Advocates identify gaps in domestic and sexual violence resources, push for legislation to help

Christa Lynn Luckenbach plants a flag during a purple flag-laying event at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on Oct. 17, 2020. Domestic violence advocates gathered at the State Capitol on Tuesday to demand more funding and of resources amid increased needs. (Yukai Peng, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah domestic violence survivor advocates have called for additional funding and pushed for legislative involvement as their need for resources continues to grow amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Utah Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in partnership with other service providers and agencies, held a meeting with advocates and lawmakers Tuesday at its annual Capitol Hill Day. Advocates identified resource gaps outlined in a statewide needs assessment, discussed priority policy issues, and explained the ongoing impact of the pandemic.

Domestic violence incidents rose 8.1% nationwide at the start of stay-at-home orders and lockdowns, a report by the Council on Criminal Justice found. The national trend was mirrored across the state, with local law enforcement agencies and shelters reporting an increase in calls and incidents.

An increase in needs and a decrease in funding have created significant pressure on service providers and difficulty in meeting these needs.

In a single day in 2020, domestic violence programs statewide served 1,205 victims of domestic violence and received 359 phone calls, but 309 people’s needs were not met due to a lack of resources. In the same year, 2,191 accommodation requests were not met due to COVID-19 constraints and lack of resources.

“At any given time, it is difficult to provide services when demand so far exceeds resources. But over the past two years, extraordinary domestic violence service providers have been tasked with ensuring the safety of our residents and staff,” said Liz Owens, CEO of YWCA Utah. “COVID precautions and health, social and economic uncertainty are straining our ability to deliver services.”

To address the growing need for services, the Utah Coalition Against Domestic Violence has listed additional funding as a top priority during this legislative session. The funding request was listed as a high priority by the Committee on Human Services and includes “a $4.24 million increase in stable and reliable state general funds for base operations of the 15 service providers in nonprofit licensed domestic violence shelters in Utah”.

Additionally, the funding will support the 24-hour Crisis Helpline and the new Restoring Ancestral Winds-hosted helpline.

Other priority bills identified by the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition include:

  • HB117 — The Address Privacy Program allows victims of domestic violence, stalking, or sexual violence to use the program’s address as a legal address. The change helps victims protect their location from attackers. Utah is one of three states currently without a program, according to Erin Jemison of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.
  • HB175 — Amendments contained in this bill would add the harm and suffering of animals to the definition of “emotional distress” and allow the court to include harming or threatening to harm certain domestic animals as prohibited during issuance of protection orders.
  • HB208 – This bill creates a state-level board that establishes standards for current research-based treatment modalities and a process to hold clinicians accountable to those standards.
  • HB288 – Victims of domestic violence can apply for crime victim redress funds to reimburse medical expenses related to the strangulation, even if they do not cooperate with law enforcement.

“We need the continued and consistent support of community members, including our legislative body, to help us partner with and champion this work. We know there is a hunger to learn more and to do more collectively. We hope to help facilitate and foster greater understanding of the issues facing all (domestic violence) survivors in Utah, with an increased focus on survivors from marginalized communities,” Owens said.

But what does this heightened focus look like?

A statewide needs assessment conducted by the Gender-Based Violence Consortium revealed areas and groups of people that needed additional support and attention. The assessment included surveys of 293 people and focus groups, with 50% of them identifying as survivors of domestic violence.

The survey identified misconceptions Utahans have about domestic violence, human trafficking, and sexual violence. Of those surveyed, 42.5% said domestic violence does not happen often; 46.5% that human trafficking never takes place; and 40.1% that sexual violence does not happen often.

Research indicated that 18% of Utah women reported experiencing domestic violence in their lifetime; 1 in 6 women will be raped in her lifetime; and there are 64 reported cases of human trafficking in Utah. Rates in each category are significantly higher in marginalized groups and show a gap in services, according to the assessment.

System gaps identified by the assessment include:

  • Crisis line support is insufficient
  • Housing assistance is insufficient
  • Medical resources are insufficient
  • Barriers and Difficulty in Reporting Abuse to Law Enforcement
  • Insufficient legal resources for victims

To address these gaps, the statewide assessment recommends:

  • Increase state resources for services in response to marginalized communities
  • Systematic data collection
  • Resourcing Trauma-Informed and Culture-Informed Practices
  • Source flexible funds
  • Centralized information sharing
  • Pay language advocates who are trauma-informed, trained in domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking

“The need for funding to secure and stabilize our key trauma-informed essential services, such as emergency shelters, crisis lines and walk-in services, housing, victim advocacy, management of cases and children’s services, has reached a tipping point,” Owens said. “Our work is essential work that saves lives, it is necessary work and it is work that can change the trajectory of families, generations and communities.”

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