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Wexton introduces act to aid domestic violence response during pandemic

The Winchester Star: Wexton introduces act to aid domestic violence response during pandemic
By Josh Janney

With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping many people at home, some domestic violence victims have no choice but to continue to live with their abuser.

As a result, many law enforcement agencies are reporting an increase in domestic violence calls.

To address the problem, Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th, introduced the Domestic Violence Public Health Emergency Guidance Act this week directing the Attorney General to work with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and relevant domestic violence and law enforcement stakeholders to provide law enforcement agencies guidance and resources for responding to domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal of the act is to provide law enforcement with the tools and resources they need to keep themselves and survivors of domestic violence safe.

“As we see a surge in domestic violence here in Virginia and across the country, protecting survivors starts with ensuring our law enforcement officers have the resources they need to respond safely and effectively during this pandemic,” Wexton said in a news release. “When I was a prosecutor, I worked closely with law enforcement to address domestic violence. These officers are saving lives every day, but they’re working under unprecedented circumstances. Now more than ever, it’s critical that we provide law enforcement with the support they need to protect themselves and survivors.”

The guidance would include best practices on limiting exposure to COVID-19, assessing and addressing domestic violence threats during the pandemic and enforcing domestic violence protective orders and child custody orders. It also would seek to ensure the safety of law enforcement officers, their families, survivors of domestic violence and their children.

“I think the bipartisan Domestic Violence Public Health Emergency Guidance Act introduced by Congresswoman Wexton is an important link in addressing the increase in domestic and sexual assault violence during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Faith Power, executive director of The Laurel Center in Winchester, said in an email to The Star. “It is important to remember that law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every time they are called to duty. It is especially true when they respond to domestic situations. It is one of the most dangerous calls they will ever answer. In a recent U.S. Department of Justice report, 40% of fatal law enforcement calls, from 2010 to 2016, were related to domestic violence. Amid COVID-19 and the rising anxiety created by unemployment concerns, a spike in domestic and sexual assault calls will undoubtedly increase, posing a greater challenge for officers’ health and safety. ”

The Laurel Center provides emergency shelter to women, men and children who are victims of domestic and sexual violence. Last month, the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing guidelines forced the nonprofit organization to reduce some of its services.

“While law enforcement is an important link in supporting survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, it is also important to recognize the need for support that exists with domestic violence shelters and rape crises centers,” Power continued. “We work as a system of care, supporting abuse survivors alongside law enforcement by providing emergency shelter and support services. Equal to healthcare providers and law enforcement, domestic violence shelters need to respond safely and effectively during this pandemic and, to do so, we need tools and resources to help keep ourselves and survivors safe. Our hope is that the proposed Domestic Violence Public Health Emergency Guidance Act introduced by Congresswoman Wexton will provide support to The Laurel Center and other domestic violence and sexual assault programs across the country.”

Amir Avin, Wexton’s press secretary, said Wexton hopes to have the legislation included in the next coronavirus relief package. The legislation is supported by the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association (FLEOA), Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse (JCADA), and the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance.