OPINION: Supporting Healthy, Safe Relationships for All
State Senator for Wakefield announces legislation that would crack down on those who repeatedly violate restraining orders.
February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness & Prevention Month, and this is a good time to consider our collective effort to ensure that our children, and all individuals, thrive in healthy and safe relationships.
For teens, dating violence can be physical, sexual or emotional, and often involves stalking and harassment via social media and other electronic communications. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly 1 in 10 high school students report they have been physically hurt in a dating relationship over the past year, and that violence can have health repercussions throughout life. The CDC reports that teens who are victims are more likely to be depressed and do poorly in school, may engage in unhealthy behaviors, like using drugs and alcohol, are more likely to have eating disorders, and are at higher risk for suicide and for victimization in college.
Many organizations and individuals in our district are actively working to raise awareness and prevent dating violence, including our local YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs, and Alliances Against Violence. I am proud to support their ongoing efforts in our schools and communities. This month the Melrose Alliance Against Violence launched the “Love Is…Love Isn’t…” Photo Project, designed to get teens and families talking about what constitutes a healthy relationship. You can view the project at www.facebook.com/YourVoiceMattersMelrose.
Even as we work to prevent relationship violence, we also must continually examine and strengthen our laws. On the national level, the U.S. Congress is currently debating the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (or VAWA), a landmark law first passed in 1994 intended to transform how the criminal justice system addresses domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking, and to fund support services for victim and survivors. Among many important provisions of the Act are grants for youth outreach to prevent dating violence and sexual assault, support for law enforcement, extension of protections for victims regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, race, color, religion, national origin, sex or disability, and a measure to prohibit the use of any interactive computer or electronic communication service to stalk victims.
At the state level, I am working with my colleagues, the District Attorneys and local law enforcement to strengthen our own laws. I have recently introduced a bill to increase the penalties for those who repeatedly violate restraining orders. Right now, no matter how many times an individual violates a restraining order, that offense can only be prosecuted as a misdemeanor. The bill I sponsored would create a subsequent offense to increase the possible penalty for these repeat offenders, without imposing a mandatory minimum sentence.
We also know that in some domestic violence cases, offenders strangle their partner as a form of control and power. I have introduced a bill that would establish an independent offense of strangulation and suffocation punishable by up to 5 years in prison and allow for greater punishment (up to 10 years in prison) for aggravating factors, including if serious bodily injury is caused, if the victim is pregnant, or if restraining orders are active at the time of the assault. This proposal would address a gap in our current statutes.
Preventing relationship violence and supporting victims and survivors requires a multi-pronged approach: one that includes our laws, but that also looks beyond them to consider how we, as a community, support each other in building and maintaining healthy, strong relationships.