In an increasingly toxic national environment where important legal safeguards for victims of gender violence are being dismantled, the governor and the state legislature have an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen the laws and systems that protect hundreds of thousands of survivors of domestic violence and sex trafficking who live in New York State.
The governor and legislature have championed the rights and protections of gender violence survivors with the passage of recent measures that outlawed child marriage, protected the youngest victims of sex trafficking, and increased penalties for traffickers. But there is more that can and must be done. Developments in technology and our understanding of gender-violence dynamics require us to put in place new protections and reassess old practices that cause harm to victims.
With election day behind us, Sanctuary for Families calls on the governor and legislature to reaffirm their commitment to supporting survivors by prioritizing the following measures.
First, a new law, signed this past July, mandates the creation of “culturally competent” short and long-term safe house residential facilities and services for survivors of human trafficking. Sheltering survivors of gender abuse means more than simply putting a roof over their heads. To effectively shelter human-trafficking survivors, nonprofit service providers must provide resources and remedies tailored to their circumstances, including their language and culture.
This well-intentioned law is an important first step. But without an infusion of additional money from the state, already cash-starved nonprofits that rely on an often-dysfunctional government contracting system will not have the wherewithal to implement the mandate. We ask the governor and legislature to appropriate the funding providers like Sanctuary need in order to offer these critical services.
Second, this past June, domestic violence survivors experienced a devastating legislative loss when the Senate failed to move a bill that would have brought New York State into alignment with New York City and 40 other states that have passed laws to protect victims of cyber sexual abuse by holding abusers legally accountable. This type of crime, commonly referred to as “revenge porn,” is an invasive and uniquely destructive form of gender-based violence. Vengeful online strikes can undermine and destroy a victim’s education, employment, personal relationships, physical safety, and social standing.
Our legislators will have another opportunity to right this wrong in the upcoming session once new bills are introduced. We urge them to stand strong in the face of a continued and well-financed opposition from large technology companies and give victims an opportunity to hold those who seek to abuse them online accountable.
Third, the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA) is another simple measure that would help create a more equitable justice system for victims of domestic violence who commit crimes that stem from that abuse. Too often, judges react with harsh punishment instead of compassion and understanding. According to a report from the Correctional Association of New York, 75 percent of women in New York prisons suffered severe physical violence by an intimate partner during adulthood. As one survivor has so aptly said, “I was a victim before I was a defendant.”
DVSJA would give judges the flexibility to sentence domestic-violence survivors convicted of offenses related to their abuse to shorter sentences or to alternative-to-incarceration programs. It would also give those sentenced prior to the law’s enactment the chance to apply for re-sentencing. By giving judges discretion, the DVSJA would help restore humanity and justice to the way we treat survivors and would bring long overdue relief to those who have been incarcerated for many years.
Finally, since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, his administration has pursued harsh and unforgiving policies on immigration. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers have become a frequent and foreboding presence in our courthouses. The Immigrant Defense Project reported an “alarming 1,200 percent increase in ICE arrests and attempted arrests in courthouses across New York State” from 2016 to 2017.
At Sanctuary for Families, 75 percent of the gender violence survivors we serve are immigrants. These vulnerable clients rely on the courts for orders of protection, child custody and support, and are often witnesses in criminal cases against their abusers. Yet, the very presence of ICE in our courthouses and the threat of detention and deportation deters many of them from ever coming to court and seeking the protections that are rightfully theirs. We urge the governor and every member of the Legislature to support the “Protect Our Court Act,” which would compel the court system to stop cooperating with ICE officials without first getting a warrant from a federal judge.
By focusing on these four key issues, New York will build on its long legacy of protecting and empowering survivors. Together, we can move this great state that much closer to becoming a place in which freedom from gender violence is a human right for all.
Judy Harris Kluger is the Executive Director of Sanctuary for Families, New York State’s largest dedicated service provider and advocate for victims of domestic violence, sex trafficking, and related forms of gender violence.