pay.  States are getting on board.  Governor Cuomo has announced plans to advance a Women’s Equality Act in New York that includes equal pay.  Legislation has been introduced in some states to provide greater protection for equal pay than is currently provided under federal law.  Pennsylvania should do the same.

In a perfect world, employers would pay women what they deserve without government intervention.  Such action would be an appropriate salute to the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act.   Sadly, we have learned this is unlikely.  As voters, women have shown themselves to be savvy, educated citizens who will vote for their interests.  Politicians who refuse to make this noble idea a reality do not deserve our votes.

Join our Equal Pay Today! Campaign now.

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Filed under Allegheny County, Economic Justice, Employment, Equal pay, Equality, Gender Discrimination, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Sex Discrimination, Wage Gap, Women's Law Project

Human Trafficking in Pennsylvania? It’s here if you look for it.

By Judy Hale Reed, Intern, WLP Western Pennsylvania Office

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In June 2012, the Pennsylvania Joint State Government Commission Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking released the results of a two-year study entitled, Human Trafficking in Pennsylvania: Policy Recommendations and Proposed Legislation. The Advisory Committee found that Pennsylvania is a pass-through, source, and destination state for human trafficking. This means that human traffickers move domestic and international victims through the state, people already in Pennsylvania are exploited, and people are brought to Pennsylvania for labor, sex, service, and other exploitation.

Human trafficking is modern slavery, defined by the United Nations and federal U.S. law as the movement of persons for purposes of exploitation involving force, fraud or coercion. The forms of exploitation are almost infinite, from circuit brothels, street prostitution, and sex tourism, to domestic, agricultural, and industrial labor, to begging and petty crimes. Victims are men and women, adults and minors, domestic and international citizens. Many are poor, but some are economically secure and may be well-educated. Most victims are trying to improve their lives, or have fallen into a trap of threats and coercion.

According to the University of Michigan Law School’s Human Trafficking Database, trafficking in Pennsylvania has included  a prostitution ring exploiting female minors and adults; forced labor at nail salons and restaurants; and sex tourism travelers who went to Costa Rica, Romania, and Moldova to have sex with male and female minors. The traffickers in Pennsylvania have been legal husbands, “boyfriends,” and strangers to the victims. These are only the cases that have been prosecuted. Many cases are dropped, and many more victims are never identified.

Human trafficking is a particularly hidden crime, often “hidden in plain sight.” Victims may appear to be workers, but with a closer look they are not paid, not paid what they were promised, and  denied freedom of movement, access to communication with friends and family, medical care, and adequate nutrition while being subjected to forced labor, debt bondage, and physical and mental violence.

The Polaris Project, a national advocacy and policy support organization that helps states develop anti-trafficking legislation, rates Pennsylvania near the bottom of U.S. states. Polaris recommends that Pennsylvania take major steps to improve and implement anti-trafficking laws. The Pennsylvania legislature is beginning that process, by authorizing the Joint State Government Commission Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking to study human trafficking in the Commonwealth. The Advisory Committee report includes extensive legislative recommendations. For the most comprehensive of these bills, click here. In terms of local responses, about 22 of 67 counties in Pennsylvania have organized anti-trafficking efforts, with a response team, an awareness-raising coalition, or both. Many, but not all, of these groups include local law enforcement or FBI agents.

To learn more about human trafficking, visit:

Polaris Project

Polaris Project Online Trainings on almost 50 topics

Department of Defense Combatting Trafficking in Persons

 Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Rescue and Restore Campaign – Look Beneath the Surface

 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – Blue Campaign

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Filed under Human Trafficking, Immigrants, Pennsylvania, Sex, Sexual Assault, Violence Against Women

PA Superior Court Hears Argument on Insurance Claim of Domestic Violence Arson Victim

By Susan Frietsche, WLP Senior Staff Attorney

Q.: What’s worse than having your house burned down by your abusive spouse?

 A.: Finding out your insurance company won’t cover the damage.

On April 2, 2013, the Women’s Law Project presented oral argument to the Pennsylvania Superior Court in Lynn v. Nationwide Insurance Company, a case of first impression involving the insurance claim of a domestic violence survivor whose abuser intentionally set fire to their house.

At stake is the continued vitality of a 2006 Pennsylvania law (referred to by the Women’s Law Project as the “Innocent Co-Insured Victim Act”) that requires insurers to pay the claims of innocent co-insureds when their property is deliberately destroyed by an abusive partner. This statute was passed after a ten-year lobbying effort by dozens of domestic violence advocacy organizations led by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Terry Fromson, Managing Attorney of the Women’s Law Project. The passage of the Innocent Co-Insured Victim Act was part of a larger initiative to fight a host of insurance industry practices that disadvantaged or endangered domestic abuse survivors, described here.  The trial judge in the Lynn case misinterpreted this statute to require insurers to pay the property claim of a domestic violence survivor only when the claimant can show that the insurer’s reason for denying coverage was because of discriminatory animus against domestic violence victims—a showing that is virtually impossible to make.

In the Lynn case, a woman drugged her two children, left her husband an angry suicide note, and set fire to the family home with herself and her children inside it. She did not succeed in harming herself or her children, fortunately, but the house was damaged, and the woman is currently incarcerated for these offenses. When her husband filed a claim under their homeowner’s policy, he was turned down, and among the grounds for its denial of the claim, Nationwide cited a clause in their contract that excludes coverage of damage caused by the intentional acts of anyone insured under the policy. As applied here, this intentional act exclusion essentially blamed the victim for the wrongs the abuser committed.

On appeal from the trial court order holding that Nationwide did not have to pay the husband’s claim, an all-female Superior Court panel (Judges Bowes, Donohue, and Mundy), sitting at a special session at the Beaver County Courthouse in western Pennsylvania, heard argument from attorney Gary Davis, representing the appellant Brian Lynn, and from Sue Frietsche of the Women’s Law Project, representing the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence and two dozen other Pennsylvania non-profit organizations that serve domestic violence survivors. To read the amicus brief, click here.

If the lower court’s opinion is permitted to stand, the impact on domestic violence victims will be devastating. One of the primary reasons abuse victims cannot get out of violent relationships is economic: they face destitution if they leave. Permitting abusers to leave their victims homeless will make it very difficult for survivors to put their lives back together. It also violates the plain language of the Innocent Co-Insured Victim Act, a statute specifically adopted to avoid this very injustice. The Superior Court may issue its ruling at any time.

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Filed under Domestic violence, Family Violence, Insurance Discrimination, PA Superior Court, Pennsylvania