By Ismail Lapp-Kamara*
Domestic violence is prevalent in all communities across the United States. It exists across religion, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, race, gender, educational level, and nationality. Victims include spouses, intimate partners, family members and people co-habiting with one another. However, it is important to note that a higher percentage of victims of domestic violence are women and domestic violence disproportionately affects people of lower income based on their inability to leave their abuser due to financial reasons.
The District of Columbia is not exempt from the prevalence of domestic violence. In 2015, 34,966 domestic violence related calls were made to the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). Additionally, 5,867 people sought assistance at the D.C. court’s domestic violence intake center. While it is unacceptable for anyone to experience violence of any form, it is particularly detrimental to children. In the United States alone, over 3 million children live in fear through their exposure to domestic violence each year. As a result, the month of June has been established as National Children’s Awareness Month to increase the awareness of the vulnerability of children exposed to violence.
Domestic violence impacts children differently than adults given their developmental differences. At the early years of their cognitive development, children are still learning how to conceptualize the world around them. Whether that is learning what is right and what is wrong or learning what is healthy or unhealthy, it becomes very dangerous for children to live in an environment where there is domestic violence. The number one risk factor in the continuance of domestic violence generationally, is whether an individual witnessed violence between their parents or caretakers.
A child’s framework of the family is powerful. It is where many children look for role models, meaning and guidance in their lives. For children, relationships that are violent and abusive aren’t easily identifiable as unhealthy or wrong.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) defines domestic violence as “the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another”. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, domestic violence can constitute being physical, sexual, emotional, economic, psychological, threats, stalking, and cyberstalking.
It is hard for children to conceptualize family members as perpetrators of any wrongdoing, especially when it is their parents or guardians. Often children have no concept of what domestic violence is or looks like. What happens in the home at a young age is often seen as normal and is not questioned until they are presented with alternative frames of reference. This highlights the importance of education in helping kids to identify domestic violence.
Domestic violence destroys the home as a sanctuary for a child; a space normally associated with safety and comfort. Domestic violence threatens how children conceptualize the home, love and family. Further, it can result in trauma, physical injury and death. It is something that damages the fabric of the family and can potentially become a cycle, reoccurring generationally, if not addressed through preventative measures.
In D.C. schools today there are preventative programs targeted to reduce domestic violence. Programs such as rape prevention education for students, bullying and violence prevention, and Good Touch/ Bad Touch programs help to teach children what abuse is and give them resources if they need help. Additionally, there are education sessions designed to aid teachers in identifying and preventing unhealthy relationships among their students. A critique I have however is it appears that these are only assigned to public and charter schools within Wards 7 & 8, and not throughout the whole city.
The D.C. Council has done much work to address the issue of domestic violence that occurs across the city through proposed legislation and laws to strengthen the protections and resources available to children and the public. In 2015 and 2016 the D.C council proposed legislation Postsecondary Sexual Assault Prevention Act of 2015 and Campus Sexual Assault Victims Assistance Act of 2016 to require postsecondary institutions to require incoming students to participate in a sexual assault prevention program within the first six weeks of enrollment; in-person trauma-related training for campus safety officials; and required schools to have a sexual assault worker on campus. Additionally, the bill required the registrar to be held responsible for recording information of students who are under investigation for violation of the institutions’ rules on sexual misconduct.
In January of 2017, Councilmember Grosso, along with three of his colleagues, introduced the Childhood Protection Against Sexual Abuse Amendment Act of 2017. This act seeks to eliminate the statute of limitations in civil court for child sex abuse claims. It also provides a two year period for individuals to bring forward claims that previously were disallowed due to the statute of limitations. A hearing on this bill was held on June 15, 2017.
Additionally, Chairman Mendelson at the request of the Mayor introduced the Sexual Assault Victims' Rights Amendment Act of 2017 to expand the rights of victims of sexual assault with sexual assault advocates, and to make clear what communications are deemed confidential. Most recently, the Chairman also introduced the Child Neglect and Sex Trafficking Amendment Act of 2017, which was unanimously approved on an emergency and temporary basis. The purpose of the legislation is to expand on the definition of “neglected child and abused” to include a victim of sex trafficking. It also demanded mandatory reporting by physicians and institutions of the physical abuse identified.
Though much as been done to strengthen protections for victims of domestic abuse, there are areas that need to be improved upon. For example, the city should explore increasing funding for domestic violence shelters. In 2015, a report by the National Network to End Domestic Violence showed that in one day, 35% of unmet requests were for housing. We should have enough resources as a society to allocate for people fleeing from violence with nowhere else to turn for safety, comfort, and peace of mind. This is a public safety concern given the danger people face when fleeing from their abuser(s). With nowhere to turn, we as a society shouldn’t make people decide between living on the streets or living in a dangerous home.
Another area for continued improvement is to establish a program to make it mandatory to educate not only teachers about healthy and unhealthy relationships, but youth in schools. It is important to teach our youth how to develop healthy relationships so they can help prevent abuse from happening in their own relationships and prevent domestic violence from occurring in the future. This is an investment in their future to help them identify what is healthy and unhealthy in the relationships they have with family, friends, and romantic partners. It would help to prevent the cycle of domestic violence in our communities.
I find it important and essential to conclude by thanking the amazing local domestic violence shelters and organizations that provide shelter and resources to those escaping from domestic violence. These organizations include, but are not limited to: Break the Cycle, House of Ruth, My Sisters Place, The Center for Child Protection and Family Support, and The Family Place. I am personally thankful for their work and tireless commitment to aiding individuals seeking safety from violence and abuse. Without them, I do not know where the thousands of children, individuals, and families (including my own) would be today.
*This post is part of an ongoing series of posts by Councilmember Grosso’s staff to support professional development. All posts are approved and endorsed by Councilmember Grosso. Ismail is a rising senior at Earlham College and will be interning with the Office of Councilmember Grosso for 7-weeks.*