Editor’s note: This story discusses sexual violence. If you need assistance or resources, Utah’s 24-hour sexual violence crisis and information hotline is available at 1-888-421-1100.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, wanted to get one message across to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault:
“We believe you.”
She hoped the actions she and other lawmakers took this past Legislative session to fund community-based shelters and programs would help convey that point, Romero said during a news conference Friday morning.
“It takes someone maybe seven times before they leave their abuser,” Romero said. “We as a state, as elected officials, have to be patient with people and let them know that we believe them, that they can trust us and that there’s a safe space and there’s an option for them to leave that situation.”
She stood with Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, staff members from Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson’s office, law enforcement leaders and advocates in the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building. The group met for the second time this year to talk about helping survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Utah.
The meeting was closed because “we are working with survivors and victims of domestic violence and sexual assault,” Romero said. “And so that confidentiality and that trust is really important to respect our community-based organizations.” The news conference immediately followed the private meeting.
According to attendees, during the closed-door meeting the coalition planned implementation of several key pieces of legislation that passed during the 2023 session — from a domestic violence database to $15 million of ongoing funds and $12.5 million in one-time funds earmarked to help domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.
Backstopping federal funds
There’s been a decline in federal funds for providers that help sexual assault and domestic violence victims, Mendenhall said, and the state typically hasn’t provided much assistance. But that changed this year with the roughly $30 million collectively put toward domestic violence services, the mayor said, which “is a phenomenal gesture, not only to the service providers, but a message to Utahns who are victims and have been victims, that we love you. We want to support you and we’re going to put the money and policies in place to give you the most support that we can .”
Historically, service providers have had to compete with each other for limited federal and state funds, Mendenhall said. State funding, particularly the ongoing kind, would help alleviate those pressures.
“We’ve backfilled federal funding to a great extent,” said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, “but we’ve got a lot more work to do to move forward and then get ahead of the game.”
Changing police tactics and creating a commission
To that end, Ivory sponsored HB 244, which created a Utah Victim Services Commission. Romero also sponsored legislation codifying the definition of a rape crisis center, and extended the repeal date for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives Task Force.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown spoke about how his department planned to carry out a new program required under SB 117.
The lethality assessment program — a set of questions designed to evaluate the safety of a victim of domestic violence — will fully launch in July.
Lt. Gov. Henderson spoke in support of the bill in January. Henderson’s cousin, Mandy Mayne, was killed by her ex-husband while waiting at a bus stop in Taylorsville, the Tribune previously reported.
The Maynes supported the new law. When responding to domestic violence cases between intimate partners, police officers will have to complete a lethality assessment, which will include, among many other things, consideration of an individual’s “physical and mental health, family and community ties, employment status or history, financial resources, [and] past criminal conduct.”
The assessment would then be logged in a database.
Brown said the Salt Lake City police department is currently putting together a pilot program “so that we can test the procedures, find out where our weaknesses are, our gaps.”
What about prevention?
“When people know that there are services there for them and they’re treated in a culturally sensitive, trauma-informed way then we hopefully will see more people reporting what is actually happening,” Mendenhall said.
While the state took important steps toward improving services for domestic violence and sexual assault victims, many of the stakeholders noted that most of these efforts focused on response rather than prevention.
“That’s really where we need to be,” Brown said. “Because if we’re just responding, we’ve actually failed. We need to do much more.”
The Safe Dates program is one prevention program aimed at providing “developmentally appropriate prevention education” to middle and high school students, said Erin Jemison, director of public policy for the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.
“15 million starts to fill in the gap of what programs have lost,” Jemison said. “We’re incredibly grateful. We’ve never seen anything like this in terms of state support, in terms of this leadership bringing us together around the table.” However, she said, “this is really just the beginning if we’re really going to meet the needs.”
The coalition plans to continue meeting in the coming year.