Against Domestic Violence

Magazine cover with "Elections" in blue text against white background, and "grassroots strategies for change" in black text

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 1, "Elections: Grassroots Strategies for Change." Find more from that issue here.

The majority of the Virginia legislature's 140 members are white males. In the tradition of Southern Democrats, they are conservatives heavily influenced by their state's rural and religious interests. In 1980, the voters of the state overwhelmingly supported Ronald Reagan's candidacy and his philosophy of less government. And in 1982, after nine arduous years of often bitter battle, the legislators again refused to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.


Yet despite being one of the country's most conservative state legislatures, the Virginia General Assembly enacted in its 1982 session a remarkable piece of "women's " legislation. The new law calls for an increase in the fee for marriage licenses, with the extra money going for women's shelters and victims of domestic violence.



A 1979 FBI report says 40 percent of all female homicide victims are killed by family members or boyfriends. The Virginia Division of Justice and Crime Prevention's 1980 Annual Report concluded that spouse abuse is the most frequently committed crime in the state. And the Virginia Department of State Police's report on "Crime in Virginia 1982" indicates that approximately 10 percent of the 404 homicides in that year were committed by spouses and that an additional 5.7 percent of the total were committed by a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Despite such official reports and the recent media blitz regarding wife abuse, misconceptions continue to exist. "People misconstrue battered women as weak," says Patricia L. Merchant, an Episcopal priest who runs the YWCA-sponsored Richmond shelter for battered women which serves about 250 women and 350 children a year. According to Merchant, women stay in abusive relationships for reasons varying from a lack of money to pressure from relatives to keep the family together. "It is sort of like having a disease," Merchant comments. "It flares up once in a while and you cope with it. You hope that it will go away."

Merchant contends that the solution is not always for women to leave the abusive relationship. Another solution is to hold the male accountable for his actions. Arresting the abusive spouse is a key way to do this and perhaps to stop the violence. However, the rate of arrest and conviction is abysmally low. A 1979 Louis Harris Associates survey of women in Kentucky — one of the few statewide spouse-abuse studies conducted — reveals that one Kentucky woman in 10 was the object of physical violence from her husband in 1978, yet less than 10 percent of the victims called the police for help. When the police are called, few prosecutions or convictions result. "The Ohio Report on Domestic Violence," a 1979 study, points out that during a nine-month period in Cleveland, Ohio, 15,000 calls to the police involving incidents of domestic violence resulted in only 460 arrests.

The reluctance to hold the male accountable is a reflection of the perception by some policemen that domestic violence is not a crime but a private act of violence excluded from the criminal justice system's process of arrest and conviction. It is also a reflection of the belief of policemen, based on experience, that the abused spouse will drop the charges against the batterer. Not only do women fear reprisals for pressing charges, but the reasons they have decided to remain in a relationship, such as lack of money or no place to go, are at stake if the abuser is arrested and convicted. "Women think if they can outfox the pattern [of violence], they can stop it," says Merchant of the reluctance of women to press charges.

Merchant suggests another way to hold the abuser accountable is for the woman and the man to enter counseling and come to terms with the dynamics of their relationship. She says that leaving the relationship, without coming to terms with what has happened, may only result in the abuser going into another abusive relationship.

Whatever the future of additional legislation regarding such legal techniques as warrantless arrests and protective orders, most people agree that shelters are essential to give battered women a place to go to escape the abusive situation. With this in mind Virginians Against Domestic Violence (VADV) began their campaign to legislate for more funding for shelters.



VADV was formed in 1979 by a group of women concerned about the oppression of women in general and of abused women in particular. The group is an all-volunteer, citizens' organization with representatives from the corrections system, mental health and social service agencies, domestic-violence projects and shelters from across the state, and the Catholic Diocese of Richmond.

Prior to VADV's formation, the General Assembly enacted several laws which laid the groundwork for the group's eventual foray into the legislative arena. One of these empowered judges to order counseling for abusers; and a second allowed for the training of police in the handling of wife-battering cases. Neither provision is actively enforced on a statewide basis. However, a third piece of legislation proved significant. It called for funding shelters with Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) money. This resolution also directed the Department of Social Services (DSS) to provide information and referral services to abused spouses through its Title XX program.

The bill alerted the Department of Social Services to the need for resources to serve victims of domestic violence. A department study, which indicated that there were only two shelter programs in the state, resulted in increased pressure on the state LEAA agency to make more money available for shelters and in the passage of a 1980 law making the DSS the responsible agency at the state level for services to abused women. Even though national LEAA funding began to dry up, a Virginia office of domestic violence was established in the DSS. These preliminary legislative steps raised public and legislative awareness about domestic violence and gave spouse abuse institutional support from a state agency.

At this point VADV entered the legislative arena hoping to find funding for shelters for battered women. Lisa Lerman of the Center for Women Policy Studies in Washington helped develop a marriage tax bill. Lerman was invited to speak to the subcommittee of the advisory board of the Richmond YWCA's Women's Victim Advocacy Program, according to Sheila Crowley, then staffperson for the board. The group asked Lerman to address the subcommittee about the experiences of other states with marriage tax laws.

The Commissioner of the Department of Social Services, William L. Lukhard, and Delegate Warren G. Stambaugh of Arlington both advised against introducing a marriage tax bill because of the likelihood it would not be passed. Stambaugh explained to Louise Van Horne, president of VADV at the time, that such measures often lack support because legislators are reluctant to support special taxes.

According to Van Horne, Stambaugh suggested that VADV approach the House Appropriations Committee or the gubernatorial candidates to obtain an amendment in the budget bill to provide money for shelters. After these contacts failed, the lobbying process for a marriage tax began.

In the months between the 1981 and the 1982 legislative sessions, VADV began to work with the Virginia Chapter of the National Coalition to Prevent Child Abuse, which was interested in a marriage tax law to fund programs designed to prevent child battering. Louise Van Horne believed that the child abuse group brought the necessary support of prominent figures. "We had the grassroots organization, but they had the high-level contacts," she explains, adding that the members of the child abuse group were in the position to talk to legislators in social situations. The Department of Social Services also was anxious for the child abuse and spouse abuse groups to work together. "When I heard both groups were interested (in the legislation), I had an interest in bringing them together," says Bennet Greenberg, a legislative assistant with the state department of social services.

In February 1982, Sen. Frederick C. Boucher, a young but generally well-regarded legislator, introduced this bill: "Tax on license. — On each marriage license issued under [Section number] 20-14 there is hereby levied a license tax of ten dollars, which tax shall be collected by the clerk when the license is issued and accounted for as in the case of other state taxes collected by him." It was enacted with surprisingly little controversy.

How did this bill become law? What does VADV's experience portend for future "women's" legislation? An analysis of the legislation indicates that its passage depended on several key factors.

First, in drafting the bill, VADV identified it as something non-threatening to lawmakers. Consideration was given to language which would increase its support and by-pass built-in prejudices against women's legislation. As originally drafted the bill was called The Family Violence Trust Fund, a name which evoked images of the family unit and measures to keep that unit together.

Another important factor in writing the bill was its length and complexity. It is helpful to write "a simple little bill," but it is also risky. A shorter and therefore broader bill may be open to interpretation — both by bill drafters and legislators. Donald C. Lemons, a member of the board of the Virginia chapter of the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, met with DSS's Bennet Greenberg, and they decided to limit the bill to a few lines in length. Lemons, a Richmond trial attorney experienced in writing legislation, then prepared the bill. He says that he did not want to specify what percentage of funds would be earmarked for spouse abuse or child abuse programs because he was looking toward the development of a grant process which would be open to applications for money from both programs.

Once the legislation was drafted, VADV searched for a patron. Its first choice was Delegate Dorothy S. McDiarmid from northern Virginia. She had sponsored the legislation which had made the DSS responsible for domestic violence programs. A powerful and well-respected member of the General Assembly, McDiarmid was also the chief strategist for the doomed attempt to pass the ERA. Unfortunately, her ERA commitments didn't leave her enough time to sponsor the marriage tax proposal.

Copies of the bill and pertinent statistics were sent to other possible sponsors. Sen. Frederick C. Boucher expressed interest in the bill and eventually became its chief patron. He often supported women's issues and was enthusiastic about the legislation. Although in his early 30s and one of the youngest members of the legislature, Boucher impressed activists with his hard work and diligence, and he was respected by prominent people such as Pat Perkinson who knows the legislature after working in state government for 20 years. "I think people in the General Assembly and otherwise respected him for his studious approach to his legislative assignments," she says. "They took him very seriously and I think that helped immeasurably."

Ironically, it can be a good strategy for a male to sponsor what is considered women's legislation. Although there were women in the General Assembly who served the same number of years as Boucher, he had acquired more influence than most female lawmakers. In Virginia, as in most other states, women's relatively recent entry into the political arena means that many lack the seniority and the necessary power base to be effective in legislative bodies. As an example of the difficulties women face, in the same year that the marriage tax was passed, a divorce bill that gave women property rights was sponsored by a man and enacted. A similar bill, sponsored by a woman, had failed the previous year.



While VADV searched for a patron, it also began to enlist partners in addition to the Coalition to Prevent Child Abuse. Unexpectedly strong support came from law-enforcement officials including the chiefs of police and sheriffs' association. "We started out working with the police department," says Deborah D. Cobb, executive director of the Charlottesville spouse-abuse shelter and current president of VADV. Cobb explains that John deK. Bowen, the chief of police of Charlottesville, although initially resistant to the shelter, became one of its major supporters. In fact he travelled to Richmond at the request of VADV to talk with legislators about the importance of the marriage tax bill.

"It is a very volatile situation," says Chief Bowen of spouse abuse. "Things can be very explosive. A shelter offers that opportunity of getting the family away from that violent world they live in."

Cobb maintains it is not difficult to win over police if a shelter is available. This gives them a place to take abused women and cuts down on the number of repeat calls. However, she readily admits that it took her four years to acquire the community support she has and to work out the good relationship she enjoys with the police. One way to ensure this support was to ask Chief Bowen and other members of the community to sit on her shelter's advisory council.

VADV also enlisted help from local PTA and religious groups. Despite the growth of fundamentalist religious influence in Virginia, such as Lynchburg's Jerry Falwell, many of the traditional churches endorsed the proposed marriage tax measure. One of the board members of VADV was a representative of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, and grassroots support from the religious community was also forthcoming. As Joan Shepherd Jones, a former delegate from the Lynchburg area and member of VADV says, the locally based support of ministers was a result of their work with spouse abuse and the many referrals they made to shelters.

"It was a never-give-up process," says Deborah D. Cobb of the work to inform people in the community about the importance of shelter programs. "We just kept going," she says of the need to plan in advance and not let down in the effort to win support for the marriage tax bill.

"It was psychologically exhausting," adds Louise Van Horne, president of VADV in 1982. When the bill was finally reported out of a legislative committee, she says, it was a "high" that quickly faded when she realized that more work would have to be done to urge individuals to call their legislators before the next meeting. "It was like a roller coaster," she concludes. "It was very scary and exhilarating."

Because of its revenue-generating properties, the marriage tax bill — Senate Bill 279 — was assigned to the Senate Finance Committee, the most powerful committee in the General Assembly. VADV members attended the committee's hearing on the bill with a coterie of supporters prepared to give the senators a detailed account of the seriousness of the problem of spouse abuse and the need for shelters.

After Boucher's brief presentation, Pat Perkinson, a woman who served as the administrative assistant for public relations in the late 1960s to former Governor Mills E. Godwin, Jr., testified that Senate Bill 279 is "an appropriate way to raise funds to deal with a problem that is widespread in marriages."

The committee approved the bill without hearing any further testimony. "I think the work that we did behind the scenes with the committee members before that day really had it sewn up," Perkinson says, recalling that she talked to most of the committee members and wrote notes to those she did not know well. VADV members all over the state had talked to legislators about the bill. The organization even developed fact sheets which it sent to each shelter program, with tips on how to approach lawmakers and what to say to them.

VADV members did not ease up on their efforts even though the key Senate Finance Committee approved the measure. For each hearing, they were prepared to testify and made sure that committee members were called the day of the hearing by group members or influential people in the community. SB 279 passed in the Senate and went next to the House Finance Committee. Again VADV put its network into action calling legislators and preparing to testify for the bill. William L. Lukhard, commissioner of the DSS, testified at the finance committee hearing and expressed his support for the measure. This gave legislators a sense of the commitment of the agency which would administer the shelter funds.

"This lobbying effort had a lot of appeal to rural legislators as well as urban legislators," adds Joan Jones, who was a delegate for eight years. She believes that rural legislators are particularly aware of the lack of services for abused women in their districts. Support of rural interests proved once again to be of great advantage in Virginia.

The marriage tax bill was sent to the full House where it was easily passed. On July 1, 1982, it became law.

The legislative session culminated in language amending the appropriations act to make $400,000 available each year for two years to fund spouse abuse and child abuse prevention programs. The money is distributed on a competitive basis by the Virginia Family Violence Prevention Program of the Department of Social Services.

In the first round of funding, grants averaging $13,000 each were awarded to 34 projects, including nine spouse abuse programs, 11 programs combining child abuse and spouse abuse services efforts and 14 child abuse prevention programs.

"On average, people received less than half of what was requested," says Marion S. Agnew, spouse abuse program specialist for the Virginia Department of Social Services, explaining that agencies requested $4.1 million for the first cycle while only $600,000 was distributed. The applications were reviewed by a panel which included representatives from VADV and the Virginia Chapter of the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse.

"Spouse abuse efforts mainly targeted and focused on working with battered women," Agnew comments. These included money for new shelters, intervention, transportation and community education. In addition, in Fairfax County in northern Virginia, a counseling project for abusers was funded.

For the second cycle, 20 projects were awarded $10,000 each. "This time there was an emphasis on community-based projects," says Agnew. She explains that because there was not enough money to fund whole programs, the money was used to attract local matching funds.

Agnew reports two cases of local governments giving more money for shelter programs as a result of increased state funding for shelters. The first of these is the Shelter for Help and Emergency (SHE) in Charlottesville, where an outreach worker was hired with state funds raised by the marriage tax law. Prior to the hiring of the worker, most SHE clients were from the city of Charlottesville and the county of Albemarle. Both of these local governments had given money to the shelter. The outreach worker was made responsible for reaching out to minority and rural women in Fluvanna, Nelson, Greene and Louisa Counties — counties which surround the city of Charlottesville. As a result of the efforts of the outreach worker, all of the surrounding counties except Louisa gave money to the shelter.

In Wytheville, the Family Resource Center received marriage tax money in order to establish a spouse abuse shelter. According to Agnew, as a result of this funding the town gave the center a house which had been owned by the town. In addition, the community helped to renovate the building with donations of materials and time.

VADV's legislative efforts brought much needed, positive results, but the problem of spouse abuse remains pervasive and the work of the organization has just begun. Continued efforts will be made to raise public awareness, to develop a statewide system for gathering data, and to develop legislation which will aid battered women in their search for safety and protection.