For much of our country’s history, domestic violence was an often hidden crime, with victims hesitant to report abuse and government ill-equipped to provide the services and protection they deserved.
Things thankfully began to change for the better in the late 1960s, and here in Kentucky, we took a major step forward in 1971, when our first rape-crisis center opened. Five years later, the General Assembly passed a law calling on the public to report any cases of adult abuse, neglect or exploitation, and a year or so after that, Louisville’s YWCA opened the first of what are now 15 shelters for victims of domestic violence.
In the mid-1980s, the nation began setting aside October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which for more than 30 years now has given us an opportunity to commemorate the lives we’ve lost and to chart both our progress and the challenges that remain.
Those challenges are still considerable, considering that one-third of women – and one-fourth of men – will be a victim of domestic violence at some point in their lives. To get a better understanding of just how many are affected at any given time, we only have to look at the one-day census hundreds of shelters and related programs undertake each September.
According to the latest totals – which focus on Sept. 13, 2017, a Wednesday – more than 72,000 adults and children received help from domestic-violence programs that day. Two-thirds of those spent time in an emergency shelter or transitional housing.
For Kentucky, nearly 600 adults and children were sheltered, and nearly 400 others received non-residential help that included counseling and legal advocacy. There were also 142 calls answered by regional crisis hotlines, or about six every hour.
Not everyone could be helped during that 24-hour period because of space, staffing or financial limitations. The number nationally was more than 11,000, while here in Kentucky, there were nearly 60 unmet requests.
In recent years, the state has worked to increase assistance to victims and to crack down on abusers. That includes mandating training for officials who handle these types of cases; stopping insurance companies from discriminating against battered victims; making sure repeat domestic-violence offenders face tougher penalties; allowing stalkers to be sued in civil court; and establishing the nation’s first automated victim notification system, which lets victims know when their offender’s status in the criminal justice system changes.
Several years ago, the legislature broadened the state’s protective-order system by including victims of dating violence, stalking and sexual assault, and legislators also approved a law that has since addressed a backlog of nearly 4,600 untested or undertested rape kits. That work has already led to indictments in previously unsolved cases.
This year, the General Assembly passed a proposed constitutional amendment called “Marsy’s Law.” If voters approve on Nov. 6, victims of all crimes will have a greater voice in the judicial system and will stay better informed about the progress of their cases.
Beyond the legal world, the University of Kentucky’s Center for Research on Violence Against Women has been a much-needed resource here and across the country, and last week, it hosted its second-annual national conference. This year’s focused on campus responses to sexual misconduct.
All of this work is helping Kentucky make significant inroads when it comes to reducing domestic violence and increasing public awareness. The more deterrence and education we have, and the more secure victims feel, the more we all benefit.
If you are being abused or know someone who is, do not hesitate to act. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is (800) 799-SAFE (7233), and our 15 shelters have toll-free lines as well. The Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence (kcadv.org) also has a lot of helpful information.