WCW Blog

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Supporting Housing Stability for Victims of Domestic Violence, Stalking, and Sexual Assault

Supporting Housing Stability for Victims of Domestic Violence, Stalking, and Sexual Assault

This policy brief originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2016 Research & Action Report from the Wellesley Centers for Women as part of the multi-media series Advancing the Status of Women & Girls, Families & Communities: PolicyRecommendations for the Next U.S. President.


safety imageVictims of Domestic Violence Often Face Housing Problems
The physical, psychological, and economic consequences for victims of domestic violence (DV) and their families have been well documented, and although recent federal legislation provides certain housing protections for some DV victims, many women and their families remain at great risk for homelessness and ongoing violence.

Concerning Data, Trends, and Experiences
Domestic violence (DV) exists in every community, affecting people regardless of age, race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, religion, or nationality. Federal legislation such as the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 2005 and its reauthorization in 2013 acknowledges the problem and provides some housing protections for victims of DV in federally subsidized housing. While such housing protections are an important step forward, there remain critical gaps for many DV victims.

In addition to the physical and psychological effects of DV, many women face considerable economic hardships and challenges securing stable housing for themselves and their families if they try to leave an abusive partner—research indicates a concerning relationship between DV and female homelessness.) Further, dominating behavior by an abuser is part of a pattern of control, and some women trying to leave an abusive relationship may often need to move to substandard housing -- or end up without any housing -- while they often continue to be at risk for violence from their abuser after they leave.

Research has found that among women who were seeking help after separating from an abusive partner, 25 to 50 percent reported housing-related problems. Over one third (38 percent) reported that they became homeless immediately after separating from their partner. An additional 25 percent reported needing to leave their homes during the year after separation.

The same study found that homelessness for DV victims may result from circumstances such as a sudden and urgent need to be safe from an abuser. In such cases, victims may rely on emergency calls to the police for help. However, due to zero tolerance policies or nuisance ordinances across many cities, DV victims who repeatedly call 911 for help may be evicted. Such policies may result in women staying in abusive relationships in order to keep their homes. Women in subsidized housing face additional barriers and are especially vulnerable because there are few low-income housing units available, and the federal programs developed to assist women by paying a portion of their rent (e.g., Section 8) have long waiting lists.

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VAWA of 2005 established important housing protections for women in certain federal housing programs. The 2013 reauthorization expanded housing protections to protect more victims by 1) expanding the violence categories to include sexual assault in addition to DV, dating violence, and stalking, 2) expanding protections to cover all federally subsidized housing programs, 3) clarifying the notice tenants must receive about their rights under VAWA, and 4) including an emergency transfer policy requirement for landlords, managers, and owners.

This legislation represents considerable progress in recognizing the housing issues that victims of DV face and has put protections in place for victims to be able to stay in their homes or move to another location. However, implementation challenges remain: there is no definition of “actual and imminent threat,” putting public housing residents at risk for eviction; it is not clear where victims can file complaints against housing administrators; and victims living in private housing are not covered by the legislation. These gaps further extend victimization.

Approaches and Recommendations
Recommendations for improving housing stability include:

  • According to VAWA, a public housing agency (PHA), owner, or manager may evict or terminate assistance to a victim if the PHA, owner, or manager can demonstrate actual and imminent threat to other tenants or employees at the property. Like VAWA 2005, VAWA 2013 does not define “actual and imminent threat.” Therefore, it will be critical for advocates to work with the federal agencies responsible for administering the provisions to include a clear definition of this crucial term as well as guidance in their regulations.

  • The housing protections contained in VAWA do not clearly indicate where to file complaints if a PHA refuses to comply. Policymakers and advocates should provide additional guidance on filing procedures and requirements, and these should be provided to tenants along with their notification of rights.

  • In coordination with local law enforcement and DV advocates, there should be outreach and training provided to PHAs and owners on VAWA 2013 that include victim-centered information on the dynamics of DV, sexual assault, and stalking.

  • Confidentiality requirements that protect the disclosure of personal information required in documents that must be presented by a victim seeking housing protections should be bolstered in the interest of protecting the victim’s new location from an abuser.

  • VAWA is designed to protect victims who reside in federally subsidized housing programs. However, legislatures should consider policies and procedures that protect victims in private housing and those who own homes with their abuser. In a 2015 study that I co-authored along with Kelly M. Socia and Malgorzata J. Zuber, we found that an increase in foreclosures in a community leads to increases of DV reports to police. Indeed, DV affects women in all communities, and there should be housing protections available to every victim seeking to leave an abusive partner.

  • There should be coordinated efforts between the federal government and local communities to eliminate the application of nuisance ordinances to victims of DV, stalking, and sexual assault.

April Pattavina, Ph.D. is a senior scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women working with a team of collaborators on the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative.

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Science and the Law Working Together to Improve the Criminal Justice Response to Sexual Assault

microscopeScience and the Law Working Together to Improve the Criminal Justice Response to Sexual Assault

Few would argue that the value of forensic science in solving crimes has been a game changer in favor of the investigation and prosecution of criminal offenders. Indeed, forensic evidence can be credited with bringing many criminals to justice (and exonerating the innocent). In cases of sexual assault, there was hope that advances in evidence gathering would lead to more prosecutions. Fueling this possibility was a focused effort over the last few decades to train medical personnel to collect forensic evidence, known in the criminal justice vernacular as rape or sexual assault kits, in the aftermath of an assault. While intended to be thorough in the interest of evidence gathering, the exam is an intrusive and difficult experience for victims. So it was perhaps one of the most important and disappointing developments when it was discovered that thousands of untested rape kits going back many years were sitting in crime labs or property rooms of police departments across the U.S.

The outrage expressed at this revelation by advocates, practitioners, and policymakers was channeled into action through significant funding allocated by the Department of Justice to conduct research that would serve to develop priorities for testing unsubmitted sexual assault kits. The importance of these efforts was fortified in the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013. This legislation calls for the development of policies, protocols, and training for law enforcement officers and prosecutors regarding the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases and the appropriate treatment of victims. It also calls for the identification and inventory of backlogs of sexual assault kits and to develop protocols for blogpullquoteAsaultJusticeresponding to and addressing such backlogs, including policies and protocols for notifying and involving victims. States and local jurisdictions have also been responding by implementing backlog reduction legislation or initiatives.

Funds made available through this legislation are being used to analyze backlogged DNA crime scene samples, including sexual assault kits, and offender DNA samples for inclusion in CODIS—a national database containing DNA profiles of persons involved in crimes—and notifying victims of new developments in their cases. There are a number of important projects underway in police departments across the U.S. and some significant results are beginning to emerge that will not only be used to improve testing practices, but will also serve to challenge the entrenched organizational and cultural reluctance to take sexual assaults seriously. While borne out of an unfortunate discovery, the commitment by local, state and federal agencies to understand and address the issue of untested kits provides hope for advancing action and theory in the age old challenge to reduce sexual assault case attrition.

April Pattavina, Ph.D. is co-director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College.

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