April 9, 2008 — There's no "cold turkey for domestic violence," and more local programs are needed to assist not only abuse victims but perpetrators as well, according to testimony Wednesday at a meeting of the Senate Health, Hospitals and Human Services Committee.
In the meantime, a bill strengthening local domestic violence laws and providing safeguards for victims in the workplace and at home will help to temper some of the "heinous acts of violence" that are currently "on the rise" within the territory, according to bill sponsor Sen. Alvin L. Williams. Though the measure was held in committee Wednesday for further amendments, its provisions also garnered much support from experts who elaborated on a number of cases in which victims were fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes because of abusive partners.
"The cost of domestic violence or sexual assault in the workplace is high," said Lynn Spencer, executive director of the V.I. Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council. "It includes, at a minimum, absenteeism, damaged employee morale and productivity, increased use of employee assistance benefits but the threat of disciplinary action of loss of employment for absenteeism to victims needing assistance, especially since most support services — court, doctor's offices, etc. — are only offered during regular work hours."
The benefits given under the bill, Spencer added, would offer victims "much support as they try to straighten out their affairs by seeking protection, relocation, counseling and other critical services."
The bill's main components:
— increase prison time and fines imposed on perpetrators of domestic violence or sexual assault crimes;
— allow domestic violence or sexual assault victims to take time off from work to appear for medical treatment, court proceedings or obtain any other "injunctive relief" needed to ensure the health, safety or welfare of the victim and/or the victim's child;
— prevent victims from being fired if they receive unwanted phone calls or visits at work from an abusive spouse or partner;
— give abuse or assault victims one year to file a complaint against an employer with the Department of Labor;
— establish a Domestic Violence Fund, which will hold all fines and penalties imposed by the court in domestic violence cases (the money will be used by the Department of Human Services to support domestic violence programs and awareness campaigns) and;
— prevent landlords from penalizing victims who terminate their lease agreements after being involved in a domestic violence incident, or evicting a domestic violence victim on that basis.
Statistics provided during the hearing indicate the children whose mothers experienced domestic violence are twice as likely than other children to end of in the emergency room, and the physical abuse can increase a mother's chance of pre-term pregnancy. In comparison with non-abused women, health costs are 36 percent higher for women who suffer both physical and sexual abuse, 22-percent higher for those suffering physical abuse and 16-percent higher for those who suffered sexual abuse.
Though all testifiers agreed that the bill was "much-needed," many also had questions on the bill's language, and suggested that senators tie up a few loose ends –and tighten a few loopholes — before passing it through.
However, senators did clear the Elder and Dependent Adult Abuse Prevention Act — a bill that empowers various government agencies to report and investigate cases of abuse against senior citizens, and gives them the resources needed to train and regulate personnel in dealing with cases of physical and financial abuse.
Sponsored by Sen. Neville James, the bill charges the Department of Human Services with investigating allegations of emotional abuse, neglect abandonment or other instances of mistreatment against senior citizens. The Police Department is charged with investigating allegations of physical or financial abuse, abduction or sexual misconduct and conducting background checks of all personnel working with elderly or dependent adults.
The Department of Justice is also tasked with securing criminal records for use in background checks, and with developing guidelines for investigations of abuse.
Another section of the bill lays out fines and penalties for abusers, with minimum jail sentences beginning at no less than one year and maximum sentences running no more than 14 years if the abuse results in "serious bodily injury or the death of the person abused or neglected."
Senators also passed a bill appropriating $1 million to set up the Gasoline Assistance Voucher Program for senior citizens. The money will be deposited into the Aged Special Fund, administered by the Department of Human Services, and will be used to offset the costs associated with provided discounted gas to the elderly.
Present during Wednesday's meeting were Sens. Liston Davis, Louis P. Hill, James, Norman Jn Baptiste, Shawn-Michael Malone, Basil Ottley Jr., James Weber III, Carmen M. Wesselhoft and Williams.
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