Keep talking about domestic-violence victims

GreenHouse17 Executive Director Darlene Thomas spoke during a June ribbon-cutting for a dozen affordable apartments for survivors of domestic violence in Lexington.
GreenHouse17 Executive Director Darlene Thomas spoke during a June ribbon-cutting for a dozen affordable apartments for survivors of domestic violence in Lexington. palcala@herald-leader.com

Last month marked the 23rd anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act. As often happens during annual milestones, reflection on this not-so-distant past was the topic of conversation among advocates in my mission.

We recalled how many members of Congress contested the need for a federal law to protect victims and remembered debates that referred to domestic violence as a private family matter. Some opponents argued the act was a threat to marriage; others obstructed protections based on fiscal concerns. Our nation was talking about domestic violence, and these were difficult conversations with deep roots and many intersections.

Local organizing bolstered public support, and VAWA passed in 1994. It created programs to provide legal assistance, safe exchange and visitation for children, transitional housing for survivors and their children, and community-coordinated response to the crimes. These new efforts complemented existing support from the Victims of Crime Act and encouraged the expansion of state and local programs.

Frequently cited statistics illustrate the critical need. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports one in three women and one in four men will be victims in their lifetimes. A 2016 count conducted by the National Network to End Domestic Violence found more than 20,000 calls are answered by hotline staff and volunteers every day in our nation.

Yet only five years ago, VAWA re-authorization was jeopardized. Opponents questioned expansion of protections for victims living in Native American reservations; those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender; and victims who are undocumented. Our national discourse continued. Social media encouraged new ways of talking about the issues and mobilizing support for renewal.

Five years later, there is still much to talk about in Kentucky.

With the support of elected representatives and local advocates, two new laws to protect victims became effective in June. Professionals in health care, schools, faith communities, law enforcement, social services and other sectors now are required to provide resources and referrals for suspected victims. New protections also prohibit eviction from leased housing for reasons related to domestic-violence victimization, while providing options for victims to change locks and request early termination of lease agreements.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. I urge you to start a conversation about the topic. You might be surprised what you learn. You likely know someone who has survived or was exposed to domestic violence as a child. And thousands of Kentucky citizens are being victimized today.

Nearly 5,000 calls to Central Kentucky’s 24-hour hotline will be answered this year. Twenty-one percent of individuals who are homeless in Kentucky report being victims, and 35 adults and children are living at the GreenHouse17 emergency shelter because their safety is threatened by someone they love.

Talk about the barriers that victims must navigate to seek help, speak up when you hear people using victim-blaming language, and be prepared to help someone in need.

Wear purple this Thursday, Oct. 19, to identify yourself as an advocate. Share “Paint Lex Purple” images on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Sponsor a ribbon through the Friends of The Family Center to raise awareness in Jessamine County. Reach out to local organizations for ways to help. Your voice matters.

Darlene Thomas is executive director of GreenHouse17, which focuses on intimate-partner abuse in 17 Central Kentucky counties.

For help: 24-hour Crisis Line: 800.544.2022, Visit GreenHouse17.org