Don't ask why they stayed, but how you can help

"Why don't they just leave?"

In cases of intimate partner violence (IPV), this is often the first question that family, friends and onlookers ask. There are many reasons why individuals stay with abusive partners, and financial concerns are often a major part of the decision to leave or stay. Considering the proposed cuts to U.S. domestic spending, it is imperative to recognize how IPV is linked with monetary challenges and thus why federal policies that support survivors and financially insecure individuals must be maintained.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is one federal policy that helps assist survivors of IPV. All of us know a survivor, whether we are aware of it or not. IPV is a major public health concern impacting one in four women, as well as many men and LGBTQ individuals; anyone can be a survivor. A primary means of support that VAWA provides is shelter funding. Shelter services are a necessary option for many survivors, especially those who are low-income, have children and/or are at high-risk for continued violence. As it stands, most shelters are only able to provide housing to survivors for 30 to 60 days due to demand and lack of funding to meet housing needs. Federal funding is a critical resource for keeping shelter doors open, particularly as local funding for IPV survivors has been on the decline.

These issues are relevant as VAWA is up for reauthorization in 2018, and the Trump administration has indicated VAWA may be on the chopping block. Given that a survey of IPV service providers found that 66 percent had to reduce services and 19 had to close due to federal sequestration and reduced local funding, one can imagine the devastating impact cuts to VAWA funding would have. Further, VAWA grants are implemented by the Office on Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice led by Jeffrey Sessions. As a senator, Mr. Sessions voted against the 2013 reauthorization of VAWA, which expanded the rights of minority survivors. Mr. Sessions' recent voting record raises concerns for IPV advocacy groups worried about his willingness to enforce and implement provisions within VAWA.

The concerns are even more relevant for undocumented immigrant survivors, who are often barred from receiving income, housing or nutritional support for themselves or their children. The lack of access to resources may force individuals to stay in violent relationships. Further, with President Trump's executive order on immigration enforcement, there is increased fear about the trustworthiness of police, as they may be working on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Indeed, in this region, Captain James Humphries of the Montgomery County Police Department reported that the special victims division he heads has received half the number of calls reporting IPV and sexual assault as it did during this time period last year. The reduced reporting, seen in Maryland and nationally, suggests that fear of detention may be diminishing survivors' willingness to call police. These fears are well justified: In February in Texas a transgender survivor was detained by ICE while seeking a protective order against her abusive partner. Further, there have been increased reports of undocumented survivors' dropping cases against their abusive ex-partners.

In addition to the continued funding of VAWA, there are other federal programs that support survivors of IPV that must be maintained. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are key resources that provide individuals with nutritional and income support during times of economic challenge. Additionally, as tax reform becomes a focus for Congress it will be key to retain provisions that assist low-income individuals and single parents, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit. These benefits are a life-line and help lift millions of adults and children out of poverty. This is particularly important for IPV survivors who often face homelessness due to economic challenges.

It is critical that congressional representatives from Maryland, including Sens. Ben Carden and Chris Van Hollen, fight to prevent defunding of VAWA and the rolling-back of tax programs that support survivors. In addition, the Maryland Governor's Family Violence Council should continue to advocate for survivors and prevention efforts. Individual citizens can help by urging their elected officials to protect programs that assist survivors.

With a better understanding of the relation between IPV and income insecurity we can understand how policy can support survivors, thus shifting the narrative from "Why did they stay?" to "How can we help?"

Haley A. Miles-McLean (hmilesmc@gmail.com) is a graduate student in the Clinical and Community Psychology Doctoral program at UMBC and a volunteer with the local chapter of RESULTS, a non-profit that works to end poverty.

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