In June, the New York City Council’s Committee on Women’s Issues hosted a hearing on three bills addressing domestic violence in the City of New York. The bills proposed by the Committee, Int. No. 1610, Resolution 1292, and Int. No. 1496, offer solutions to problems associated with intimate partner violence. For instance, the bills address the obstacles survivors face when attempting to terminate a lease and the critical difference a hairdresser’s salon can make in recognizing signs of abuse or providing information to survivors seeking help. The hearing included testimony from various agencies and organizations, including the Department of Consumer Affairs, the New York City Police Department, and numerous advocacy groups, non-profits, and coalitions.
The hearing made clear that, although no one is inherently safe from experiencing an abusive relationship, women are highly overrepresented as victims of intimate partner violence. Therefore, for the purposes of this article, we use female pronouns to refer to victims and male pronouns to refer to abusers, though we acknowledge that men are often victims of abuse and that abuse is certainly present in relationships outside of the heteronormative framework. In addition, we use the terms “victim” and “survivor” interchangeably to refer to those who are subject to intimate partner violence and “abuser” to refer to a person who perpetrates the violence.
Int. No. 1610
Int. No. 1610 proposes an amendment to the New York City Charter and Administrative Code to require licensed cosmetologists to undergo a one-hour training every two years to help them identify signs of domestic violence in their clients and offer access to City resources when appropriate. The Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence ("OCDV") will provide the trainings and failure to comply will result in a $250 penalty fee.
This legislation recognizes that in many situations a hair salon remains one of the few places that survivors go without their partner. Abuse occurs in a variety of ways – emotional, physical, financial and sexual – but what is paramount is an abuser’s desire to control every aspect of a victim’s life, including isolating her from friends and family. Though hairdressers are not typically friends or even acquaintances of their clients, the nature of their work, including the significant amount of time spent with clients during an appointment, the physical contact with the client, and the personal discussions that occur, makes hairdressers privy to many of their clients’ most intimate details. From these conversations, hairdressers are uniquely positioned to pick up on whether abuse might be going on at home. Because there are few similarly situated individuals that work this closely with clients – excluding those in the medical field – hairdressers may observe physical signs of abuse that others cannot, such as bruises or missing hair. They can also provide anti-violence resources to victims during the normal course of a client’s visit to the salon without raising suspicion from her abuser.
While we and other advocates praise the additional resources and support for survivors of intimate partner violence, some organizations oppose the imposition of a penalty for failure to comply with the trainings – arguing that a $250 fee per violation is too burdensome for stylists already receiving depressed wages. In addition, some posit that it is unfair to penalize hairdressers, perhaps themselves victims of intimate partner violence, for failing to attend trainings that may be re-traumatizing. Participation in the program should be encouraged and voluntary, not mandated through monetary fines. To generate interest from cosmetologists, the drafters of the legislation should consider payment for the time spent away from work to receive training and/or incorporating the training directly into the cosmetology curriculum.
Furthermore, to strengthen the legitimacy of the program, survivors and advocates should be involved in the creation of the training as well as implementation of the program, as they are most familiar with the needs of the domestic violence community. In addition, the training should be expanded beyond the proposed one hour biennial requirement; this amount of time is insufficient to perform a comprehensive training. While the training need not be too lengthy or burdensome, a proper amount of time allotted for a quality education would increase hairdressers’ confidence and ability to successfully intervene if they see fit.
Currently, to terminate a lease a survivor must secure an order of protection against her abuser, petition the court who granted her order of protection for relief from the lease agreement, be current on all rental payments, and wait between 30 and 150 days after the date the next rental payment is due and after the landlord is served with a termination order. Res. 1292 calls upon the New York State Legislature to amend the New York State Real Property Law to allow survivors of intimate partner violence to terminate their leases by written request to their landlords at least 10 days prior to the next rental due date, if the victim has obtained either an order of protection or a police incident report, and rental payments are up-to-date.
The current requirements present victims with clear obstacles to leaving an abusive situation. Since one of the most dangerous times for a victim is when she tries to end the abuse or leave, the safest method for escaping often requires a swift or clandestine departure from the home, without resort to seeking formal legal hearings. To remove at least one obstacle that victims face, Res. 1292 would deem a police incident report or an order of protection sufficient evidence to show status as a victim of domestic violence, without requiring an additional court visit.
While GELC wholly supports legislation that lessens burdens on victims, this bill does not go far enough. We recommend that Res. 1292 further expand the scope of evidentiary documents accepted as proof of domestic violence status when seeking to terminate a lease; in other words, that police incident reports be included as just one of the additional methods. Though an incident report can be helpful, many victims are without one because they are hesitant to call the police due to prior negative interactions with law enforcement, or fear of deportation, incarceration (for the victim or the abuser) and/or more violence. Allowing the use of social worker reports, letters from healthcare professionals, or other equivalent certifications to suffice as proof of domestic violence status would give victims both additional and safer options. Furthermore, because many abusers cunningly use the legal system to further harass their victims, we caution legislators to be mindful that incident reports can be misleading, that the police can be used as a tool against victims, and that victims sometimes end up with an incident report that implicates them instead of the abuser – all of which may result in inadvertently putting victims’ housing situation at risk.
Lastly, we admonish the requirement that victims be current on all rental payments prior to terminating a lease. Domestic violence is reported at higher rates in low-income communities and individuals within those communities often struggle to make city-inflated rental payments on time, if at all. Such rigidly enforceable lease agreements create financial burdens and credit issues for victims who often have no other option but to leave their home. Due to the frequent presence of financial abuse in domestic violence situations, this requirement effectively locks individuals into a dangerous situation or exposes them to financial penalties.
Int. No. 1496
Although crime in the City is at historic lows, domestic violence continues to plague NYC households, requiring the NYPD to respond to over 700 domestic incidents a day. The passage of Int. No. 1496 would require the OCDV, in conjunction with the NYPD, to submit and post on its website a report detailing information about the City’s new domestic violence initiatives, including those mentioned above.
The report must include data on chronic domestic violence cases and chronic offenders, as well as the scope of victim outreach efforts made by the NYPD in cases where a perpetrator violates an order of protection. The report must also provide information on the availability of attorneys within Family Justice Centers (“FJCs”) in each borough and the results of those attorneys’ efforts to assist survivors with housing matters, i.e. removing perpetrators from leases, transferring leases from perpetrators to survivors, and terminating leases without penalty. The bill will increase transparency about police domestic violence work and show whether FJCs, which are city-funded, are effective in combatting domestic violence in the housing context.
GELC strongly supports Int. No. 1610, Res. 1292, and Int. No. 1496, with the suggested revisions, and applauds New York City for its vigilance in taking steps to put an end to intimate partner violence and doing more to provide survivors with the help they need.