Home Crisis Survival Transcript: Domestic Violence: The Shadow Pandemic

Transcript: Domestic Violence: The Shadow Pandemic

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MS. STEAD SELLERS: Hello, and welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m Frances Stead Sellers, a senior writer here at The Post.

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and today we have two segments focusing on the impact of the pandemic on domestic violence. First to join me is Rosie Hidalgo. She’s a senior advisor at the White House Gender Policy Council.

Rosie, a very warm welcome to Washington Post Live.

MS. HIDALGO: Thank you so much, Frances. I really appreciate the invitation to join you today and to have this important dialogue, particularly, as you know, during Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. Thank you very much.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Well, we’re delighted to have you.

And before we start, I want to have a quick word with our audience. Tweet your questions to Rosie at @PostLive. That’s the Twitter handle @PostLive. We’ll try to pick some of them up and pose them to her.

So, Rosie, let’s get started. The UN dubbed this a “shadow pandemic,” the surge domestic violence. Talk to me about that word “shadow” and what we should be doing to bring domestic violence into the light.

MS. HIDALGO: Well, thank you so much. You know, and I think as we’re all aware, domestic violence was already a significant public health issue, even before the pandemic. It affects millions of people every year and really undermines health and well‑being, mental health, physical health, economic security of individuals who are impacted as well as their families, the community as a whole, our nation, and even globally.

But I think to your point, the pandemic brought it to sharper focus, the ways in which specific risk factors were exacerbated during the pandemic and the added barriers and challenges to seeking safety services and support.

And so, as you mentioned, it’s called a “pandemic within a pandemic” or a “shadow pandemic,” but thankfully, it has been an opportunity to bring more focus and really continue to enhance our nation’s commitment to prevent and to improve the response to domestic violence in all forms of gender‑based violence.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Rosie, I’ve seen the statistic of an 8 percent increase in domestic violence. I’d love you to talk to me about how accurate those statistics are, particularly during a period when people were quarantining and then lockdown, and also about the impact of lockdowns on domestic violence.

MS. HIDALGO: Yes. And I think to your point, it’s very hard to know as yet the full data. I think only time will tell as more research is done, but I think undoubtedly what we saw, what we heard, certainly what we heard from the National Domestic Violence Hotline, from national organizations and state coalitions and every‑‑throughout the 56 states and territories were the ways in which survivors were experiencing these increased risks.

So, as you mentioned, one of the ways in which someone who is choosing to abuse causes harm is often by isolating that person, and that was already a tactic before the pandemic. But, again, when people had to isolate at home, not only because of the quarantine, but even afterwards as people were trying to reduce their risks, it made it so much harder for individuals to be able to seek safety and support. They were also isolated from support networks, that people were no longer going to work, but working from home, if children were no longer going to school or even the ways in which it made it harder for someone who wanted to leave an abusive situation to find shelter, to find housing. Oftentimes people go and stay with family and friends, but of course, in the midst of the pandemic, that brought increased risk.

Even domestic violence shelters struggled with the challenges from congregate living, how to keep survivors safe, how to be able to get extra funding for vouchers for people to stay in motels and hotels to try to reduce putting more than one family in a room together.

So, again, we also saw courts who moved to tele‑proceedings and only the most urgent proceedings. It made it much more difficult for survivors to go in, for example, and seek an order of protection.

And, at the same time, we also know that economic security is such an important factor. It can increase the risk of someone who’s encountering economic barriers, and we saw the pandemic really exacerbate that.

So, as individuals were losing their employment or having reduced ability to do their work and get the hours they needed, if they worked in the restaurant industry, hotel industry, so many different industries that disproportionately impacted women, women who oftentimes were already struggling with inadequate wages, right, inadequate access to childcare, inadequate access to health care, all of these different factors were further exacerbated during the pandemic. So it really has been an opportunity to, once again, recognize why we need a much more holistic approach.

And while, on the one hand, we did see some rates of increase of people calling the police or calling hotlines, in some areas, there was a decrease because people did not feel safe in their homes to reach out for help.

Some people also just had difficulty reaching service providers who themselves were struggling in the midst of the pandemic with how to adapt their services.

So there were a myriad of factors, but overall, our nation’s commitment to really address this and certainly the commitment of Biden‑Harris administration to make this a priority has made a significant impact to really try to continue to better address these issues, not only during the pandemic, but going forward to have a much more holistic strategy in our nation’s commitment to prevent and end domestic violence in all forms of gender‑based violence.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: So, Rosie, I’d like to ask you specifically about the Violence Against Women Act, which was reauthorized earlier this year with bipartisan support. What are the changes here? What are the commitments going ahead?

MS. HIDALGO: Yes. Thank you. And, as the you, the Violence Against Women Act, when it originally passed in 1994, then Senator Biden was a lead author and champion in coming together with the movement, with advocates and others to advance this really landmark legislation when it originally passed VAWA.

But what’s interesting about VAWA is it’s up for reauthorization technically every five years, and when that happens, it’s an opportunity for our nation again to identify gaps and barriers, see where progress has been made, but continue to see where we can improve the Violence Against Women Act as well as other important pieces of legislation.

So President Biden very much championed the reauthorization of VAWA during this past term of Congress, and with bipartisan support, we were able to not only renew it but strengthen it, expand it. So what it did is it reauthorized many important grant programs funded through the Violence Against Women Act that go out, significant funding that reaches all 56 states and territories, and really, it’s funding that helps build what’s known as a coordinated community response, how do we really address these issues more holistically, bringing all the key players to the table.

And it also funds a lot of other significant grant programs that reach underserved and historically marginalized communities. So there’s specific funding to reach tribal communities, to reach LGBTQ populations, those who are facing additional barriers based on disabilities, on age, those from communities of color. We saw during the pandemic the ways in which racial and ethnic minority communities also experienced initially a lot of disproportionate barriers to access to services.

So there are ways in which this VAWA continues to expand for all survivors as well as addressing issues that impact different populations at these intersections to be better able to meet these needs and also to just better train law enforcement on what are trauma‑informed approaches, to better support health care providers, sexual assault nurse examiners, to integrate the best promising practices, to really make sure we’re eliminating the rape kit backlog, and to really put other tools and resources in the hands of communities, both to prevent and improve our response to domestic violence.

So this VAWA was a very important historic opportunity. It was last reauthorized in 2013. So, unfortunately, it took longer than it probably should have, but thankfully, because of a lot of concerted effort of advocates, the voices of survivors, that their stories, their lived experience, their courage are really what helped propel this work, and really the bipartisan commitment to get this across a finish line has really helped us move our nation’s commitment forward with this reauthorized VAWA.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Rosie, you used the word “intersection.” I do want to ask you a little bit more about the intersectional approach. Of course, the Violence Against Women Act now sounds like sort of old‑fashioned title. Could you just give me specifically some examples of how an intersectional approach helps these days?

MS. HIDALGO: Yes. And you bring up a really good point. I’m glad you raised that. When it was originally entitled the Violence Against Women Act, it was to bring attention to the fact that this is a harm that disproportionately impacts women. It disproportionately impacts individuals in the LGBTQ+ community.

But, nonetheless, we know that men also can experience gender‑based violence, domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, dating violence, or other intersective forms of violence. And, from the outset, violence has been gender neutral, and it is important to put that out there that any and every individual who experiences any form of intimate partner violence, sexual assault, stalking, trafficking should be able to reach out, get services and support, and really to your point, meet a survivor where they’re at across different intersectional identities that may at times present additional barriers, additional burdens to being able to access services and support.

And so VAWA, even in 2013, included a special nondiscrimination provision that for the first time in federal legislation also called out how important it is to make sure there’s no discrimination on the basis of sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, national origin, all the ways in which service providers are continuing to meet survivors where they’re at and provide them services, but to your point, recognizing that we also need to get resources, build capacity, develop the leadership in different communities amongst different populations to make sure that there’s multiple pathways to safety.

Someone may want to go to a DV shelter. Someone may want to go to a Hispanic community resource center. Someone might want to go to an LGBTQ, you know, community clinic or that focus is on the LGBTQ community.

So how do we make sure someone to reach out to services in their own tribal community? So, for example, we’re now funding a national hotline, specifically called the Native Heart‑‑the StrongHearts Native Helpline, recognizing that individuals who experience disproportionate levels of violence, for example, in Indian country want to oftentimes speak to other Native American advocates and be able to navigate some of the additional complexities they may face, especially, for example, at the hands of non‑Native perpetrators where there are complexities around jurisdiction of the tribal courts. And that’s something that this VAWA really has helped expand special criminal jurisdiction in tribal courts, built capacity and support the leadership, the resources in tribal communities to address these issues.

So these are different ways in which VAWA has sought to continue to move that, that commitment forward.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: So we’re talking from a very sort of top‑down approach, of course, because you’re working with the White House. The administration invested something like a billion dollars, I think, towards service providers. How is that changing the life and the experience of people who are really on the front line, on the ground dealing with these issues?

MS. HIDALGO: Yeah. That’s a great question, and I think it’s important to recognize that there’s some key sources of federal funding, to your point, in addition to VAWA. And the president made a commitment in the budget to fund VAWA at a billion dollars a year. We’re not there yet, but that should be an ongoing commitment.

Also the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, that’s through the Department of Health and Human Services, which is also critical core funding. That was initially passed in 1984, and it’s really core funding for DV shelters, service programs, coalitions, national resource centers. That needs to be reauthorized. It already passed the House with important improvements, and we’re working to get it across to Senate and strengthen that source of funding and support as well.

And then the Victims of Crime Act is another very important federal resource, and we recently passed an amendment to that, to VOCA, to strengthen allocations of funding for the crime victims fund.

But, again, these are different federal sources, and in the midst of the pandemic, the president and the Biden‑Harris administration overall allocated an additional $1 billion in supplemental funding through the American Rescue Plan, because, again, recognizing the shadow pandemic and the need to get additional resources with urgency out to domestic violence service programs, sexual assault service programs, to tribes and national resource centers and also with specific funding for culturally specific community‑based organizations, too, to reach harder‑to‑serve populations. So that was a billion dollars in supplemental funding in addition to these other sources of funding.

But, at the end of the day, it’s not just the federal money. It’s so critical that states and localities invest‑‑and many of them do‑‑and even the private sector, donations at the community level. I think Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention Month is a great opportunity to call in, to call in everyone to be a part of the solution and the ways in which people in their own local communities can support critical services.

And you’re right. We need to support also the frontline advocates. It is one of the most difficult jobs for someone who’s a frontline advocate in a rape crisis center, in a domestic violence shelter, or any of these other programs. Oftentimes they are underpaid and not given the sufficient support they need.

So, to your point, that was part of the goal of this too, in the midst of the pandemic, how to get more resources to these service providers who are dealing with the pandemic themselves in their own lives and yet were out there on the front lines. And many of them are themselves now dedicated as advocates.

So I think there’s a lot more we can do to continue to advance the support for this work, so that on the ground, in communities, there’s sufficient support not only through these specific targeted programs, but one of the things we’re doing through our National Action Plan to end gender‑based violence is to lift up the critical role that everyone plays across many different sectors and the fact that we need to do a lot more to prevent domestic violence. There should be no tolerance for abuse.

This is something that’s preventable. Violence is chosen, right? Sometimes people say why doesn’t she leave or why doesn’t he leave. The question is, why does that person who’s causing harm, who is abusing‑‑why are they abusing someone? How do we reduce any tolerance for that so that we can have a culture where everyone thrives with health, with well‑being, and, you know, as a human right to recognize the right to live free from violence.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: What important insights.

Rosie, we have a question from our audience. Lucia from‑‑or Lucia‑‑I don’t know how she pronounces her name‑‑from California asks, given the elevated rates of domestic violence as a result of the pandemic, what are the most important findings, lessons, or observations that should drive future change in our systems to prevent domestic violence? An issue you were just talking on. So it was a very timely question here.

MS. HIDALGO: I love that question. I love that the question is also how do we continue working to prevent it, and that is something recently we held a great virtual roundtable also with, you know, the important role of men and boys, LGBTQ individuals, women and girls, everyone at the table to really say how do we change some social norms that tolerate that abuse.

So part of prevention is teaching healthy relationships, but another part of it also, as this questioner points out, what are some of the systemic issues? How do we make sure, for example, that people are getting a living wage, that they do have access to childcare, health care, that they have access to affordable housing, that if they have access to education free from violence or the threats of violence? All these different pieces also are part of prevention as well, because as we build sort of an infrastructure where people can thrive, where they have options and choices, it reduces oftentimes where we see some survivors who feel that they don’t even have a choice to leave an abusive relationship because of all these other barriers.

So I think part of it is also creating these kinds of supports, and we saw that during the pandemic. We saw how critical these different pieces were. For example, even the child tax credit, to the extent that during the pandemic, people were able to access that to get‑‑it was fully refundable. They didn’t have to wait until their taxes to be able to get even monthly sources of the child tax credit.

When I went and visited one of the DV shelters here in D.C., they talked about how that additional economic security was so important for survivors, so that they could be able to move towards stable housing, right? People can only stay at a shelter for so long, but we really need our continued investments in safe and affordable housing.

And just yesterday, HUD did a remarkable forum all over the country with over 1,200 participants across the housing industry for how can we continue to support survivors to access that.

So all these different pieces are very important, but at the end of the day, it’s so important to move towards prevention. And I think both domestically and globally, we really are looking at this as a public health issue that we can do a lot more to bring that lens into this work.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Rosie, I have time for just one question, and I’m afraid it has to be a short answer. I’m going to be talking in my next segment a lot about tech‑facilitated violence. What’s being done on a policy level? And, again, I’m apologize. It will need to be a quick answer.

MS. HIDALGO: Really appreciate that question. The president made a commitment on the campaign trail to address this critical issue. It’s an issue that existed before, but obviously, it is beginning to really scale up, the ways in which we’re seeing technology‑facilitated gender‑based violence, the non‑consensual distribution of intimate images, sextortion, cyber stalking. And so the president launched in June‑‑he signed a presidential memorandum creating a White House task force to address online harassment and abuse. We’ve had robust engagement with experts and stakeholders and survivors, and across our federal agencies, we’re marching towards a 180 days to develop a blueprint for action to much more proactively address these issues, but, of course, to call in the tech sector, private industry and others because there’s a lot more that needs to be done to really make sure we’re preventing and addressing this really significant issue.

And so, really, you know, just heartened that President Biden, Vice President Harris, the attorney general, and even the surgeon general were all a part of the launch of this task force because it brings into place some critical issues, and so we look forward to moving additional policies and programs forward to address this.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Rosie Hidalgo, thank you so much for joining me today.

MS. HIDALGO: Thank you so very much. Take good care.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: I’m going to be back in a few minutes with our next guest, so don’t go away, and we’ll learn more about tech‑facilitated gender‑based violence.

MS. KOCH: Hi. I’m Kathleen Koch.

People facing domestic violence often consider seeking refuge at a shelter to escape an abuser, but only 15 percent of domestic violence shelters accept pets. Well, that puts many abuse survivors in a terrible position of choosing between their safety and their pet.

Well, here to talk about their efforts to resolve that dilemma are Dr. Traci Zager‑‑she’s veterinary communications manager at Purina‑‑and Katie Campbell, director of Collaboration and Outreach at the nonprofit Red Rover.

Welcome, Katie, Dr. Traci.

MS. KOCH: Katie, you are at a domestic violence shelter in Rhode Island right now. What are the top barriers that domestic violence survivors with pets face when leaving an abuser?

MS. CAMPBELL: Yeah. That’s a great question, Kathleen. You know, domestic violence survivors face many barriers when leaving an abuser, and having a pet and not having a safe place to take them is one of the biggest.

So we know that approximately 50 percent of domestic violence survivors will delay leaving an abuser if they can’t take their pets with them, and as you mentioned, only 15 percent of domestic violence shelters here in the U.S. are pet friendly.

And according to a recent survey that the Urban Resource Institute in New York City and the National Domestic Violence Hotline shared, actually 72 percent of domestic violence survivors didn’t even know that a pet housing program existed, and so we have a real challenge here in creating more pet friendly resources and also making sure that more domestic violence survivors know about those resources.

And I think that’s one of the greatest pieces of the Purple Leash Project, our collaboration with Purina. It’s, one, we’re helping to raise the funds and give those funds to domestic violence shelters, like the one I’m in right now, to create pet friendly spaces, but also really making sure that the survivors who need those resources know that they exist.

MS. KOCH: Dr. Traci, veterinarians like you really have a unique window into the family dynamic, you know, when families come in with their dogs or cats, whatever. Tell us about that and what role you can play in these difficult situations.

DR. ZAGER: Absolutely. Often veterinarians are seeing multiple members of the family, sometimes the whole family in the office at the same time, and we really see how they are dealing with stressful situations, whether that be‑‑you know, as pet owners, we know that it’s stressful to go into the vet hospital. There’s lots of barking dogs and commotion, things going on. But, also, it could be because those pets are dealing with a difficult situation or a serious medical issue.

And so we get to see how these families are interacting with their pets, and vice versa, all in the clinic. We know that these interactions can be really important and give us some insight into how these families interact and deal with stressors at home as well.

MS. KOCH: Katie, you mentioned the Purple Leash Project. As folks can see, Dr. Traci’s wearing a purple leash shirt. Tell us more about it, exactly what it does to help survivors and their pets escape abuse.

MS. CAMPBELL: Sure, yeah. The Purple Leash Project, you know, on one side is really focused on helping more domestic violence shelters become pet friendly. So that is really just the amazing support that they’ve provided in giving grants to domestic violence shelters to create pet friendly spaces.

I’m sitting in what is going to be a lovely pet friendly room. You know, 91 percent of survivors say that having their pets with them is really important to their ability to heal and survive, and so we really need to create more of these pet friendly spaces. So, on one end, that is the amazing work that the Purple Leash Project does.

But, as I mentioned earlier, it’s also just raising awareness about pet friendly resources, that they even exist, and really just helping to kind of normalize the conversation.

You know, I often say we all need to have that light‑bulb moment. You know, I know a lot of people who consider themselves animal lovers, and they also, you know, maybe know about domestic violence, and they know about the link between human and animal violence. But they’ve never put those two things together.

I was actually one of those people before I came to RedRover, and I had my light‑bulb moment. And so I think that’s one of the most impactful things that the Purple Leash Project brings to the discussion.

MS. KOCH: Dr. Traci, could you help us understand the connection between animal abuse and other types of violence?

DR. ZAGER: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely. So we know there is a major link between animal abuse, child abuse and neglect, elder abuse and domestic violence. If an abuser is willing to harm one vulnerable person or animal in that household, they’re much more likely to harm anyone within that household.

We also know that in homes under investigation for child abuse, co‑incidents of animal abuse ranged from 60 to 88 percent in those homes, and they were just as likely to seek veterinary care as non‑abusive homes. So we know that it’s happening. We know that there’s a link, and as veterinarians with that unique window into the family dynamic, we can be a very important step‑‑or a very important link in abuse reporting.

MS. KOCH: Katie and Dr. Traci, in our final minute, what can people who are watching this discussion, whether they’re members of the general public or maybe a veterinarian‑‑what can they do to help, abuse survivors and their pets, find safe haven?

MS. CAMPBELL: Sure. I would say, certainly, you know, if you have the means, certainly donate to PurpleLeashProject.com. I think that’s one of the greatest ways that you can support.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, just have those conversations. You know, make sure that folks know that these kinds of resources exist, and help other people have their light‑bulb moment and understand this link between human and animal violence.

DR. ZAGER: Yeah, absolutely, Katie. That’s a great point.

And, if you’re a veterinarian watching, if you have any reasonable suspicion of abuse of any kind, please report it. Know if you are in a mandatory reporting state. The National Link Coalition is a great resource for veterinarians or professionals, like in law enforcement or social work, to learn more about this link between different types of violence and where to report it to.

There’s a resource on that website for finding out where to report to. Have those conversations ahead of time, and develop a standard operating procedure for your hospital.

MS. KOCH: Dr. Traci Zager of Purina, Katie Campbell of RedRover, thank you both for helping shed light on this really little‑known problem.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Welcome back to Washington Post Live. For those of you just joining us, I’m Frances Stead Sellers.

For this second segment, I am joined by Deborah Vagins, who is the president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and we’re going to be talking about tech abuse.

Deborah, a very warm welcome to Washington Post Live.

MS. VAGINS: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here, and thank you for covering this important issue.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: And we want to include our audience. So please remember to tweet your questions for Deborah to @PostLive. That’s @PostLive, the Twitter handle, and we’ll be on the lookout for them.

Deborah, it is a huge issue. We know domestic violence. We’ve heard about the numbers in the pandemic, but tech abuse, how pervasive a problem is that specifically?

MS. VAGINS: Well, let’s talk about what tech abuse is, and unfortunately, it is a pervasive problem and became more pervasive during the pandemic. So tech abuse can take a lot of forms and can use different types of technology, and technology abuse often exists within a larger pattern of domestic violence, where one partner is trying to exert control over another person and their partner. And it usually does go alongside with other forms of abuse, such as physical or emotional or financial abuse, and it’s very interconnected with those other tactics.

But, at its root, it is the misuse of technology to exert power and control over another person and can include things like threatening and hateful comments on online platforms or sending threatening text messages, sharing sexual images without a person’s consent, or even creating fake sexually explicit images called “deep fakes,” or using social media to stalk someone. The behavior is really more than someone saying something that you don’t like but can include threats for sexual or physical violence and can cause great personal and economic damage.

And I think sometimes tech abuse is minimized. It has to be taken seriously. It can be extremely traumatizing and terrifying. People can feel‑‑now that we’re online, most of our lives are spent online. People can feel that it’s impossible to get away from it. It can ruin a person’s reputation.

You heard Rosie talk about this creates isolation. There are financial crimes that are caused on‑‑that are perpetrated online. It can lead to offline stalking and harassment, and we should be prepared for the likelihood that the tech‑abuse tactics that were adopted during the pandemic will not be given up, and we have to work together to address these issues.

We conducted‑‑NNEDV conducted a needs assessment. We saw an increase of online abuse in the field over the pandemic. In December of 2020 and January of 2021, we surveyed victim service providers and those working in legal systems to learn more about the types of tech abuse they were hearing about from survivors, and over a thousand folks responded. And what they reported is that they were seeing online harassment, people limiting access to technology while you were‑‑they were stuck with their abusers, types of surveillance of their technology, and all of the data show that it increased during the pandemic.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: So, Deborah, you’re getting at an issue that I’m really curious about, human behavior is human behavior, right? There are these disturbing repeated patterns that Rosie talked about and you’ve talked about: isolation, cutting people off, exerting control. Is there anything strikingly new about tech abuse, or is it just a new means of doing the same old things?

MS. VAGINS: Well, unfortunately, almost any tool can be weaponized by someone who wants to cause abuse. So a pattern of public harassment that now can be done on social media platforms, for example, is a textbook articulation of an of intimate partner violence that causes emotional distress for a victim and sometimes more than that.

And with the evolution of technologies, unfortunately, many of those technologies have been misused by abusers over time. So it’s not necessarily that we’re seeing new abuse of behavior but new tactics being used as technology evolves. Unfortunately, so too does the abuse.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Right. One of the major stresses during the pandemic was financial. People lost jobs, stayed at home. How has financial abuse or control intersected with tech abuse?

MS. VAGINS: There are very significant connections, and at NNEDV, we have our incredible safety net team that looks at the intersections of technology and domestic violence and civil rights and innovation in all of these ideas. We also have an economic justice team that looks at different types of financial abuse, and financial abuse also can take a variety of forms. But some ways that it intersects with technology abuse are online banking fraud, getting access to people’s passwords or bank accounts, depleting bank accounts online, limiting access to folks’ ability to access their own accounts. All of this can be done through technology.

We have online banking now, and so while there was always financial abuse as a part of domestic violence, now we see, as tools evolve to facilitate your financial life online, those can be weaponized as well by abusers.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: So this, I believe, is your organization’s week of action, and today is Purple Day.

Talk to us a little bit about Purple Day and what that means.

MS. VAGINS: Yes, absolutely. We’re all wearing‑‑we’re all wearing purple today. This is a day to raise awareness, and so take today. So Purple Thursday is a national day of action each October during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and it’s an opportunity for all of us to raise awareness about domestic violence and an easy way for people to show their commitment to promoting healthy relationships. So it’s just one of the many things our organization is doing to raise awareness.

We also have a theme for this year’s DVAM activities, and that is everyone knows someone, and that is both to say that we all have a part in solving this problem. But because of the‑‑because of how frequently domestic violence occurs, unfortunately, it means that almost every one of us will know someone that this is occurring to.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Right. And when you talk about raising awareness and we’re talking about tech abuse, what do people most misunderstand about this particular kind of online abuse?

MS. VAGINS: Well, I think, you know, there’s two parts of this. We do talk a lot about tech misuse, and that is very, very important. And I’m grateful to work at an organization that is focusing on this critical and developing field.

But there’s a flip side of this, and that is that technology is also power. We know that it can be used, misused to harass and isolate and cause fear, but it’s also power for survivors. We need to raise awareness about both needs, and we do that, right, with trainings and resources and working with tech companies and policymakers and our membership.

But it’s very important that people understand that every survivor has the right to use technology in a safe and meaningful way, that survivors have the right to engage, speak out, speak up, communicate with their family, friends, government systems, and more without fear of abuse or fear of technology abuse, so that technology can be used to increase survivors’ access to services and keep communities connected and hold discriminatory systems accountable.

So sometimes we would get reports from the field that survivors were told that they should not be using their technology if it was‑‑if they were being monitored or stalked, but we have to look at both sides of the coin. We have to look at tech abuse, but we have to look at the empowered use of technology to assist survivors in their path to safety and healing.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: So we heard from Rosie about some of the steps the administration has been taking, and I know in June, the administration launched a task force to prevent online abuse. Your organization obviously has a big voice in this. What’s your key recommendation to that task force?

MS. VAGINS: Yes. And we were‑‑we were lucky enough to join one of their roundtables, and we provided several recommendations about steps that we can engage in and looking at policy change and looking at tech companies collaboration.

So tech companies and victim service providers have to continue to work together to find solutions and industry‑wide standards to minimize opportunities for abuse and increase safety for survivors.

We talked about things like increasing access to technical experts to help survivors and advocates support cases of tech‑facilitated abuse. We also recommended that we expand programs aimed at preventing and addressing online harassment and tech‑facilitated abuse.

There’s also now‑‑Rosie talked about the new developments in the Violence Against Women Act, when it was reauthorized, and now there is a federal civil cause of action included in VAWA to offer more options for survivors when there are non‑consensual distribution of intimate images. So they can bring lawsuits, but not everyone can do that or afford that. So more investment by the administration in legal services so that people have more access to help, that’s a big recommendation.

And we also have to be looking at‑‑as I mentioned before, when you look at both sides of the coin, when you look at tech misuse but also the empowered‑‑the empowered use of technology for survivors, we also‑‑another recommendation is that we should create and enhance programs that promote digital equity and tech safety, so that ensuring that all survivors can enjoy access and the benefits of technology in their personal lives as well as in work and school and in public life. This can look like helping low‑income folks access safe technology. It can be providing more sunsets when we know access of services are being sunset, like some of our flip phones now are being sunset. People may not be able to afford upgrades. We need to have safe access to technology.

And, of course, it’s very important that the administration and in the appropriations that are coming up support culturally specific approaches and responses to abuse that recognize the layered and intersectional needs of survivors.

So people of color, survivors of color, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, for example, all experience significantly higher rates of online harassment and are targeted with violent threats that often are racialized and sexualized in nature, and we need to make sure that we are investing in all communities.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: You’ve mentioned your own group’s safety net project. What are the outlines of that project? What sets it apart?

MS. VAGINS: So this is a very important project that looks at the intersection of technology and privacy, civil rights, and safety. They work with‑‑they addressed technology‑facilitated abuse holistically, which means looking at prevention, intervention, safety, planning, and accountability. They are‑‑they work with our membership, training with law enforcement, with the judicial system to make sure that they understand both how to address tech‑facilitated abuse as well as the importance of empowered use of technology.

The other thing the team does is create credible‑‑well, the team does a lot of things, but one of the other things the team does is create incredible resources that we highly recommend. If people are worried about their online safety, we’ve got toolkits that folks can look at that address how one might engage safely with Twitter, with Facebook, online dating apps, and more.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: In February of this year, there was a huge surge in contact to one of the hotlines, the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Is that a good sign or a bad sign? Were those all‑‑do we know if those were all messages of people suffering domestic abuse or the flip side that you’re talking about of some sort of sense of an outlet, a place to get help? What are we learning from that?

MS. VAGINS: Well, you heard Rosie talk about in some‑‑at the beginning of the pandemic, we actually saw some decreases in calls and reporting because people were stuck with their abusers, and instances where you might be able to reach safety by going to work or going to school, you were not necessarily able to do that. And so there was some quiet and some lulls that we found very concerning.

After some of the stay‑at‑home orders lifted, you did see a surge in calls for help, calls on hotlines, sometimes calls to police, where folks felt comfortable.

You can’t necessarily say it’s good or bad, but what is good is that people felt that they could reach out and that there were services available, although those services have‑‑for everyone who works in this field, services have been stretched thin, and people are both trying to deal with the surge in needs as well as their own organizations’ funding and turnover and impact that COVID has had on their own staff. So it’s been a very difficult time, but the folks that do this work day in and day out, they’re incredible. They’re inspirational.

We also have a legal email hotline. It’s called WomensLaw.org, and we do two things at NNEDV. One is that people can write in for free legal information. We do get referrals of legal questions from the National Domestic Violence Hotline as well, and people can also go to our website and pull out state‑specific legal information, both in English and Spanish, nationwide to help them navigate, whether it is looking at the intersection of legal questions and tech‑facilitated abuse or how to get a restraining order or how to file for custody or divorce. We have that information available.

And I will say that if you look at the 30 months before the pandemic, so, you know, 2017 to the beginning of 2020, as compared to the 30 months from March of 2020 through the end of August of this year, we saw‑‑the increase in visits was astounding to our website. So WomensLaw.org had about 3 million unique users with about 8 million page views in that 30 months before the pandemic, and afterwards we had about 10, over 10 million, almost 11 million unique viewers with 23 million page views. So just that one data point alone shows you the surge that happened in request for services of legal information and hotline information.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Share with us, just briefly, if you can, some of the other ways in which technology can be a lifeline for people who need it.

MS. VAGINS: Absolutely. I mean, the‑‑if you think about your life, it’s conducted a lot online. If you need to reach out to someone for help, if you want to call services, if you want to chat, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which we’ve talked about, has chat functions, and we’ll be launching that soon too as well.

So there are‑‑if you want to engage with government systems, if you need to try to interview for a job so that you can move on for healing and from financial abuse, that’s all through technology now. If you don’t have access, safe access to your phone, to your computer, to your banking, then that’s a concern. And so these are‑‑ and all part of safety planning may be how you look at your technology, and so there are steps that we do tell people to take if they’re experiencing‑‑if they’re experiencing tech‑facilitated abuse and to make sure that they’re‑‑that they can be safe in using their technology going forward.

And the first is that we say first is to focus on their safety, right? So make sure that you’re safe when you’re engaging in this, that you’re in a place where you can do this, but‑‑and we suggest that survivors look, for example, at their settings on all their online accounts to identify the level of privacy that they need, and I mean accounts from bank accounts to how you operate your phone, to make sure that it meets their needs for safety and security.

If they’re experiencing tech‑facilitated abuse, we recommend that they document it. Very important. You can take screenshots of harassment or other types of online abuse. And sometimes there are sites like Facebook will let you download your information so you can document it that way. If you’re experiencing problems on social media or on a website, you can contact the companies to look at their terms of service, their content guidelines to see if they can help you take down things. For example, some of the non‑consensual intimate images we talked about, one of the steps you can do is see if the company can help you get those images down. And there’s also‑‑there are also companies’ reputation management services that can help as well if images are up. However, we realize that this is sometimes cost prohibitive for people.

So, again, you can check out our free legal services for looking at things like eligibility for restraining orders and more, and we also have two partners that I recommend, the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and StopNCII.org. Those are two places that you can go for help as well as TechSafety.org, which is our website, of the website of our safety net team at NNEDV.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Deborah, winding up, I wanted to squeeze in one last question before I let you go. We’ve heard from Rosie about some of the policy changes. Looking ahead‑‑and I’m afraid it has to be quick, but what key policy change would you like to see that you think could make a difference, particularly in the tech abuse area?

MS. VAGINS: Well, I think that we need more investment in prevention, and so right now Congress is‑‑the FVPSA, you heard that, the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, which invests in prevention, is currently awaiting reauthorization. That’s something that’s incredibly important, not just for looking at issues of technology but all of the needs of survivors and funding their‑‑funding the work of local programs and more. So we really hope that Congress reauthorizes that legislation soon, and there are lots of economic justice pieces of legislation that survivors need so that they can rebuild their lives, from pay equity to living wages, paid sick and safe days, very important stuff out there so that survivors can reach safety and stay safe.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Deborah, thank you so much for those important messages about reaching safety and staying safe.

MS. VAGINS: Thank you very much.

MS. STEAD SELLERS: Thank you to both our guests today for joining us for a very important conversation about domestic violence and the impact of the pandemic.

I’m Frances Stead Sellers. You can find other programming at WashingtonPostLive.com, WashingtonPostLive.com. Thank you for joining us.



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