"Crime Free" But At What Cost?

A New York Times article published over the weekend tells the upsetting story of domestic violence survivor Lakisha Briggs.  Ms. Briggs was forced to sue Norristown, Pennsylvania after the city tried to push her out of her home based on calls made to the police as a result of her abuser’s violence against her.  In doing so, Norristown was actually enforcing a local ordinance that authorized this very outcome.  Because of the municipality’s threats to her housing, Ms. Briggs was too scared call the police when she most needed help and her abuser ended up putting her in the hospital.

The stories of Lakisha Briggs and William Zarnoth that were relayed in the recent Times article are just two examples of how tenant families, landlords, and ultimately the whole community can be harmed by crime free rental housing and nuisance property ordinances that are proliferating among municipalities in Illinois and across the nation.  In a new report titled The Cost of Being “Crime Free”: Legal and Practical Consequences of Crime Free Rental Housing and Nuisance Property Ordinances, the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law describes these various harms, and also the legal liability that can follow for municipalities when they pursue these problematic local laws.

Crime free rental housing ordinances and nuisance property ordinances are laws that seek to penalize tenants and landlords for police activity associated with rental properties.  Common elements of these ordinances include mandating that landlords perform criminal background screening of all prospective tenants, requiring landlords to use a “crime free lease” that makes criminal activity by any person connected to a tenant household a basis for eviction (even if the tenants themselves were not involved in or were victims of the crime), and forcing landlords to evict households that generate calls for police service.

These ordinances can actually end up undermining the public safety goal that they are ostensibly meant to serve.  The serious problems that can result from these ordinances include:

  • Causing the eviction of crime victims – especially victims of domestic or sexual violence – because of the crimes committed against them or their efforts to obtain police help;
  • Causing the eviction of persons with disabilities because of behaviors related to their disability;
  • Deterring tenants and landlords from reporting crimes or otherwise reaching out to the police when they need assistance;
  • Increasing homelessness and educational disruption for children;
  • Increasing the number of vacant properties in the community; an
  • Reducing the supply of affordable rental housing.

Municipalities that adopt and enforce these ordinances can end up being liable for housing discrimination, for interfering with efforts to get police help, and for denying due process, among other things.  In addition, municipalities can potentially lose access to certain federal funds that are conditioned on the municipality taking action to “affirmatively further fair housing” by avoiding practices that lead to housing discrimination.

While there are steps that municipalities can take to mitigate the most common problems created by these ordinances, these steps will not be able to completely avoid the harms that can result.  For example, domestic abuse often plays out in complex ways, and so even if an ordinance incorporates some protective language many cases involving victims are likely to fall through the cracks.  The only surefire way for a municipality to eliminate harmful consequences – and the risk of liability that can follow – is to not have such an ordinance in the first place, and to instead focus on utilizing other available tools to improve public safety and the quality of rental housing.


Sexual Violence and Title IX: Ensuring Success in School

Sexual violence is occurring in our nation’s high schools in staggeringly high numbers. Even though it remains an extremely underreported crime, the available data points to its prevalence in secondary schools. Almost 4,000 incidents of sexual battery and over 800 rapes and attempted rapes were reported in public high schools in the 2007-2008 school year. And by the time they graduate from high school over one in ten young women will be forced to have sexual intercourse. Schools are not only in a good position to prevent and respond to sexual violence, but they are also required to by law. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”) is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities. All public and private elementary and secondary schools, school districts, colleges, and universities receiving any federal funds must comply with Title IX. On Monday, April 4, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a Dear Colleague letter to explain that the requirements of Title IX cover sexual violence and to remind schools of their responsibilities to take immediate and effective steps to respond to sexual violence.

Students who are victims of sexual violence must overcome major challenges as they try to meet school obligations while coping with the emotional and physical effects of the violence they have endured. In order for students to succeed in school, they must feel safe and attend to their mental and physical well-being. The new guidance reinforces schools’ Title IX obligations to create safer schools for both individual students who are survivors of sexual violence and the entire student population, and suggests steps to make that happen.

School’s Responsibilities under Title IX
The letter provides clear explanations of each school’s responsibilities to respond to sexual violence and examples of how a school might fulfill these requirements. The next few paragraphs highlight some of the most important pieces of the guidance. Schools have always been required under Title IX to allow students to file complaints regarding sex-based discrimination. The new guidance clarifies that sexual harassment and sexual violence are included in the umbrella term “sex-based discrimination.” In addition, the guidance clarifies that students can file complaints of sexual violence regardless of where the incident took place. This acknowledges that students may feel uncomfortable in school as a result of an incident that happened off school grounds, especially if the perpetrator attends the same school or other students find out about the incident.

The letter emphasizes that schools must have clear steps for students to file complaints under Title IX and make this widely known throughout the school community. This is especially important in regards to sexual violence—students are already hesitant to report it and are unlikely to look for ways to get help from their schools. Schools have to investigate all claims of sexual harassment and sexual violence, and they have to do this separately from any simultaneous law enforcement investigations, as long as it does not compromise a criminal investigation. In other words, schools have to conduct their own investigations whether or not a student chooses to report the violence to law enforcement or pursue court proceedings, or if a court finds the alleged perpetrator not guilty. The legal standard for a Title IX violation is the preponderance of the evidence standard (i.e., it is more likely than not that sexual harassment or violence occurred), a lower standard than needed to convict someone of a crime.

One of the most important pieces of the new guidance is its requirement that schools are responsible both for ending any ongoing violence and for preventing further harassment or violence from occurring. This shifts the emphasis from punishing the perpetrator to ensuring the victim’s safety. A survivor may need special accommodations to feel safe in school. This means providing a survivor with the option of receiving special accommodations whether or not the perpetrator is punished. The letter gives examples of actions schools can take to prevent further incidents, which range from changing class schedules to providing counseling services. The new guidance stresses that the burden of change should fall on the perpetrator rather than the survivor when possible to prevent re-victimization. 

Ensuring Success in School Initiative
The new guidance offers greater clarification of Title IX as it relates to the challenges students who are victims of sexual violence face in school and prioritizes the safety of students over all other considerations. The Shriver Center applauds the Office for Civil Rights on their renewed commitment to creating safe schools that allow all students to achieve success.

The Women’s Law and Policy Project at the Shriver Center created the Ensuring Success in School Initiative in 2003 to promote the safe and successful completion of school among elementary and high school students who are parents, expectant parents, or victims of domestic or sexual violence. As part of this effort, the Ensuring Success in School Task Force was statutorily created, and in June 2010 the Task Force submitted its final findings and recommendations to the Illinois General Assembly. These recommendations are well complimented by the new guidance from the Office of Civil Rights, highlighting both the national nature of this problem and the responsibility of schools to respond promptly and effectively. Indeed many of the Task Force’s recommendations are included in the clarification of Title IX, making the adoption of the Ensuring Success in School Task Force recommendations even more salient.

For more information contact Wendy Pollack, director of the Women’s Law and Policy Project at the Shriver Center.

Hannah Green, domestic and sexual violence education and economic opportunity specialist at the Shriver Center, contributed to this article.


Ensuring Success in School Task Force Releases Final Report to the Illinois General Assembly

SchoolgirlsStudents who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence face unique challenges as they try to stay in school, stay safe while in school, and successfully complete their education. Failing to complete school can have life-long consequences, with high school dropouts reporting lower employment levels, lower lifetime earnings, and overall poorer health. Teen pregnancy and parenting and domestic and sexual violence are factors that contribute to the dropout and push-out crisis, but have thus far received insufficient attention from policymakers in Illinois.

Because of this, the Women’s Law and Policy Project at the Shriver Center got together a coalition of education, youth, and violence prevention advocates and students and their parents from across Illinois in 2003 to address these issues. The coalition drafted a bill to support elementary and secondary students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence, which was introduced by Rep. Karen Yarbrough in 2005 and again in 2007. In 2007, the legislation was enacted into law as Public Act 95-0558. The law created the Ensuring Success in School Task Force, charged with examining and making recommendations regarding barriers to school attendance, successful school performance and graduation faced by students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence.

This summer, the Ensuring Success in School Task Force released its Final Report to the Illinois General Assembly. The report is the product of extensive research, consultation with experts, and public hearings held across the state, and it encompasses all of the task force’s findings and recommendations for how to support elementary and secondary students who are parents, expectant parents, or survivors of domestic or sexual violence.

Moving forward, the Shriver Center is convening a meeting of stakeholders to develop a strategic action plan based on the findings and recommendations of the report. If you are interested in participating in the first meeting, which has been set for Tuesday, September 7, from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., or in future meetings, please contact Wendy Pollack at 312-368-3303. For those outside of Illinois who are interested in pursuing these issues in your area, also please contact Wendy.

For more background information on the Ensuring Success in School Initiative, contact Wendy, or see The Ensuring Success in School Act: Promoting School Success and Safety for Young People Who Are Parents, Expectant Parents, or Victims of Domestic or Sexual Violence. The full text of the legislation as originally introduced in 2005 is available at ilga.gov.

Shana Heller-Ogden coauthored this article.


Adding Eviction to Injury: When Did It Become OK to Blame Crime Victims?

Congress and several states take actions to stop evictions of victims of violence

For women and children in this country, domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness. Survivors of domestic violence (of which 90 to 95% are women), dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking living in rental housing are particularly vulnerable to homelessness because they are often threatened with eviction after an incident of violence. These evictions are frequently born out of property owners’ stereotypes about survivors of violence as individuals accountable for the acts of their abusers. Indeed, up until a few years ago, when victims of violence who lived in federally assisted low-income housing called the police to report intruders, being shot, or otherwise terrorized by their abusers, they would immediately receive an eviction notice.

In 2005, Congress adopted federal protections against evictions and denial of housing for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking. The 2005 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act prohibits evictions and admission denials of victims of violence who live certain types of federally supported low-income housing. The 2011 VAWA reauthorization should improve upon VAWA 2005 and expand it to cover other types of federal supported low-income housing. Any reauthorization must also extend those protections to survivors of sexual assault. 

On April 27, the Illinois Legislature passed H.B. 5523 and joined several other states, including Indiana, Colorado, Arkansas, Delaware, Texas and Virginia in protecting victims of violence from evictions based upon incidents of violence and/or their status as a victim of violence. Maryland has recently passed a similar bill. The governors of those states should sign the bills immediately.

However, property owners are not the only ones threatening survivors’ housing. A growing number of municipalities have adopted aggressive property nuisance codes or “crime-free” rental housing ordinances that obligate owners, under threat of losing their license to operate rental property, to evict all tenants when there is a crime or multiple police calls for assistance. To limit a survivor’s access to police assistance under threat of homelessness or to blame them for the crime committed against them likely violates their rights under the U.S. Constitution and Federal Fair Housing Act. While we support the idea of improving the quality and safety of rental housing, municipal actions cannot interfere with a survivor’s safety or hold them accountable for a perpetrator’s actions. Municipalities should amend these ordinances to eliminate these harmful and likely illegal provisions.   

Sex Education: The Debate Continues

New research and new legislation on abstinence-only sex education has brought the ongoing debate between abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education to a new pitch.

A little context: abstinence-only sex education received small amounts of funding in the 1980s, but got its real start during the Clinton administration with the 1996 welfare reform law. As part of that law, Title V of the Social Security Act was amended. This amendment established funding for abstinence-only programs and outlined the eight requirements for a program to receive funding, including the promotion of abstinence until marriage, and teaching that abstinence is the only way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and that sex before marriage would likely be psychologically and physically harmful (the law is codified at 42 U.S.C. § 710). Every state, with the exception of California, applied for funds, and loosely interpreted the eight requirements, which largely went unenforced.

Under President George W. Bush there was a significant increase in federal funding for abstinence-only programs, including Title V and the Community-Based Abstinence Education program. The federal funding combined with state matching funds catapulted spending on abstinence-only programs to over $200 million per year by 2005 (up from $9 million in 1997). The Bush administration also began more stringently enforcing the requirements for funding, and states, wary of the restrictions on teaching about birth control and safe sex, slowly began to drop their federal funding requests.

Meanwhile, study after study showed abstinence-only sex education to be not only ineffective, but sometimes even harmful to adolescents. In 1997, teen pregnancy rates in the US went up for the first time in 15 years, along with teen STD rates. The Obama administration finally ended funding for abstinence-only sex education, allowing Title V to expire, and instead redirected funds toward comprehensive, evidence-based programs.

Now, in 2010, the Journal of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine has released a study claiming to have at last found an abstinence-only program that works. The study, “Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention Over 24 Months,” raised new hopes for proponents of abstinence-only education, but the kind of abstinence-only program used in this study is vastly different from the Bush-era programs – so much that it would not have qualified for federal funding. The program in this study was neither moralistic nor disparaging toward sex or contraception, and only advocated abstinence until “a time later in life,” not until marriage. 

These changes are certainly steps in the right direction, but withholding critical information from teens on safe sex still raises serious questions, especially given the fact that 25 percent of the 12 year-olds who participated in this study were self-reportedly already having sex. For more information about this study and its findings, see our latest WomanView

Much to the dismay of teen pregnancy prevention advocates, Bush-era abstinence-only programs have not gone away – far from it, actually. Renewed funding for Title V, to the tune of $50 million a year over the next five years (plus state matching funds, up to an additional $38 million per year), was part of the health care reform bill, signed into law last week. 

Preventing teen pregnancy is, of course, important. The Shriver Center supports medically accurate, comprehensive sex education that is appropriate to students’ age, developmental level, and cultural background, not more failed abstinence-only programs. Through our Ensuring Success in School Initiative, we also support teens who are already parents or expectant parents so that they can stay in school, graduate, get good jobs, and raise healthy families.

For more information on sex education policy or on our efforts to support teens who are parents or expectant parents, please contact the Women’s Law and Policy Project.

WomanView is a publication of the Women’s Law and Policy Project at the Shriver Center, focusing on legal and policy issues affecting low-income women and girls. You can subscribe to WomanView here

Shana Heller-Ogden coauthored this blog post.

A Victory in Illinois: Making the Case for Inclusion of Workplace Protections in the Federal Violence Against Women Act

The effects of domestic and sexual violence are not checked at the door when a survivor of violence enters her place of employment. Oftentimes individuals who experience domestic or sexual violence report missing work due to the violence in their lives, enduring harassment by the abuser at work, suffering health problems that affect job performance, or losing employment due to the violence. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that, during a 12-month period, more than half of stalking victims lost five or more days of work, and about 130,000 stalking victims reported that they were fired or asked to leave their jobs because of the stalking. Yet, according to a survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 70 percent of U.S. workplaces have no formal program or policy that tackles workplace violence.

It’s time for the federal government to act, following Illinois’ example, where late last month the Illinois General Assembly passed an important piece of legislation that is a notable victory for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, their families, and advocates. The Illinois Senate voted unanimously to concur with House Amendments No. 1 and No. 2 on Senate Bill 1770, an amendment to the Victims’ Economic Security and Safety Act (VESSA). Originally enacted in 2003 with then–State Senator Barack Obama as principal sponsor, VESSA provides unpaid, job-guaranteed leave and nondiscrimination protections for eligible employees who are survivors of domestic or sexual violence or who have a family or household member who is a survivor of domestic or sexual violence.

Since its enactment in 2003, VESSA has provided significant benefits and workplace protections for Illinois employees. VESSA allows a covered employee to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off from work to deal with the violence in her lives without losing her job during a 12-month period. VESSA also prohibits an employer from discriminating, harassing, or retaliating against an employee who is exercising her rights under this law.

Once signed into law, the amendment will expand VESSA to cover more employees in the private sector by decreasing the private employer threshold number of employees from 50 or more to 15 or more. The amendment adds language providing that an employee who works for an employer with at least 15 but not more than 49 employees may take up to 8 work weeks (rather than 12) of unpaid, job-guaranteed leave to deal with domestic or sexual violence during a 12-month period.

VESSA has proven to be a lifeline for employees coping with domestic or sexual violence. While VESSA allows for several weeks of leave, most employees who take leave take significantly less. And, of the 107 complaints that have been filed since enactment, most VESSA claims notably allege discrimination by the employer.

With the recession being a perpetual reminder of the crucial nature of job preservation and economic stability, the passage of S.B. 1770 is a surefire victory that will help more survivors of domestic and sexual violence maintain their employment and economic stability as they strive to remain safe and ultimately escape a violent situation. Action on the federal level is more pressing than ever.