By Kellyann Kostyal-Larrier
Executive Director, Safe Homes of Orange County
Hard to believe how fast the summer passed by. As busy as we have been, so much is yet to be done before 2012 comes to an end.
It’s important to note that, for the first time since 1994, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has not been reauthorized. The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA) is a United States federal law (Title IV, sec. 40001-40703 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, H.R. 3355) signed as Pub.L. 103-322 by President Bill Clinton on September 13, 1994. The Act provided $1.6 billion toward investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, imposed automatic and mandatory restitution on those convicted, and allowed civil redress in cases prosecutors chose to leave unprosecuted. The Act also established the Office on Violence Against Women within the Department of Justice.
It is my belief that we have lost sight of what makes this country great. How are we to move forward if we cannot agree that everyone living in this country is a human being and deserves the same protection under the law?
In New York State, on June 11, 2012, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver announced an agreement on comprehensive legislation to strengthen the state’s domestic violence laws. Although the bill passed both the Senate and Assembly, it is yet to clear the Assembly and be presented to Governor Cuomo for his signature.
This Omnibus bill creates new Felony and Misdemeanor crimes to prevent harassment and crack down on repeat domestic violence offenders; it allows judges to consider additional risk factors in bail decisions to better protect victims from further harm; it establishes a statewide fatality review team to find ways of reducing intimate partner homicides; it ensures that domestic violence offenders cannot control disposition of a victim’s remains; and it improves location confidentiality for victims to prevent further abuse.
Locally, we have been very busy. In recent months, we took part in several community events that elected to raise funds for Safe Homes. Every day someone in the community asks a Safe Homes’ advocate, "How can I help?" But this sum-mer was also a stark reminder that our work is never done.
In July, Alexis Olivia Harris was murdered by her boyfriend in the City of Newburgh. The Orange County community suffered yet another senseless, brutal loss, and the number of women murdered by intimate partners in the last eight years rose to sixteen.
Not a day goes by when domestic violence and its rippling effects do not make news. Hotline calls for help are on the rise. Shelters are full. The bottom line is… we simply cannot do this work alone. To stop the violence, we must come together and work together, as a community, speaking up for those who are silenced.
"How can I help?" you ask. It does not matter what you do. It matters that you do something! You can speak up against abusive behaviors. You can call out sexist language in your social circles. You can hold a hand or know who to call for help. You can write to your legislators and push for the reauthorization of VAWA.
We will never know if change is within reach unless we try it. We must pass the Violence Against Women Act. We must urge action at the State level. And in Orange County, we must not forget the cost of domestic violence: Alexis, Katie, Anna, Ramy, Deborah, Hiria... Every night, in our community, someone goes home to a place that is not safe, where they live in fear and face life-and-death choices. This is the knowledge that must drive us to do something, today. Tomorrow could be too late.