Tag Archives: Domestic violence

Victory: Bill to Protect DV Victims from Eviction Heads to Governor’s Desk

By Tara Murtha, WLP Staff

We asked for your help, you gave it. We heard about all the phone calls and emails. Now, together, we achieved a huge victory for the rights of domestic violence survivors in Pennsylvania, who can no longer be legally evicted from their homes for calling authorities for help when they need it.

The background:

Sponsored by Rep. Todd Stephens, HB1796, titled “Protection for Victims of Crime from Certain Municipal Ordinances” was drafted in response to a situation so outrageous that it gained national attention.

Thanks to a so-called “nuisance property ordinance” that enabled landlords in Norristown, Pa. to evict tenants for calling 911, a domestic violence victim named Lakisha Briggs was forced to choose between eviction and enduring physical abuse at the hands of an ex-partner, who would not leave the home she shared with her toddler.

But after passing through the House, this good faith bill was hijacked by one bewildering amendment after another. First, a bad sick day amendment was the problem. Then, a pro-gun amendment was tacked on to the bill the same day domestic violence advocates traveled to Harrisburg to remember the victims of DV murdered in Pennsylvania last year—many of them with a gun as the weapon.

Following the lead of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, we called out for supporters to contact their senators and ask to drop the amendments and pass the bill—and that’s just what happened an hour ago on the floor of the Pennsylvania Senate on their last day in session.

They listened.

“No woman or man should have to risk their life, or their family because they’re scared of being evicted,” Senator Judy Schwank said.

“Do I need to remind us when we all saw a few weeks ago the senseless beating of a woman in an elevator?” asked Senator John Rafferty, Jr., before pointing out that this victory is an example of the good work that can get done when both sides of the aisle come together to cooperate on important issues.

In the end, the bill passed the Senate unanimously.

“I am glad that you colleagues in the Senate decided to do the right thing and remove the paid sick leave preemption language from House Bill 1796,” Senator Vincent Hughes, an advocate of the bill, told Women’s Law Project. “We must do everything we can to protect the victims of domestic violence and this version of the bill is a step forward instead of a step backwards.”

Next, it heads to the desk of the Governor to be signed into law.

This bill is the third initiative of the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health, a bipartisan, pro-active and pro-choice legislative package designed to secure reproductive rights and promote economic security. (The first two successes were a bill to study state programs targeted to help working families, and a bill that criminalizes so-called “revenge porn.”)

The majority of Pennsylvania voters support the Agenda, a fact reported by ThinkProgress this morning. But support isn’t enough. We need to keep voting and speaking out to make it happen.

We hope you will continue to help us advocate for the rest of the Agenda, and help us spread the word about the great progress we are making here. But for now, let’s celebrate. We couldn’t have done it without you. So thank you!

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Filed under Domestic violence, PA Legislature, Violence Against Women

Tell Your Senators NO to Hijacking a Domestic Violence Bill with Gun Amendment

This just keeps getting worse and worse, and we need your help.

The Pennsylvania Senate convenes this morning at 10:00AM for the last day of the legislative session. While we hoped that PA legislators would finally pass a common-sense bill designed to protect domestic violence survivors from being evicted from their homes today, the bill has instead been hijacked with an amendment that would endanger the very population the bill is designed to protect.

The background:

Sponsored by Rep. Todd Stephens, HB1796, titled “Protection for Victims of Crime from Certain Municipal Ordinances” was drafted in response to a situation so outrageous that it gained national attention.

Thanks to a so-called “nuisance property ordinance” that enabled landlords in Norristown, Pa. to evict tenants for calling 911, a domestic violence victim named Lakisha Briggs was forced to choose between eviction and enduring physical abuse at the hands of an ex-partner, who would not leave the home she shared with her toddler. After passing through the House, this good faith bill has since been sabotaged by one bewildering amendment after another. First, a bad sick day amendment was the problem.

BUT NOW, it’s even worse—the Senate is expected to add a gun rights amendment.

Unbelievably, this outrageous news came through the Capitol the same day domestic violence advocates traveled to Harrisburg to remember the 86 victims of domestic violence murdered in Pennsylvania last year.

We probably don’t need to tell you that a gun is the most common weapon used in domestic homicides. The Senate convened this morning at 10AM. You can watch live here.

We need you to contact your Senator and urge them to NOT approve this bill with this outrageous amendment.

To find your elected officials click here.

Tell them:

The solution is clear. Revert House Bill 1796 to the Printer’s Number 2870 version that unanimously passed the House of Representatives and allow an important bill to pass that would help protect the lives of domestic violence victims.

Thank you for taking action!

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Filed under Domestic violence, Family Violence, PA Legislature, Violence Against Women

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

Problematic “Stand Your Ground” Law: Does It Protect All Florida Citizens Equally?

By Nora Kenty, WLP Summer Intern

In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin verdict, celebrities, pundits, and bloggers have all been commenting on Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which takes self-defense beyond the usual confines of one’s home. The Florida statute states: “A person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if: He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself [...].” The statute, similar or identical versions of which are shared by 30 other states, is not only controversial due to its extended definition; it seems to be applied in a highly discriminatory way, as evidenced by a 2011 case in which an African-American woman in Florida was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot in the presence of her abusive husband. 

In July of 2010, Marissa Alexander felt she was in great danger when her ex-husband, Rico Gray, became enraged, tried to strangle her and threatened to kill her. She fled to the garage, retrieved a gun, and fired a single warning shot into a wall inside their home. She later said, “I believe when he threatened to kill me, that’s what he was absolutely going to do. Had I not discharged my weapon at that point, I would not be here.” The judge, however, believed that re-entering the house was not consistent with someone in fear of their life, and the jury took only 12 minutes to decide on the 20-year prison sentence for the mother of three.

In both Alexander’s case and the more recent Trayvon Martin case, there have been complaints that the “institutional racism” inherent in Florida and its laws is to blame for the controversial decisions, which both display a significant bias against African Americans. Considering some of the details of Alexander’s case—she had no prior criminal record, did not kill or injure anyone with her warning shot, and was fleeing a lethally abusive man who had previously gone to jail for his violence toward her—a 20-year prison sentence certainly seems unjustified.

The Florida statute has not been found to be unconstitutional in its definition of self-defense. What is problematic is how the law is being applied, and the fact that those needing protection are unable to use the law to get it. This is not the first time a law’s interpretation has had a disproportionately negative effect on a specific minority group or class of women. Unfortunately it has happened before, and in our own state of Pennsylvania. Municipal ordinances governing rental properties punished victims of abuse who called the police on their batterers more than three times in one month. A woman in Norristown named Lakisha Briggs was brutally attacked by her ex-boyfriend, who hit her with a brick and stabbed her in the neck with broken glass. But Briggs had already called the police on her boyfriend twice in the past month, and they said one more incident of what the ordinance classified as “disorderly behavior” would be grounds for her eviction. So she bled on the floor rather than get kicked out of her home, and was eventually hospitalized. The ACLU successfully challenged the ordinance, but many municipalities across the country still enforce similar laws that disproportionately impact victims of domestic abuse.

The stories of Briggs, Alexander, and Trayvon Martin serve as a reminder that in many cases, our legal system punishes the victims of crimes, rather than placing the blame on the shoulders of the perpetrators. Unfortunately, Florida’s “stand your ground” law is only one example of the many unjust laws and ordinances that exist. With such laws coming under increased exposure and scrutiny, perhaps reform efforts soon will yield more fairly enforced legislation.

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Filed under Domestic violence, Family Violence, profiling, racism, 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

Victims of Domestic and Sexual Violence Need Paid Leave

Carol E. Tracy, Executive Director, WLP

Victims of domestic and sexual violence need paid sick leavePromoting Healthy Families and Workplaces would require employers with six or more employees to provide up to seven paid days of leave for employees to use when they are sick, receive preventive care, address needs related to domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking, or take care of a family members.  This important legislation provides domestic and sexual violence victims the opportunity to take steps to protect themselves from further domestic violence without risking loss of employment.

The Women’s Law Project stands firmly in support of this legislation.  We have made great progress with the Nutter administration to improve the response of law enforcement to domestic and sexual  violence as well as to expand social and health services.  This bill is a significant component of what needs to be a multifaceted response to a complex problem.  With the enactment of this bill, Philadelphia will take the lead in helping Pennsylvania victims of abuse achieve economic and personal independence.

We know firsthand how important adoption of this bill is to victims of abuse.  Through both our telephone counseling service and policy initiatives, we hear from women who are unable to obtain protection orders or seek the assistance of other social services to help them address the abuse to which they are subjected because their jobs do not give them time off for such activities.  Unable to risk losing their ability to support their families, these individuals continue to live in fear and suffer abuse without legal protection or other support.  Those who take time off from work to address the domestic violence even though they lack leave time, risk loss of employment, destitution, and homelessness.

Except for the domestic abuse hotline and emergency services in Philadelphia, the courts and most social services operate on a 9 to 5, Monday through Friday schedule.  While someone faced with imminent danger may call 911 or file a petition for an Emergency Protection From Abuse order at any time, anyone seeking a final order of protection or relief from the criminal justice system must ultimately appear in court during the work week, typically for many hours, and often on a repeated basis.  Women seeking such orders have told us they simply could not take more time off from work to return to court again.  If the plaintiff does not appear for a hearing, the court dismisses the petition and no relief is granted. This bill, if adopted, will enable victims of abuse to seek legal and other protection.

We anticipate that the business community may assert concerns about misuse or overuse of the leave provided by this legislation.  This concern has been raised in other venues in which we have worked to confront discrimination against and achieve accommodation for battered women: insurance discrimination and waivers of welfare work requirements.  We have seen no abuse in those arenas.  In conversations with state insurance departments around the country, we have been assured that the number of individuals seeking relief under statutes prohibiting insurance discrimination against battered individuals has been extremely low.  In our work in Pennsylvania on implementation of the Family Violence Option, which allows domestic violence victims to be excused from work requirements if domestic violence impedes their ability to comply, we have also seen no abuse.  Despite estimates that domestic violence victims make up 40-60% of the TANF population, the number of TANF recipients in Pennsylvania seeking to be excused from work requirements is very small, only approximately 2 % or less of the TANF adult population statewide.  Philadelphia’s numbers are even lower, with the percentage of the city’s welfare population seeking work waivers consistently below 1% (Department of Public Welfare, unpublished data April -August, 2007).  Just as fears of false allegations of domestic violence have not been realized in these situations, we do not anticipate false claims in this one.

The reasons are the same:  battered women want to work and need to work to support themselves and their families.  In addition, victims of domestic violence do not easily disclose domestic violence to anyone, let alone their employer: shame and fear of loss of benefits and employment are a strong deterrent to disclosure of domestic violence.  Because requesting domestic violence leave requires such a disclosure, we do not expect domestic violence victims to request leave unless it is absolutely necessary for them to be excused from work.

See more information at:  http://www.phillyearnedsickdays.com/

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Filed under Domestic violence, Earned Sick Leave, Economic Justice, Family Violence, Paid Leave, Philadelphia, Philadelphia City Council, Violence Against Women

Urge Congress to Reauthorize VAWA

By Amal Bass, WLP Staff Attorney

On January 23, 2013, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator Michael Crapo (R-ID) introduced S. 47, a bill that would reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). In the U.S. House, Representatives Gwen Moore (D-WI) and John Conyers (D-MI) have introduced H.R. 11, which is identical to S. 47. If passed, these bills will continue vital programs and services for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

Originally passed in 1994 and reauthorized in 2000 and 2005, VAWA is a monumental piece of legislation. In 2011-2012, a strong VAWA reauthorization bill passed the Senate, but the House passed a substantially different bill that limited protection for immigrants, Native Americans, and LGBT victims of domestic and sexual violence. The partisan politics at the time derailed VAWA’s reauthorization.

This session, it is vital that Congress reauthorizes VAWA by passing a comprehensive bill that includes protection for all victims of domestic and sexual violence. The bipartisan Leahy-Crapo bill is similar to the bill that passed the Senate in the last session in that it includes enhanced protection and services for tribal, LGBT, and immigrant victims. The current Leahy-Crapo bill does not, however, include a provision that would increase the number of U visas available to immigrant victims of sexual, domestic, and other violence (A U visa offers temporary legal status to victims of certain crimes who assist law enforcement).  Senator Leahy’s office has stated that it hopes the concession will “better ensure passage of the Senate VAWA” and has indicated that the Senator is planning to include the U visa provision in separate immigration reform legislation.

Please contact your Senators and Congressional Representative to urge them to support the bipartisan S. 47 and H.R. 11. The health and safety of sexual and domestic violence victims is a high priority and should not be subjected to partisan politics.  To call your Senator or Representative, dial 202-224-3121.

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Filed under Congress, Domestic violence, Violence Against Women