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Breaking the Silence: Unveiling Efforts to Combat Domestic Violence in America

-Editorial

Domestic violence has long been accepted as an inevitable part of the complex fabric of family relationships across all cultures, including mainstream American culture. A growing movement to break that mindset is emerging even as data reveals that one out of three women and one in six men in the U.S. have experienced it at some point in their lifetimes. 

At a press briefing by Ethnic Media Services, the panel discussed three recent efforts to find solutions through legislation, reforms in the courts, and grassroots mobilizing by survivors of abuse using social media.

“Domestic violence is the oldest and most pervasive form of violence in the world,” says author, essayist, and feminist Angela Davis, an Emeritus Professor at the University of California Santa Cruz. 

Davis spoke at a recent conference on domestic violence, where she said that domestic violence is a form of violence as old as time, and yet somehow “we learn to hide it.” It’s that “question of silence” she says that is starting to give way now.

Davis recalls her youth when she says she felt “absolutely incapable” of doing anything, domestic violence was just accepted. That compares to today, where “we have made progress that was never imaginable.”

People are engaged today, and that is very different. “This is a period unlike any other in this country… I feel very hopeful,” Davis added. 

According to data from the California Attorney General’s Office, California has made substantial long-term progress in reducing the incidence of domestic violence involving firearms and in reducing gun homicide rates for women and children, who are disproportionately impacted by domestic violence-related homicides. 

From 1993 to 2019, California recorded a 63% reduction in per capita rates of domestic violence-related calls for law enforcement assistance involving firearms, a 61% reduction in domestic violence-related gun homicides, a 67% reduction in female-victim gun homicide rates, and an 80% reduction in gun homicide rates for children aged 14 and under.

California State Senator Susan Rubio (D-Baldwin Park) has put a great deal of attention on domestic violence, “in particular because I am a survivor,” she says, pointing to Senate Bill 914  as an example.

SB914 supports survivors of domestic violence who are experiencing homelessness. The law would ensure that domestic violence is wrapped into homeless resource services. 

Rubio cites Piqui’s Law, recently signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, which seeks to ensure the safety of children in custody disputes. 

“It’s about giving judges the tools” to make sure they have the information needed to make the right rulings.

Rubio says there is a misconception that victims of domestic violence tend to be more working class. 

“There are no barriers,” she says. It can happen to anyone.

“I became sort of a diary for all these women,” says Rubio noting that after her case was made public hundreds reached out to her. This is what inspired Rubio to make domestic violence a cornerstone of her work as a lawmaker.

Rubio says tackling generational trauma is part of the solution, talking to children about what domestic violence is, because often abusers experienced violence at some time in their own lives.

Immigrant women are often worried they won’t be taken seriously. Rubio suggests women seek domestic violence support organs to find an ally because approaching law enforcement is intimidating. 

“There are so many roadblocks,” she says. Find an advocate, she says.

Rubio advises reporters, “Be careful what you print. Be sensitive to the victim and be careful not to give voice to perpetrators who seek to diminish the victim’s voice.”

Since joining the State Senate, Sen. Rubio has prioritized addressing the state’s affordable housing shortage and homelessness crisis. A member of the Senate Housing Production Working Group, she has authored several affordable housing bills over the past two years. In 2022, Sen. Rubio authored Senate Resolution 61 declaring the month of March 2022 as Unaccompanied Women Experiencing Homelessness Awareness Month in California. In 2019, Sen. Rubio authored SB 751 to create the San Gabriel Valley Regional Housing Trust for local communities to collaborate regionally and support affordable housing projects and homeless shelter programs.

Tina Swithin is the founder of One Mom’s Battle and a survivor of abuse. Her case dates to 2009, when she learned she could not depend on law enforcement or the court system to protect her. “I was assigned my terrorist,” she recalls the day her case began.

Swithin says by year 2 she began to observe the court system and saw how many of these cases were simply case numbers to the lawyers and judges involved. 

“These were my babies,” she says, referring to her children.

“Family court is the wild, wild west,” says Swithin. Outcomes will vary depending on the judges. You can get 5 judges and 5 completely different rulings. “It shouldn’t be this difficult to protect kids.”

The challenges of those in marginalized communities need to be amplified, says Swithin, noting the added barriers that victims of color and immigrants face in the judicial system.

Swithin helped get November named Family Court Awareness Month.

Some 250 thousand people now follow Swithin’s blog, worldwide. She says no one was talking about these issues when she started in 2011. “I did believe I was the only person,” she says. Over the last decade, “It has grown a lot.”

Viji Sundaram is a long-time reporter who for four decades now has covered domestic violence. She recalls an experience from some 20 years ago when a Pakistani man came into her newsroom asking that she cover a story about her daughter.

She had married a man in the Bay Area who unbeknownst to her had been making porn movies. He demanded that she participate, and when she refused he threatened to use their daughter. 

“That was the last straw,” says Sundaram.

The woman fled to Pakistan, and the husband filed a missing person’s report, which means the wife was now a fugitive, in fear that she could be detained should she return to the US.

Sundaram contacted Narika who found a lawyer who would work for next to nothing. The lawyer was able to clear the wife’s name. “This was a case of coercive control,” says Sundaram.

She says many judges remain unaware of coercive control and that Piqui’s Law will help educate them on the nuances of domestic violence. People thought domestic violence was strictly about physical abuse. Rubio’s bill expands the definition to include financial/emotional abuse. California is the 2nd state in the nation after Hawaii to pass coercive control legislation. Many other states are now considering similar laws.

“This is a social justice crisis that belongs to all of us,” says Swithin. Media is the avenue to change.

80% of low-income victims represent themselves in court, says Sundaram. Few women know how to navigate the system, she adds, stressing the need for judges to “educate themselves.”

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