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Legislators meet with members of the Shoreline Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Task Force for a roundtable discussion at the Women & Family Life Center in Guilford on Dec. 13. Photo by Zoe Roos/The Courier

Legislators meet with members of the Shoreline Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Task Force for a roundtable discussion at the Women & Family Life Center in Guilford on Dec. 13. (Photo by Zoe Roos/The Courier | Buy This Photo)

Shoreline Legislators Meet for Women & Family Life Roundtable

Published Dec. 19, 2018

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With the new legislative session set to begin just after the New Year, local legislators recently came together for a roundtable at the Women & Family Life Center (WFLC) to discuss domestic violence and sexual abuse and what legislators can do to support those who are trying to tackle these issues on the shoreline.

Legislators attending the Dec. 13 roundtable included State Representative Sean Scanlon (D-98), State Representative Vincent Candelora (R-86), State Representative Noreen Kokoruda (R-101), state representatives-elect Robin Comey (D-102) and Christine Palm, and state senators-elect Christine Cohen (D-12) and Norm Needleman (D-33).

“In an effort to deepen the public conversation about what we do and what we see as needs, the Center suggested that we start an annual get together with our elected officials to explain what we see on the ground to help inform the work that you all do that can help us better serve our clients,” said WFLC Program Director Wendy DeLucca.

WFLC is a nonprofit organization that helps women and families from New Haven to Madison through challenges and transitions in their lives. In 2010, WFLC led in the founding of a Shoreline Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Task Force (SDVSATF), a group of nonprofit agencies, municipalities, and health professionals who try to coordinate resources for the prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault along the shoreline.

Erin’s Law

One of the bigger issues discussed at the roundtable was Erin’s Law, which was passed in 2014 but only started to take affect in public schools last fall. The law requires that all public school students receive some kind of sexual assault education each year in grades K to 12. Taskforce member Jennifer Wenderoth-Holster said education is tailored to be appropriate for different age levels, but since the law was put in place, members of the task force have noticed some districts have done a better job than others in terms of compliance.

“Some towns are doing the K-12 education and some towns are only doing middle school and high school education,” she said. “The problem we had spoken about is there is no repercussion for towns that are not following along with this education. This is vital education because children at a very young age don’t really understand what is going on.”

Additionally, some schools are struggling with how to teach this information because a school might not have the resources to hire a professional to teach this issue and some teachers might not be comfortable doing the lessons themselves. Wenderoth-Holster said the law also requires that the school have a reporting policy and procedure in place, another element that can make schools reluctant.

“Some towns that are doing it aren’t doing the policy and procedure that is put in place, so if a student does disclose, there is the question of what do we do?” she said. “Do we report it to the principal, do we call mom and dad, do we call the police, are we mandated reporters? And some towns aren’t really figuring this out until they are in the weeds because something has happened.”

Candelora asked if the reporting policy is what is causing the biggest issue. He said its important to have a reporting procedure, but said that schools can often be reluctant to call DCF because of the belief that it could sometimes do more harm than good.

“If you read the statutes, towns technically don’t have the ability to create a different policy—they are forced to report,” he said. “I know in our community there have been some calls to DCF that were absurd, frankly, but the administration felt they had to do it based on the way the statutes are written. One thing maybe we could look at is just to see the interplay of this program and mandatory reporting, because I think statutorily we should make them both work.”

Kokoruda said another way to encourage more towns to follow the law is to change the atmosphere and perception of DCF. She said if DCF was seen more as a partner when issues arise and not, as she put it, “the kiss of death for some families,” then towns might be more willing to follow the law, both for the educational programming and the reporting policy.

“I think families have been really terrorized by that department, and I think as legislators I am really hoping that is something we can change going forward because where DCF should be the partner to help these families get back. Unfortunately in too many cases that doesn’t happen,” she said. “I know in some cases it has just been horrific and getting in that pipeline is the worst thing that has happened to a family, and it should be just the opposite. I think as legislators we have to affect that change.”

Task force members pointed to the inconsistencies between towns in terms of who follows the law. Scanlon said unfortunately when legislation like this comes down, towns tend to rebel because towns don’t like to be collectively told what to do. He acknowledged that an incentive would be better than a penalty to get towns to comply and that more data might put that option on the table.

“One suggestion I would have for all of you—and I know that resources are very tight—is that the best way to demonstrate for us that something needs to change is to show us a problem,” he said. “That is the best way to motivate the legislature to take action—show us there is a problem with data.”

Discussions also focused on some of the concerns surrounding the age of students when they learn this information. However, task force member Tracy Parks said students need this education at a young age.

“I do a lot of work in colleges and high schools around the issue of education and raising awareness and prevention, and the statistic is at this point in time, the population that is experiencing the largest portion of intimate partner violence are teenagers of young adults between the ages of 16 and 24,” she said. “You get into high school and these kids are in relationships and they should have had the education about this stuff in 5th and 6th grade.”

Dual Arrest Laws

Other topics at the roundtable included concerns over the inconsistency of services across the state, budget cuts, and potential changes to Tittle IX that could be coming. In addition, the task force also discussed changes to Connecticut’s dual arrest laws that are set to take affect on Jan. 1, 2019—changes all task force members agreed are a step in the right direction.

Connecticut has what’s known as a dual arrest law, which means both parties have to be arrested if police are called for a domestic violence report. Now, the state is set to implement what is known as a dominant aggressor law to try to curb that problem.

“A lot of the things police are now going to look at to determine who is the dominate aggressor and that is the person who posses the most significant, ongoing threat, so [police will consider] a history of domestic violence, severity of injuries, use of self defense,” said task force member Liza Andrews. “These are already things police officers are trained to look at at the scene, but now the way the statute is written it is going to give them so more leeway to use their discretion to arrest only the dominate aggressor. There are still going to be situations where duel arrests are appropriate, but it shouldn’t be the percent of the times it has been here in Connecticut.”

All legislators thanked the task force for hosting the conversation and hoped that similar conversations can happen on a more regular basis.

“The legislature’s memory span is sometimes about six months,” Candelora said. “We pass laws and then move on to the next one. The dominate aggressor law was something we worked on in the judiciary that had widespread support. There was concern about how to implement it, and we came up with a product that we think is going to work, but we are not going to know that. If we don’t have these meeting we would never find out the problems with these laws and see how to make them better.”

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