Anti-domestic violence advocates come together in Tampa

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A week after the release of a videotape showing now-suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice savagely punching his wife in an Atlantic City hotel room elevator, the attention surrounding domestic violence has never been more magnified in America. So Congresswoman Kathy Castor today seized on the heightened focus to remind the public that such acts of violence occur every day in the Tampa Bay area, and to alert those victims that there are plenty of places to get help in such a situation.

"So let's not forget when the headlines recede and it's not about the NFL, it's still going on in families next door to you," Castor said at a news conference with advocates for domestic violence victims in front of the Spring Boutique in South Tampa this morning. "Down the street, people that you know. People that you don't know that are our neighbors, and they need to know where to turn."

Joining Castor at the event was Mindy Murphy, CEO of The Spring of Tampa Bay, one of the largest certified domestic violence centers in the state of Florida. She said that while people think of her organization as a shelter — which it certainly is with a 102-bed facility —  it offers so much more to domestic violence victims, such as access to attorneys who can help them.

Those attorneys come via Bay Area Legal Services, which last week was awarded a nearly $500,000 Justice Department grant under the Legal Assistance for Victims Grants initiative and the Violence Against Women Act.

"Often when a victim is making the courageous decision to leave the relationship, she is incredibly concerned about legal ramifications of doing so," said Murphy. "Victims who are leaving know that their batterer will often use abusive tactics in the courtroom trying to control her, so they need expertise and help that Bay Area Legal Services can provide — whether it's an injunction for protection, a custody issue, a divorce, anything they need, Bay Area Legal Services can help them."

Jim Hengelbrok, Managing Attorney for Family Law at Bay Area Legal Services, says there are "lots" of reasons why domestic violence victims don't leave their abusers. But victims who do want to leave often encounter a lot of barriers, he says. 

"It might be fear," he said. "It might be self-doubt because the abuser's done a good job of beating them down, isolating them from friends and family and making them feel worse. Making them feel that they can't make it alone. They don't have money lots of time and they certainly don't have money to access legal services in many cases."

Patty Perez suffered an unbearable tragedy in December of 2004 when her estranged husband shot her and her two children. She survived the bullet wound to her head, but her children, Lauren and Sean, only 12 and 11 years old, died in front of her. 

"There is life after domestic violence," Perez told reporters in a soft voice on Monday. She helped create Means of Hope, a nonprofit organization, which works with local agencies like the Hillsborough County Juvenile Center. "I want to have people understand that survivors can call me and I will direct them to services that they're entitled to."

She also mentioned other such facilities around the Bay area that can help such victims, like CASA in St. Petersburg, Sunrise in Pasco County and the Haven Domestic Violence Center in Clearwater.

The NFL's sloppy handling of the Ray Rice situation has led to some critics to call for Commissioner Roger Goodell to resign. The Commissioner laid low this weekend, choosing not to travel to last night's Chicago Bears-San Francisco 49ers game in Santa Clara, where he had been expected to attend the official opening of the the 49ers' new stadium.

Last week, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators wrote a letter to Goodell urging the league to institute a zero-tolerance policy for domestic violence. Representative Castor, however, is with the critics who say he should just go away.

"I think he showed a complete lack of leadership," she says of the league's initial decision to only suspend Rice for two games. That policy was subsequently changed to a six-game suspension for a first-time domestic violence offense, and a year's banishment for a second offense. That all happened before the release of the video last Monday showing Rice knocking out his then-fiancee Janay Rice, which has galvanized the nation.

"I think they were out of touch, " she says about the NFL. "You can't tolerate domestic violence."

The news conference was scheduled to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Violence Against Women Act, which secured federal funds for the prosecution of domestic violence cases. When that legislation was reauthorized last year, among the 22 Republicans in the Senate who opposed it was Marco Rubio, who said that one reason he opposed it was that it would divert funds from domestic violence programs to sexual assault programs, even though “there’s no evidence to suggest this shift will result in a greater number of convictions,” he said in a statement.

Castor said today that there definitely was GOP resistance to the reauthorization to VAWA last year, but public outcry to such opposition was able to carry it forward. "I suggest that people go and look at how their representative voted on that. Did they delay resources for violence against women, or did they stand with their communities and families and women?" she asked.

(For more information, you can contact The Spring of Tampa Bay at 813.247.SAFE (7233). Bay Area Legal Services can be reached at  813-232-1343).

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