By Fiona Ma, Chairwoman Emeritus of the California State Board of Equalization. This post was first published in the Huffington Post.
“He was my knight in shining armor…He was the most excitement I ever had in my life…And it all started with a slap and being thrown across the room like I was nobody…All I wanted to do was to protect myself and it cost me life in prison.” I heard the screams, pictured the horror, and felt the terror these women experienced as I watched their stories unfold in the Sin by Silence documentary by Olivia Klaus; a passionate movie describing the plight of incarcerated battered women throughout California.
Brenda Clubine, who starred in the movie and was the survivor that created the support group for the women in jail, and producer Olivia Klaus approached me about her plight and of the others still in jail. They introduced the documentary that started me down the road towards justice for these women.
This was not an episode of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” or “Big Little Lies,” these stories are horrifyingly true and these women survived being battered and abused, only to be put into prison for defending themselves.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 32.9% of women and 27.3% of men in California experience intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence and/or intimate partner stalking in their lifetimes. The emotional journey I experienced while watching the “Sin by Silence” documentary inspired me to help other survivors by introducing AB 593 and AB 1593, my “Sin by Silence” bills.
At the time, I was the Chair of the Select Committee to End Domestic Violence and the first Asian-American woman Assembly Speaker pro Tempore in California history, so I was in a position where I could be a voice through legislation to try to help these domestic violence survivors. AB 593 allows victims of domestic violence, whose expert testimony was limited at their trial court proceedings, to re-file for a writ of habeas corpus to allow this expert testimony to weigh in on their defense. It also gave survivors more time to receive legal representation. AB 1593 allows survivors who have suffered Intimate Partner Battering (IPB) a chance to present their evidence in an effective way during the parole process by giving great weight to any information or evidence that proves the prisoner experienced IPB and its effects at the time the crime was committed, and that the information that is submitted to the Legislature is specific and detailed.
Ultimately, I spent most of 2011 and 2012 fighting for the rights of these survivors. I attended emotional, heart-wrenching parole hearings; I hosted informational hearings to understand the issues and challenges faced by domestic violence survivors, and I spoke to the women and heard their stories first-hand. On this five year anniversary of the bills’ passage into law, I’m proud to say two other states, Oregon and New York, are focusing on similar legislation.
I remember Glenda Virgil who, in 2013, was the first woman from the film to be released as a result of my bills. I was able to give a voice to the voiceless and give these women a fighting chance for justice. It was the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, not everyone is a survivor. Each year, my office hosts a Silent Witness display as part of the Silent Witness National Initiative, to remember the victims that lost their lives at the hands of domestic violence. These displays remind us of the sobering statistics that, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), nearly one-third of all women murdered in the United States in recent years were murdered by a current or former intimate partner.
In 2010, 1,017 women – more than three a day – were killed by their intimate partners. Every year when I see these displays, I am reminded of Claire Tempongko who was brutally murdered in front of her two young children by an ex-boyfriend who had been arrested on five prior felony counts, but was nonetheless released. I remember when I was on theand I vigorously led the effort to finish the Justice Information Tracking System (JUSTIS) to connect the different San Francisco law enforcement agencies so information could be shared to document the pattern of abuses.
A survivor’s safety and well-being is most at risk during episodes of violence, and when attempting to leave an abuser. Domestic violence shelters are a key part of safety planning to prepare ahead of time and to be as protected as possible once that decision is made to escape an abusive relationship. During my six year tenure in the Legislature, I heard several stories about how California domestic violence shelters were forced to turn away women and children due to a lack of funding.
In 2013, NNEDV conducted a 24-hour survey of domestic violence programs across the nation and reported that 66,581 adults and children had found refuge and assistance; however an additional 9,641 requests for services were unanswered because of a lack of resources. Each one of those unmet requests is another lost opportunity to break the cycle of violence. Last year, Governor Brown signed AB 1399 (Baker), which created a checkoff box on California personal income tax return forms to allow Californians to donate to the newly created Domestic Violence Victims Fund. Domestic violence shelters will be able to apply for a grant from the new fund, administered by the California Office of Emergency Services, to help provide critical assistance to victims. From January to August of 2017, the fund had more than $130,000 in contributions.
We have to continue to speak out. Raise awareness. Break the cycle of silence. On October 4th, I’m hosting an event in San Francisco to help Willpowered Woman, a nonprofit that assists women affected by intimate partner abuse, and also educates students about prevention. Speaking with me is Crystal Wheeler, Executive Director of Every 9 Seconds, a nonprofit organization for abused women, founded by her former cellmate and fellow survivor, Brenda Clubine. Crystal was choked, beaten, tormented, and isolated by a violent husband who forced her to quit her job as a training law enforcement officer. One night she fatally fought back, which lead to her serving 22 years in prison, simply for defending herself. After spending time in prison, Crystal was aided by my “Sin by Silence” bills, allowing her to finally get the justice she deserved.
Every voice matters. Shout out into the silence and make your voice heard. Shows like “Big Little Lies” and “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” help bring awareness into the public eye, but you can help too. October is “Domestic Violence Awareness Month” and you can make a difference. Donate to, or volunteer at a domestic violence shelter. Help a survivor. Wear purple to raise awareness for domestic violence prevention. Help turn California purple and break the cycle of silence. The chance you offer a survivor might be their last.
A vital resource for someone experiencing domestic violence is the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Highly trained advocates are available 24/7 to talk confidentially at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
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