South Bay leaders are poised to boost funding for rape crisis centers to make up for a lack of state support. In his 2019-20 budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom decided not to renew $5 million in funding for such centers, leaving just $45,000 in the budget for rape crisis programs in all of California.
And so, on Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors will consider filling the financial gap for local nonprofits that offer services for victims of sexual violence.
“The governors’ decision not to fund domestic violence was surprising and disappointing,” Supervisor Susan Ellenberg says. “I am proud that our county has the opportunity right now to make it right for our residents.”
A referral from County Executive Jeff Smith’s Office going before the board this week recommends forking over $1.7 million to Community Solutions and YWCA Silicon Valley, which operate the only two rape crisis centers in the South Bay. That’s two centers for a county of more than 1.8 million people, and service providers say they can barely keep up. “Despite Santa Clara County’s extensive history of leading efforts to understand, address, and prevent intimate partner violence, tens of thousands of individuals continue to be affected,” according to the memo up for discussion Tuesday.
From 2000 to 2016, it goes on to say, the county recorded 178 domestic violence-related deaths. From the middle of 2017 to the same time last year, District Attorney Jeff Rosen’s office fielded 5,524 domestic violence case referrals and more than 20,000 calls to its 24-hour domestic violence hotline. Local shelters for victims of battering served 6,479 adults and children but turned away 2,151 because they ran out of room.
The $1.7 million pending a vote will meet the gap in state funding specifically for rape crisis centers. But it’s part of a broader initiative to bolster services for people impacted by family violence and allocate as much as $5 million for the effort through 2021.
Though they plan to request about $600,000 for the project at a future date, the DA and Sheriff’s Office will update the board on efforts to launch a pilot project to respond more effectively to victims of strangulation—a form of violence that’s a strong indicator of a perpetrator’s propensity to kill.
“[Currently], we don’t have a procedure, practice or funding for victim advocacy or medical staff to do medical examinations if you’re a victim of strangulation in Santa Clara County right now,” explains Assistant District Attorney James Gibbons-Shapiro, one of the leaders of the initiative.
According to Community Solutions, 13 percent of victims of domestic violence between August 2018 to June 2019 have reported that their intimate partner strangled them.
While victims of sexual assault undergo forensic medical examinations of their internal injuries at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, victims of domestic violence don’t undergo comparable exams to look for symptoms of strangulation.
And without forensic evidence of strangulation, Gibbons-Shapiro says the DA can only rely on expert witnesses and the victims’ testimony in court.
“We’re not able to present photographs that were taken inside the throat to show what those injuries were,” he says. “It would be much more convincing if the jury had medical evidence to corroborate what the victim was saying. We have to prove these cases beyond a reasonable doubt to a unanimous jury.”
The DA has already started treating domestic violence cases with more urgency, according to Gibbons-Shapiro. For one, the office is now more likely to file a felony assault charge instead of a misdemeanor domestic battery, he says. That explains why the county saw an uptick in felony charges from 26 percent of domestic violence cases in 2014 to 49 percent in 2017.
“Ten years ago, [the perpetrator] would most likely have been charged for a misdemeanor violation if the victim had stated to the police officer that she had been choked out by her intimate partner,” Gibbons-Shapiro says. “And yet, the police officer looking at her neck and taking photos of her neck sees no visible injuries.”
In 2017, the DA reported that five of the nine people who committed domestic violence-related murders had a prior history of strangulation.
Also on the agenda Tuesday is a presentation by the DA’s office about its effort to establish a child advocacy center for young victims of sexual abuse. Currently, a child victim is shuttled from one place to another for interviews, forensic examinations and counseling. The proposed center will instead provide those key services under one roof, which is already protocol for child victims of mass shootings and domestic violence.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors meets at 9:30am Tuesday at 70 W. Hedding St. in San Jose. Click here to read the agenda.