Fairfield County agency seeks legislative help with anti-abuse mission

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Representatives of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Center for Family Justice address their legislative needs during a legislative breakfast on Jan. 12, 2022.

Representatives of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Center for Family Justice address their legislative needs during a legislative breakfast on Jan. 12, 2022.

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Meghan Scanlon’s tenure as the new chief executive officer and president of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence didn’t start with encouraging words.

“I came into this role, and one of the first people I met with told me it was the worst time come into this role,” said Scanlon, who started in the job last year.

Scanlon spoke Wednesday during the Center for Family Justice’s 2022 Legislative Breakfast, at which some of the state and local agencies that help survivors of domestic and sexual violence outline policies, reforms and funding that could help their clientele. The Center for Family Justice, which hosted the virtual event, offers multiple domestic, sexual and child abuse services — including crisis intervention, providing help with police and prosecutors, and counseling — at its headquarters in Bridgeport.

Legislators and other stakeholders were invited to listen in while Scanlon and others talked about their various challenges and needs.

The Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence is the membership organization for Connecticut’s 18 domestic violence service agencies, including CFJ. During her presentation at the legislative breakfast, Scanlon spoke about how programs like CFJ have been slammed during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they work to assist soaring numbers of people coping with abuse.

“Across the state, we’ve seen shelters running way over capacity,” she said, adding that, at their highest point, shelters were at 180 percent capacity, and agencies struggling to find spots for people.

There have also been staffing issues, particularly in the latest COVID-19 surge.

“Just this past week, I think we had 24 advocates that were working in the court system who came down with COVID,” Scanlon said.

Domestic violence homicides also continue to be a pervasive issue. A recent Hearst Connecticut Media Group investigation found that, since 2000, nearly 300 people have been killed by intimate partners in Connecticut. Last year alone, Scanlon said, there were 11 homicides linked to domestic violence.

In the midst of all this need, domestic and sexual violence crisis programs nationwide are on the verge of temporarily losing a significant chunk of federal funding, which is provided through the Victims of Crime Act Fund.

The fund, which is generated from criminal fines and fees, was created in 1984 to provide federal support to programs that help victims of crime. Scanlon said the fund is at an all-time low as those fines have been redirected to the general treasury for the past few years. Though the fund is set to replenish in two years, Scanlon said, until then, grants will be greatly reduced.

Scanlon said the coalition will likely need a total of $7 million in state funding over the two years to cover the loss. She said the crime act fund supports many of the state coalition’s services, including its domestic violence hotline. Losing all that money “would be devastating in terms of the services we provide,” she said.

Other needs that Scanlon discussed included the desire to have one full-time child and family advocate at each of CCADV’s 18 member organizations.

According to the coalition, an average of 5,000 children are served each year by its member programs, but there is no state funding to support this position.

Others who spoke at the legislative breakfast included Lucy Nolan, director of public policy at the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence, a statewide coalition of individual sexual assault crisis programs. Nolan outlined some of the alliance’s needs, including $12.3 million in one-time funding to be allocated to Connecticut’s Office of Victim Services in anticipation of the loss of the Victims of Crime Act Fund.

Nolan discussed policy changes too. One that the alliance wants to see enacted is the barring of unnecessary pelvic and prostate medical exams of patients under deep anesthesia for teaching purposes without the explicit consent of the patient.

In some cases, she said, medical students perform pelvic and prostate exams on anesthetized patients as part of their training. Right now, Nolan said, there is “broad consent,” meaning patients are told that a medical student could work on them, but aren’t given details.

Requiring explicit consent benefits both the patients and the students, Nolan said.

“For many of the medical students it’s a moral issue,” she said. “They know they are doing without consent, but feel they have to.”

Nolan, Scanlon and other advocates asked legislators to consider the requests they had outlined during the upcoming legislative session.

CFJ President and CEO Debra Greenwood echoed those thoughts.

“The things you hear in the media about the spike in abuse that has happened due to pandemic has had a significant impact in all communities — not just here in Connecticut, but all over country,” she said. “It really is an enormous amount of people who need our help.”