America, Every Vote Counts – Chris Kaiser

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America, Every Vote Counts

This is a featured article from TAASA’s Fall 2016 Newsletter, authored by Chris Kaiser, Director of Public Policy / General Counsel at TAASA.

Every fourth year—for pretty much the entire year—we turn our collective attention to a single political race. It’s an important one, for sure. The nation’s president wields power to shape the Supreme Court, determine thousands of federal agency priorities and funding schemes, and veto most congressional legislation. The presidency also carries significant symbolic weight—by sheer strength of personality a president can help many to feel included and heard (or not), and, therefore, plays an important role in assuaging or aggravating civil unrest at home and abroad.

So, it’s reasonable that presidential elections so easily capture our attention. They capture mine, anyway.

During the last few years, those of us doing anti-violence work have watched issues close to our hearts garner a lot of public attention, too: Sexual assault on college campuses. Rape cover-ups by athletic programs. Judicial words of sympathy for convicted rapists, but not for survivors. Sexual assaults by police officers. Federal investigations of systemic bias against rape and domestic violence survivors. Abysmal prosecution rates for sexual assaults. Outright failure to investigate reports of child abuse and neglect.

Most of that isn’t new to us. We see it every day. But it is new to see it reflected so frequently in mainstream media and discussed seriously among people who aren’t part of this work. And, in its own tragic way, that may be cause for optimism. Shedding light on these problems and dissolving taboos seems a necessary step in addressing the root causes of violence and institutional bias.

With greater public concern about these issues, I believe we have a crucial opportunity to educate about survivors’ needs and experiences. Without a doubt, many of you reading this have already stepped up at this critical moment and accomplished a lot. We can’t let up.

Yet, amid the noise of perhaps the most contentious and divisive presidential election of our lifetimes, I fear that we risk losing sight of which elected officials have the most direct and significant impact on survivors—the local ones.

Who’s responsible for how police investigate cases and what happens to forensic evidence? City mayors, council members, and sheriffs.

Who decides which cases to prosecute? District attorneys.

Who determines punishments for rapists and batterers, how survivors are treated in court, and whether domestic violence survivors can have custody of their children?  Judges.

Who decides whether to fund specialized protective order courts? County commissioners, county judges, and district judges.

Who decides whether law enforcement should report survivors to ICE if they’re suspected to be undocumented?  Sheriffs.

Who’s responsible for ensuring safe and trauma-informed responses for kids who are assaulted or abused in school? School board members.

As a culture and as an anti-violence movement, we spend so much of our scarce time and energy on presidents and Congress members who typically only affect survivors indirectly. They design massive grant programs that pass through multiple government bureaucracies before funneling down to direct service providers, but they have little to say about the on-the-ground practices that shape survivors’ experiences. By the time we make it through nearly two years of presidential primaries and a general election, we tire of the often hollow rhetoric of national-level politics and arguing with our friends’ friends on Facebook, and we have little energy left for the local elections that have graver and more immediate consequences for survivors in our communities.

Who wins, then, except those who would prefer to maintain the status quo, free from public scrutiny?

We have an ethical obligation to demand equitable treatment of survivors from our local officials and, absent that, accountability at the ballot box.

Survivors’ Issues Are Local Issues

Institutions ranging from criminal justice to civil courts to school districts and higher education have largely failed to engender trust among sexual assault survivors. Last year the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at the UT-Austin School of Social Work found that 91% of sexual assaults in Texas have not been reported to police. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, many survivors who don’t report make that choice because they believe the criminal justice system couldn’t or wouldn’t help. Many others say they fear the traumatic effects of a long, invasive legal proceeding. At the same time, constant stories of victim-blaming, retaliation, and indifference to survivors tend to confirm survivors’ worst suspicions.

In my experience, our response to institutional dysfunction is often anger, frustration, dejection, or all three. The problem feels too big and immovable. We don’t know how to direct our outrage constructively. Maybe that’s just me, but I don’t think so.

So, here is a challenge to myself and you. For the sake of survivors, let’s find ways to channel our collective outrage into political accountability. What follows are brief sketches of how a couple of the most common, and seemingly entrenched, systemic problems facing survivors connect directly with local elections.

Criminal Justice

In recent years the DOJ has investigated and entered into con- sent decrees with Missoula, Montana, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Puerto Rico concerning gender bias in police responses to sexual assault and domestic violence. Earlier this year, the DOJ published an extensive report on police practices in the City of Baltimore, including six pages describing systematic bias against sexual assault victims. Examples of bias in these jurisdictions included failures by detectives to interview witnesses; failures to seek evidence that would corroborate victim statements; dismissal of rape complaints as “unfounded” without adequate investigation; use of victim-blaming or minimizing language during victim interviews; and refusal to investigate complaints made by sex workers and transgender or gender-nonconforming people.

As advocates and allies, we can’t assume these problems aren’t happening close to us, and we can’t depend solely on federal agencies to be our watchdogs. It’s on us to examine whether survivors in our communities are  experiencing  similar  biases. In fact, according to the most recent FBI statistics, four of the jurisdictions with the highest percentages of “unfounded” rape complaints in the US are in Texas: Pasadena (37%), Grand Prairie (36%), Bastrop County (27%), and Dallas (23%). The aver- age percentage of unfounded rapes among police departments nationwide is 7%.

Building on its data analysis and lessons learned from its investigations, the DOJ published a guidance document earlier this year, entitled “Identifying and Preventing Gender Bias in Law Enforcement Response to Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence.” The purpose of the document is to assist law enforcement agencies in responding effectively to sexual assault and domestic violence and to eliminate gender bias in their practices.

We need to ask whether our local law enforcement agencies are implementing the DOJ’s recommendations and, if not, to demand an explanation from the mayor, city council, sheriff, or district attorney.

Public Education

For years we’ve heard about colleges and universities revamping their responses to sexual harassment and assault. The situation is still far from perfect, but a lot of good has come out of a renewed focus on survivors’ civil rights protections under Title IX.

Although Title IX has always also applied to elementary, middle, and high schools, the discourse on those schools’ legal obligations has mostly remained in the background. But those of us who advocate on behalf of survivors know that gender-based violence at school is a real problem for children and adolescents. Unfortunately, relatively few elementary, middle, and high schools seem well-equipped to investigate and address sexual harassment and assault against their students. Too often the response further traumatizes kids, instead of protecting them and helping them to heal.

We also know that, just as adult survivors who identify with certain vulnerable or marginalized groups often incur particularly skeptical or punitive responses from criminal justice officials, school-based responses to sexual assault aren’t equitable for all students. It’s thoroughly documented that throughout the country and in Texas, students of color—particularly Black students—and students with disabilities are much more likely to be subject to disciplinary action or referral to school resource officers than their white classmates for the same conduct. Tragically, this trend seems to bleed into school-based responses to sexual assaults. Schools’ sexual assault response practices are unreliable across the board, but when students of color report sexual violence to their schools, they are more likely than white survivors to be sent home, punished for what the school determines was consensual sex, or forced to transfer schools.

Department of Education officials, attorneys for survivors, and educators all agree about the need for more training and clearer policies at the local level. According to the Texas Association of School Boards, there are more than 7,000 elected school board members in Texas. They hold almost sole authority to determine the training and response policies that will apply when children at their schools are sexually assaulted. As their constituents, they are accountable to us.

Our Challenge Ahead

Certainly, electing a president or congressperson also has con- sequences for survivors. The president appoints federal agency leadership, who, in turn, determine whether to prioritize things like gender bias in policing or sexual violence in educational settings. We ignore national-level politics at the risk of the most vulnerable among us.

Still, I hope that as a field and as a movement we keep sight of   our potential impact at the local level. I’ve offered just a few examples here of how our action—or inaction—in local politics shapes support systems for survivors and, by extension, survivors’ confidence in systems ostensibly maintained for their benefit. Undoubtedly, there are more.

I want to challenge us—myself included—to reclaim electoral politics as a mechanism for justice. Each time the system works against a survivor or we run up against a process rife with bias, I want to challenge us not to give into anger or resignation, but to identify the responsible official and work for change. Regardless of who becomes the next president, I expect that most of the time we won’t be calling the White House.

SOAPBOX is an outlet for TAASA members to express their opinions on current events, social justice issues, and the national and local political climate. The views expressed in SOAPBOX do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TAASA, our board, members or affiliated agencies.

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