Jennifer McClellan: Virginia takes steps to ease domestic violence epidemic

Jennifer L. McClellan

Tyrese Minor. Velda Garner. Latrice Walden. Cory Holmes. Marquetta Harris. Nathaniel Bullock. These individuals died as a result of a domestic violence-related homicide, which represent half of the deaths classified as homicides so far in 2016. The youngest victim was 3 years old.

Last week in Prince William County, Crystal Hamilton called 911 after getting into an argument with her husband when she wanted to go out with her friends. Her son, who had just celebrated his 11th birthday, returned home from a sleepover to find his parents arguing. When the situation escalated, Crystal told him to run. As he ran down the stairs, he heard gunshots. Her husband then allegedly shot all three responding officers as they approached the house, killing Officer Ashley Guindon.

These are just the latest victims of a pervasive public health issue just as deadly as cancer or heart disease, but much harder to detect and prevent: domestic violence.

Since 1999, Virginia has collected information on domestic violence-related homicide in the commonwealth. Here’s what we have learned:

  • Over one-third of homicides occurring in Virginia are related to domestic violence.
  • Both men and women are victims of domestic violence. Women are likely to be killed at the hands of an intimate partner, while men are more likely to be killed as a bystander or in an altercation over an intimate partner.
  • Over half of all domestic violence homicides involve a firearm (55.5 percent), and just over 80 percent of homicides occurr within a residence.
  • Approximately 40 percent of all intimate partner homicides occur while or after a relationship is ending.
  • Of all intimate partner related homicide events, over one-fifth are homicide-suicide events.

In 2014 alone, 31 percent of all homicides in Virginia were attributed to family and intimate-partner violence. While the overall number of homicides has generally decreased over the past decade, 2014 was the first year since 2007 that the proportion of deaths attributed to family and intimate partner violence has fallen below one in three.

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The House of Delegates has passed a number of bills this session to combat these trends.

HB 1391/SB 49, signed by the governor last week as part of the historic bipartisan gun deal, requires any person who is subject to a permanent protective order for family abuse to relinquish his or her guns within 24 hours or face a Class 6 felony. The bill, which had been defeated year after year in the House, is now one of the strongest laws in the nation regarding taking guns away from domestic abusers.

Building on legislation I successfully sponsored after the deaths of De’Nora Hill and Tiffany Green, HB 886 strengthens the penalties for stalking by making a second offense committed within five years of any prior stalking conviction a Class 6 felony. Under current law, a second offense of stalking only becomes a Class 6 felony if the person convicted had also been convicted of certain offenses involving assaults or bodily wounding or of violating a protective order.

HB 752 provides that following, contacting, or attempting to do so, after being given notice that the person does not want to be contacted or followed, is prima facie evidence that the suspect intended to place the victim in fear of death, criminal sexual assault, or bodily injury to himself or a family or household member. This bill is a recommendation of the Virginia State Crime Commission as a result of its study of stalking last year.

HB 1160/SB 291 establishes a comprehensive procedure for the collection and analysis of physical evidence recovery kits for victims of sexual assault, including those who elect at the time of the exam not to report a sexual assault to a law enforcement agency.

HB 659 requires any high school family life education curriculum offered by a local school division to incorporate age-appropriate elements of effective and evidence-based programs on the prevention of dating violence, domestic abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual violence.

In addition, the House budget includes additional funding for local domestic violence grants and to the Department of Housing and Community Development to provide safe, permanent, housing solutions.

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These measures should make Virginians safer from intimate- and family-partner violence. However, more can and should be done. I applaud the Richmond Police Department, the city Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, and the YWCA for partnering to implement the Lethality Assessment Program, which will train officers to identify high-risk domestic violence victims and offenders for more intense follow-up. This program has proven to reduce the number of domestic-related homicides, and may prove a model for localities across the commonwealth.

If you or someone you love is suffering from an abusive relationship, don’t suffer in silence. Help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Contact the Family Violence and Sexual Assault Virginia Hotline at 1-800-838-8238 or the Greater Richmond Regional Hotline at 804-612-6126. 

Jennifer L. McClellan, a Richmond Democrat, represents the 71st District in the Virginia House of Delegates. Contact her at DelJMcClellan@house.virginia.gov.