With a string of crimes against women spurring heightened media attention, advocates for victims of domestic violence say the time is right for meaningful reforms and an expansion of services.
Advocates plan this morning to reveal how they will press the legislature during the 2010 session, which starts next week, to strengthen prevention of, and the response to, family violence.
"I think we'll see an increased level of response from the legislature this session," said Linda Blozie, who has been the coalition's director of public affairs for nearly 10 years. "It's because of the level of violence and the murders that we have seen. We're also seeing much more of a media response to this issue, and a commitment by the legislative task force to work for lasting, meaningful change."
The House Speaker's Legislative Task Force on Domestic Violence was formed in November in response to a spike in such violence and an economic recession that has magnified problems in many families. The task force, headed by state Rep. Mae Flexer, D- Killingly, has held five public meetings since November, taking comments from police, advocates, state court and prison officials, victims, educators, and counselors. It will announce a series of proposed reforms Feb. 8.
The coalition's aim, Executive Director Erika Tindill said, is to have its agenda complement the package of bills proposed by the task force. The East Hartford-based coalition — comprising 18 shelters, crisis centers and other services — has participated in the task force meetings.
One plank of the agenda focuses on a particularly vulnerable group of victims: immigrant women.
Immigrant crime victims often suffer in silence, reluctant to report the crimes to police for fear that they could be deported. Abusers who are American citizens can exert tremendous control over immigrant women by threatening to withdraw their sponsorship.
"Some women will endure almost any amount of violence before reaching out for help," said Kara Hart, staff attorney with Greater Hartford Legal Aid. Hart's agency works closely with the coalition.
The police role is crucial — not as assessors of anyone's immigration status, but simply to certify when an immigrant crime victim or witness has been helpful in a case.
In fact, certifications of helpfulness are required for an immigrant crime victim to apply for a special visa, known as a U-visa, developed by the federal government for victims of rape, incest, domestic violence, kidnapping and other crimes. The visa allows a cooperative victim to live and work in this country legally for four years, Hart said. After three years, a former victim or witness who has remained helpful can apply for permanent residence.
Tindill wants to raise awareness about provisions in Connecticut law that ask each police department to designate a ranking officer to serve as a contact person for the U-visa certification process.
"We need to clarify that the law is not putting the onus on the first responding officers," said Tindill, a former prosecutor in Florida. "We're not asking officers to assess a victim's legal status."
What typically happens is that an attorney reaches out to the police contact on behalf of the victim, usually after the abuser's court case has been underway for some time, and asks the police designee if he or she can certify that the victim was helpful in the investigation.
If so, the police supervisor is sent a certification form, along with copies of the police reports and any court transcripts in the victim's case. The supervisor fills out and signs the form, which allows the victim to apply for the U-visa.
Tindill said the Connecticut Police Officer Standards and Training Council is developing a protocol that makes it clear to law-enforcement officers that they are attesting to a victim's cooperation, not making immigration decisions.