House panel mulls bills expanding help for domestic and sexual violence survivors
Legislation would fund tribal domestic violence and sexual assault facilities and protect victims’ privacy
Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas
Legislation to support victims of sexual and domestic violence and better include Michigan’s 12 Native American tribes in access to services was presented Tuesday to House lawmakers.
Lawmakers and advocates testified in the Michigan House Criminal Justice Committee for the need to codify best practices for victim services into law and add some protections to better allow survivors to seek justice through the court system.
The Department of Justice asserts about 84% of Native women and 81% of Native men have experienced some sort of violence in their lifetime, Executive Director of Uniting Three Fires Against Violence Rachel Carr-Shunk said. Rates of sexual assault and murder of Native women outpace national rates, according to the Department of Justice.
The bill Carr-Shunk testified on, HB 4516, would put in state law that the Michigan Domestic Violence and Sexual Violence Treatment Board can provide funding to tribal shelters and service providers for the treatment of all who seek services.
“There are unique considerations that may impact the survivor’s access to safety, justice and healing. These considerations include, but are not limited to a complex jurisdictional scheme that exists across Indian Country, historical trauma and its impact on how we access systems and services, as well as cultural abuse that is specific to Native Americans,” Carr-Shunk said. “Tribes and tribal advocates are able to provide culturally honoring services that consider these specific experiences.”
Bill sponsor Rep. Betsy Coffia (D-Traverse City) said although there are handshake agreements that have allowed tribal facilities to receive funds and collaborate on services, her bill would solidify access to dignifying health services for survivors seeking help from tribal facilities.
Some tribal facilities are the only resource for victim services in some areas, Michigan Coalition to End Domestic & Sexual Violence Public Policy Specialist Heath Lowry noted.
Rep. Julie Rogers (D-Kalamazoo) echoed sentiments to put into law something that is already being done to support victims of sexual and domestic violence in the form of her bill, HB 4420. The legislation would clarify that law enforcement and prosecutors may provide domestic or sexual violence service providers certain information to coordinate contact with victims to access support.
Rogers said there are already law enforcement agencies that do this, but the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence brought it to her attention that in some circumstances there is hesitation from law enforcement and prosecutors to provide information as the law does not specifically address whether they can or not.
“This is a practice that has been proven successful in many Michigan communities across the state,” Rogers said. “The lack of knowledge of our access to safety and support is a major barrier to escaping a violent relationship. Ensuring victims are connected to survivor-centered programs will help victims feel supported as they navigate these tough situations.”
Reps. Emily Dievendorf (D-Lansing) and Noah Arbit (D-West Bloomfield) expressed concern for survivors potentially not being asked if they want their information shared with service providers.
“I’m wondering why there isn’t consent on the front-end for that information to be shared with resource agencies and how we tell the victim survivor that those resources have been shared in a way that does not expose the victim survivor to more danger, considering so many survivors are still living in the dangerous situation,” Dievendorf said.
Another bill, HB 4423, would allow crime victims to provide victim impact statements remotely.
Victim impact statements allocate a time for individuals to tell the court the impact the crime has had in their life.
Current law allows a victim who can’t provide an impact statement due to physical or emotional difficulty to designate someone to speak on their behalf, but those wishing to speak personally must physically be in the courtroom.
It is widely known by stakeholders in sexual and domestic violence advocacy and research that having to speak in the same room as the perpetrator of violence is not only a deterrent from getting to give an impact statement, but also in seeking justice through the court system at all.
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Lowry noted that in his work as an attorney representing victims that oral victim impact statements are the most powerful practice in the court system, as survivors often feel unheard during the court process. But this is a time everyone must stop and listen to their voice.
Another bill, introduced in an effort to make courts more accommodating for survivors to seek justice, HB 4421, would create new protections as remote hearings become more of a norm in Michigan. Under the legislation crime victims’ images could be blurred during certain proceedings made available to the public online.
Due to the online nature of court proceedings, in large part due to accommodations made during the COVID-19 pandemic, there needs to be policies in place that protect victims of crimes, Lowry said.
“Unlike the judges, attorneys and the perpetrator, the survivor did not choose to be a part of this process,” Lowry said. “Any step to protect the identity of a survivor is a step towards a more justice system,”
Committee Chair Kara Hope (D-Holt) said these bills would likely receive a vote from the committee next week.
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