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October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month

October 1, 2009

Now is an especially appropriate time to take a look at past and present efforts to address domestic violence, and not only because this is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.  This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, a piece of legislation that created sweeping changes in how the judicial system handles–and how our society views–cases of domestic violence. And right now, the recession is forcing many domestic violence crisis centers to close just as more women are seeking help from them.

This Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden hosted a gathering of women’s rights leaders in DC to commemorate the passage of the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which he drafted as a senator.  The act created the Office on Violence Against Women within the Justice Department, allocated funding for programs working to end domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking, and toughened penalties for these crimes.

The statistics certainly suggest that the act has been effective. A Bureau of Justice Statistics report shows that rates of intimate partner violence fell about 50 percent between 1993 and 2005.   Vice President Biden noted on Tuesday that advocacy groups have done a lot to change the idea that domestic violence is a private “family matter,” which was a commonly held view when the act was passed.

Even as they celebrate these victories, advocates are concerned about an apparent rise in the number of domestic violence cases this year.  Retha Fielding, spokeswoman for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, told the Associated Press that the hotline is receiving 1,500 more calls per month this year than last. She believes the recession is a contributing factor, because women in families that are struggling financially often feel their options for leaving are limited:

“They’re afraid to leave or they can’t make plans to leave because the situation has changed.  Most of these women have children they have to take care of.”

In New York, officials released a report Wednesday showing that not only are domestic violence-related calls to hotlines and police increasing statewide, more people are being killed in domestic violence disputes. In 2005 intimate partner homicides increased by 25 percent in the state. Of all murder victims in the state aged 16 or older, half of women and 4 percent of men were killed by an intimate partner.

As the need for resources to address domestic violence expands, the funding for those resources is evaporating. Domestic violence resource centers and shelters nationwide have been forced to curtail services or shut down altogether as they lose state funding. California’s struggle especially made headlines when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger cut all $16.3 million dollars of the Department of Public Health’s Domestic Violence Program funding from the state budget.

This month many domestic violence crisis centers will hold fundraisers in an effort to stay afloat. But the effects of the recession are likely to run deep, and we may need more innovative solutions to address violence even when funding is scarce.

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