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Acting Director Katharine Sullivan of the Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women Delivers Remarks at 19th Annual International Family Justice Center Conference


San Diego, CA
United States

Welcome everyone to the 19th Annual International Family Justice Center Conference. We have Centers represented from 40 states and 10 countries this week. It’s particularly exciting to be part of a conference that measure ACES, hope, resiliency, collective hope, and wellbeing in its conference attendees. Hope is going to increase in your life this week by being at this conference. Thank you to Casey Gwinn, Gael Strack, and the entire Alliance for HOPE team for convening this tremendous gathering.

Improving the criminal justice response to domestic violence and sexual violence is the backbone of VAWA. Collaborative work that brings all the players in the justice system together with victim services is the heart. Family Justice Centers represent the best of this work – strengthening law enforcement, prosecution, offender accountability, and victim safety by working together to meet victims where they are. Adults and children, women and men, vulnerable people struggling to overcome challenges like substance abuse or human trafficking – Family Justice Centers are on the front lines welcoming survivors to take shelter in crisis. But you don’t stop there. You provide the tools and support that take survivors from fear to hope, from insecurity to self-sufficiency.

Inspired by your creativity and innovation, I prioritize visits to Family Justice Centers. Family Justice Centers in places such as Denver, Anaheim, and Brooklyn have taught me so much about how you all are meeting the unique needs facing your communities. I just came back from Brooklyn, where I met with the lead prosecutor of the Brooklyn Family Justice Center, Michelle Kaminsky. Michelle told me about their Early Victim Engagement program, which helps reduce violent crime by contacting victims of domestic violence immediately after a defendant is arraigned. Brooklyn’s Early Victim Engagement pilot initiative was so successful in increasing victim participation in prosecution and subsequent rates of conviction that the program was adopted by other New York boroughs.

I was also excited to hear about the culturally specific work the Brooklyn Family Justice Center is doing. One of their attorneys works closely with Muslim and immigrant communities, tackling complicated issues like female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C). FGM/C, is one of the most devastating forms of violence against women. We must stand together to demand zero tolerance for FGM/C. Just last week I was honored to be at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women where I spoke on a panel about FGM/C. It is a problem right here in the United States. The CDC estimates 513,000 women and girls have suffered or are at risk of FGM/C in the U.S. OVW funds incredible local service providers, like Nisaa African Family Services, a grantee addressing FGM/C in a sensitive, culturally appropriate way as part of their work on sexual assault and domestic violence in African-diaspora communities in Iowa.

When I first learned about Family Justice Centers and the benefits of colocation, I immediately thought of how perfectly positioned they are to address the very challenging issue of survivors struggling with substance abuse. OVW was excited to award $450,000 to the Alliance for HOPE in partnership with the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health to create trauma-informed approaches to helping survivors who come to Family Justice Centers and request help with substance use issues. For too long, survivors have been shamed, blamed, ostracized, and denied services when they come to agencies for help while actively using drugs and alcohol as part of their coping strategies or because perpetrators kept them hooked as part of a pattern of power and control. We need to change that and I believe Family Justice Centers will lead the way in providing collocated substance abuse and victim services.

OVW is also proud to support the Alliance for Hope’s Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention. Last October, 1,000 Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents learned about the connection between stranglers and killers of law enforcement officers in this country. We must continue to investigate and prosecute the most dangerous abusers, including those who strangle, stalk, or use illegal firearms against their victims.

I am pleased to also announce that US Attorneys’ office throughout the country have partnered with family Justice Centers to create projects through Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN), to meet the goal of reducing violent crime.  The success of these programs is built on their local partnerships. The U.S. Attorney’s office works hand in hand with the local District Attorney’s office, local law enforcement, and with their local Family Justice Center.

I want to highlight one PSN in particular, led by U.S. Attorney Bob Troester for the Western District of Oklahoma. His office is running an issue-specific Domestic Violence and Firearms PSN in close conjunction with Palomar, their local Family Justice Center. In the first year of this Domestic Violence and Firearms PSN they charged over 50 cases. These cases are now over 17% of the office’s overall caseload and the 50+ cases they have charged this past year are a 100% increase over the prior year. Women have broken down in tears when they were told that their abusers will go to jail and they do not have to testify against them, because they are not charging these as assault cases but as firearms cases. This has empowered victims and helped hold more offenders accountable, as having to testify against one’s abuser can inhibit victims from testifying and result in dropped charges.

Other U.S. Attorneys are also focusing their PSNs on domestic violence and guns. The U.S. Attorney for Northern Ohio, Justin Herdman has incorporated their PSN into a partnership with the Domestic Violence and Child Advocacy Center and has focused on prosecuting cases where abusers possess firearms – many times allowing a victim who is terrified or reluctant not to have to testify but still holding the offender accountable. In speaking with U.S. Attorney Herdman last week he raised a crucial point that abusers with guns also pose a significant risk to law enforcement responding to the crime scene.

In Dallas, U.S. Attorney for Northern Texas, Erin Nealy Cox is also fighting domestic violence using federal firearms laws. Working in tandem with state and local law enforcement partners, U.S. Attorney Nealy Cox pledged to prosecute domestic violence offenders discovered with guns. “With so many domestic disputes escalating from bruises to bullets and bloodshed, we can and should play a part in ending this senseless violence,” she said. “We’re hopeful that highlighting this focus will send a message to convicted abusers: Not only can the Justice Department prosecute you for firearm possession, but in the Northern District of Texas, we will.”

The Department’s work is paying dividends. For example, according to Department data, since 2016, the number of defendants charged under 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(9) – the prohibition against firearm possession by a domestic violence misdemeanant – has grown by nearly 80 percent, from 110 in Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 to 197 in FY 2018. In the same period, convictions increased more than 160% from 55 in FY2016 to 148 in FY2018.

The significant increase in charges and convictions under 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(9) is a direct result of the Justice Department’s aggressive effort to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers. This effort from U.S. Attorney’s Offices across the country has resulted in three Supreme Court decisions upholding both the statutory and constitutional viability of this statute. These critical decisions, combined with the re-invigoration of Project Safe Neighborhoods and the Department’s concerted efforts to prosecute violent crime, has resulted in this success. A central component of Project Safe Neighborhoods is that safe neighborhoods begin with safe homes.

If you are not already working with your local PSN site and your U.S. Attorney, I urge you to reach out to them to explore ways you can partner to reduce violent crimes.

Over the course of this conference, I know you will be inspired by these and other examples of coordinated community responses that take the next steps to end violence against women. I know I am inspired seeing all of you here today, and I will bring your stories, your passion, and your innovation back with me to Washington. I will be filled with hope when I think of your work. Thank you and God bless you for everything you do.

Updated March 20, 2019