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State’s proposed domestic violence contract widely criticized

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, at 6:13 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, Jan. 14, 2012, at 6:16 p.m.

At the center of criticism

A proposed SRS contract contains two controversial sentences: “The vendor will be encouraged to work with faith-based and community supports to increase the unification of two (2) parent families and promote pregnancy prevention through abstinence based programs.”

“The Contractor shall administer TANF funds to promote healthy families, parenthood initiatives and pregnancy prevention through abstinence based program services to encourage the formation of two parent families within the confines of keeping individuals and families safe, reducing both child abuse and domestic violence.”

A proposed state contract for helping low-income abused women has drawn widespread criticism because of fear that it would require domestic violence programs to promote two-parent families.

The controversial language could end up pushing more women to stay in abusive relationships, having the unintended consequence of endangering them and their children, critics say.

The same contract – which also would provide services to sex-assault victims – calls for abstinence-based programs. Critics say it would be insulting to tell a woman who has been raped that abstinence is part of the solution.

The Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, which is handling the proposed contract, said the language supports goals of a federal program and is not meant to steer women into staying with abusers, that its intent is to encourage healthy relationships that prevent violence.

The concern stems from new language the state has inserted in a proposed contract for providing services to low-income victims of domestic and sexual violence who receive cash assistance from the state. The controversial terms include specifications encouraging a vendor to work with faith-based groups, to promote “unification” or “formation” of two-parent families and to pursue abstinence-based pregnancy prevention.

Those voicing the concerns — including Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston, state and national domestic violence experts and lawmakers in both parties — say such language is confusing, contradictory and insulting. A woman in crisis often is torn about whether to leave her abuser, and if she has decided to leave, worries how she will survive economically.

Such language is not common in domestic violence services contracts around the nation, said Anne Menard, executive director of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, in Harrisburg, Pa. In domestic violence services, the “primary interest that needs to be addressed is safety,” Menard said.

Juliene Maska, who dealt with domestic violence issues for 22 years while working for Attorneys General Bob Stephan and Carla Stovall and Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson, said of the new stipulations: “All of the sudden, you’re adding some additional requirements that don’t seem safe.”

Because the language appears in the proposed contract, it likely means that, one way or another, a provider would have to convey the language to victims, Maska said.

To a victim, a requirement promoting two-parent families could send the message that maybe she should go back to her batterer, or that she should find another partner, Maska said.

“I’m not saying that the state is saying that,” but the message could easily be interpreted that way, she said.

State Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, disagreed, saying victims won’t be aware of the language and won’t be affected by it. Landwehr, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said the controversy over the language is “strictly politics.”

Maska said the new specifications also appear to set up expectations that the contractor will have to show how its efforts led to two-parent families and how it involved faith-based groups.

Despite the concerns, the state does not plan to change the wording, said SRS spokeswoman Angela de Rocha. In the next few days, SRS expects to post an amendment to the proposed contract, clarifying the intent of the language, de Rocha said Friday.

“We’re not telling people they need to stay in an abusive relationship,” de Rocha said.

“We believe that healthy families and healthy relationships are universal values.”

Extensive research indicates that children do better in healthy two-parent families, she said.

“This is not a religious precept,” she said, but is backed by statistics.

Contract language absent in other states

But the two sentences are still inappropriate in a proposed contract for domestic violence services, no matter the rationale, said state Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, ranking minority member of the Ways and Means Committee and the Public Health and Welfare Committee.

The inclusion of abstinence-based pregnancy prevention is aimed at young single women abused by boyfriends and at teens in families where domestic violence has occurred, to prevent unhealthy behaviors, de Rocha said.

The best model is a healthy, two-parent family, she said.

“In some of these families where there’s been domestic violence, the kids, the teenagers have never seen a healthy relationship. What we’re trying to convey to people is a solid marriage is the best place to raise children.”

The wording has not been in previous domestic violence services contracts because of an oversight, de Rocha said. But the wording reflects specific goals under a federal program — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, known as TANF — which provides funding for the state’s domestic violence program, she said. Those goals include “preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies” and “encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families,” she said. The TANF money can be used only to support TANF goals, she said.

Other states use language that is similar to that in the proposed Kansas contract, de Rocha said.

In Colorado, domestic violence contracts do not contain language promoting two-parent families or encouraging involvement with faith-based groups, said Liz McDonough, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Human Services. In Missouri, domestic violence contracts also do not have such wording, but the state often partners with faith-based groups in helping to provide domestic violence services, said Seth Bundy, spokesman for the Missouri Department of Social Services.

SRS now contracts with the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, whose network of subcontractors comprises 29 domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy programs across the state. According to the coalition, the network includes four Wichita entities: Catholic Charities Harbor House, StepStone, Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center and YWCA Women’s Crisis Center. The network also includes Family Life Center of Butler County in El Dorado, Harvey County DV/SA Task Force in Newton and Safe Homes in Winfield.

The coalition’s website says that one of its goals is to “confront and affirm issues of empowerment affecting women and children without regard” to a number of factors, including “marital/parental status.”

Coalition members declined to be interviewed, but gave this statement: “KCSDV’s mission is to increase safety for victims and to hold perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence accountable for the harm they cause. To that end the role that government plays in this mission is obvious, both in the criminal justice system and in the state welfare system.

“KCSDV is committed to working with national, state and local governments to further these goals. Our focus, however, will always be on victim safety and services. Because the harm caused by sexual and domestic violence and stalking is widespread and impacts communities across Kansas, the importance of the partnership with our state’s administration cannot be underestimated. Until proven otherwise, KCSDV will assume that our state government shares the goal of increasing safety in our communities.”

The current contract pays the coalition nearly $1.5 million annually to provide services to about 2,000 abused women. The coalition has held the contract since 1999. Bids for the new contract are due by Jan. 31.

Muddled message

Foulston, the Sedgwick County district attorney, said the new contract language would be confusing and patronizing for domestic violence victims.

It’s difficult enough for an abused, low-income woman to become independent, but under the new language, the message the victim might take is that she needs to stay with an abusive spouse for the sake of her children, Foulston said.

Another troubling aspect is the faith-based component, which doesn’t respect the separation of church and state, Foulston said. It raises the possibility of a victim being “subjected to some kind of lecture under a faith-based initiative,” she said.

There’s nothing wrong with abused women deciding on their own to get help from a religious organization, but “they don’t need to be told that they’re going to be healed through religious intervention,” she said. It “should be their choice, not the state’s choice.”

Deborah Gordon, associate professor of women’s studies at Wichita State University, said that while she is not a policy expert, “the language can be read different ways because there’s so many things going on in it. It muddles the waters of what message needs to be communicated to women and children about domestic violence.”

Victims struggle enough over whether to leave abusers because they worry about supporting themselves and their children, Gordon said.

Among lawmakers, there has been bipartisan criticism of the language.

State Sen. Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said, “I’m not sure why we have that specific language for a program that is designed to protect women and children.” McGinn, who serves on the board of the YWCA Women’s Crisis Center, said the wording doesn’t belong in a domestic violence contract “because they’re serving a whole different purpose, which is safety.”

State Sen. Dick Kelsey, R-Goddard, said that while he appreciates efforts by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback to promote marriage and family, “I believe that obviously things change dramatically when you have a woman who is abused.”

Referring to the proposed contract, Kelsey said, “That language could have been stated more effectively, and they (SRS) believe that.”

SRS is working to “make the language more understandable, more agreeable to the people who work those issues,” he said.

“I am confident that the situation is going to be resolved to everybody’s satisfaction.”

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com

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