Friday, March 15, 2013

How Pennsylvania municipalities hurt domestic violence victims

by Alexandra Morgan-Kurtz, ACLU-PA legal fellow

How does a Texan Southern Baptist, who wore ankle length skirts to church three times a week, didn't speak unless spoken to, and who can chalk her first protest to standing on Main Street with a venomous pro-life sign, grow up to be an attorney at the ACLU?  As that woman, the answer is simple. Annoyed by constant judgments based on my gender, I decided that everyone deserves a voice.

One in four women will be the victim of domestic violence in their lifetime. Twenty years ago no one talked about domestic violence.  School teachers looked the other way when a klutzy girl had another broken wrist.  Church elders reminded a nine-year-old that "your father, as the man of the household, is responsible for the uprightness of his family and should not be questioned.  You and your mother can be difficult."

A few concussions, several broken bones, and countless bruises later, I admitted that the problem wasn't mine, it was society's.  Society wanted to believe his version of the truth.  When I encouraged my mom to leave, people (men) accused me of trying to rip my family apart.  My father was a good man after all.   And I was a stubborn teenage girl who didn't know my place.

But that was years ago, surely in this modern and enlightened age, society has a better appreciation for the prevalence of domestic violence.  We recognize that victims and survivors of domestic violence are all around us, from the partners of professional athletes to the woman standing next to you at the bus stop.  We understand that it's not just about the punches thrown, but includes a psychological component that is often far more overwhelming and debilitating.  We can at least agree that once a woman has taken that terrifying step of calling for help, we should support her instead of persecute her for poor choices…can't we?

Municipalities across the commonwealth, including Pitcairn, Norristown, Pittsburgh, and Forest City, haven't gotten that message.  Dozens of municipalities have enacted "disruptive property ordinances," which punish renters for calling police in a three-strikes-you’re-out fashion.  Some of the ordinances allow the municipality to evict tenants for having the police called to their home too often (even when the tenant is the victim) while others fine landlords who refuse to evict.  The effect is the same—call the police to protect you and find yourself—and your young children—threatened with homelessness. 

Proponents argue that these ordinances are directed at cleaning up our neighborhoods by chasing away those noisy problem neighbors.  But the effect on domestic violence victims is very real.  These ordinances not only infringe on constitutional rights and violate the Fair Housing Act and the Violence Against Women Act, they endanger women's lives.  Domestic violence is already one of the leading causes of homelessness in women and finding affordable housing is one of the main reasons women wait to leave violent partners.  These ordinances only give women one more reason to be silent.

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