If there was any doubt that there’s a desire to address challenges facing Loudoun’s women and girls, it was put to rest Tuesday night.
It was a packed house at Rust Library in Leesburg for the Commission on Women and Girls’ first roundtable event, called Ending Violence Against Women in Loudoun. The event gave the mic to women and men who work behind the scenes to prevent abuse and support survivors of domestic and sexual abuse.
A panel of six included representatives from LAWS (Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter), Inova Ewing Forensic Assessment and Consultation Department, the commonwealth’s attorney’s office, Leesburg Police Department, Loudoun County Community Corrections, and the county’s Domestic Abuse Response Team, known as DART.
They described just how hard those in law enforcement, the court system, the nonprofit sector and on Inova’s medical team work to provide a safety net for victims when they are ready to come forward. Leaders from each of those sectors said they’ve come together, especially in the past two years, to tighten up protocols and improve strategies to ensure no victim falls through the cracks.
One of those is a fairly new protocol called Lethality Assessment Program, in which law enforcement officers are trained to ask potential victims to take an 11-question survey. The questions are designed to quickly identify victims who are in danger of being killed by their abusers. Victims considered high risk are immediately connected with LAWS, which provides free counseling, legal services and parenting classes for victims of any kind of abuse.
“Instead of handing out pamphlets and asking them to call in later, we’re responding to the scene and connecting them right then with an advocate,” Lt. Jamie Sanford, with Leesburg Police’s criminal investigation section, said.
A question-and-answer session at the roundtable event identified some of the biggest hurdles to preventing abuse and helping survivors of abuse.
Judy Hanley, executive director of LAWS, said that the lack of affordable housing is a major obstacle in Loudoun. Sixty percent of the people who came into LAWS’s shelter in the past year returned to their abuser when they left, she said. “That’s because they had nowhere else to go. We do not have affordable housing in our county.”
Another deterrent for victims to report their abusers is a fear of deportation.
“It’s sad but the fear of deportation is greater for them than being physically abused, which is terrible. We help all victims no matter what,” said Josephine Gonzalez, Loudoun’s D.A.R.T.’s coordinator. The county just recently funded her position as full time to help about a dozen agencies coordinate their response to domestic violence.
Each panelist stressed that a victim’s immigration status is not taken into account.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Joshua Steward said a victim of a crime who is cooperative with law enforcement may even be eligible for a U visa, a means to protect noncitizen crime victims.
Steward stressed that, “If you’re a victim of a crime, my office is not going to prosecute you for immigration. We don’t care about that. Frankly, we’ve got other fish to fry.”
One audience member asked what community members can do if they have concerns about an abusive relationship. Sanford, who was one of the first on the scene of domestic homicide cases in the past two years, said it’s frustrating to hear how many neighbors and friends suspected something was wrong but did nothing.
“They’re questioning ‘what could I have done differently’ to prevent this,’” Sanford said. “If you do not know who to call, call the police…If you see something, say something.”
Mary Hale, director for Safety Net Clinics and Inova Ewing FACT Department, took questions about the examination after a sexual assault. She assured those in the audience that victims can request an “anonymous rape kit” that is not reported to the police. That kit is kept on file for two years and can be kept up to 12 years at the victim’s request. She also stressed that it is up to the victim how much of the exam they want to undergo, and Hanley added that a representative from LAWS is available 24/7 to accompany victims to these examinations.
An exam can take up to eight hours at other facilities without staffed trained in forensics nursing, but the team at the Ewing FACT Department at Inova Loudoun’s Cornwall Campus is trained and has it down to two to three hours. “We follow the victim’s lead,” Hale said. “We work incredibly hard to reduce anything that might be re-victimizing for them.”
Last night’s roundtable discussion was the first of several events the Commission on Women and Girls will hold in the coming months. The next event will be held in October and discuss the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields.
The Commission on Women and Girls was the brainchild of county Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large), a mental health therapist who’s spent much of her time working with inmates. She formed it more than a year ago after Loudoun saw an uptick in domestic-related homicides.
“I’m not really a crier, but if I were, I would be crying in amazement seeing this crowd,” Randall said at the roundtable event. “I knew there was a need in Loudoun County when I founded this commission, but I never knew it was this big.”
The commission’s first roundtable was put on through a partnership with Inova Loudoun Hospital and LAWS, and several business sponsors. The commission is a nonprofit organization; follow its work on Facebook.com or at lcwag.org. Learn more about the services provided by LAWS at lcsj.org and by Inova Ewing FACT Department at inova.org/inova-in-the-community/fact.