Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Victims / Survivors Committee

Chaired by Bernadette Eyler Smith, the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Victims/Survivors Committee works to address the special needs of the victims/survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking through education of law enforcement, prosecutors and others, passage of legislation and court rules, and collaboration with service providers. The Committee’s current priorities include the following:

Modernizing the Name Change Process: In coordination with the Commission’s LGBTQ+ Rights Committee, the Committee has met with legislators and submitted a letter (attached at right) in support of three bills in the 2023-24 legislative session designed to modernize the name change process in Pennsylvania. At present, the process to change one’s name due to marriage, death of a spouse, or divorce involves the simple submission of paperwork. However, for individuals pursuing a name change for any other reason, including survivors of domestic abuse seeking to avoid their abusers, the process differs significantly, costing a substantial amount of money and requiring engagement with the courts. The three bills supported by the Committee would simplify and standardize that process, so that all Pennsylvanians have equal access to name change procedures regardless of the legitimate reason(s) for which they are pursuing a different legal name.

Clarification of the ICJ Rules re Human Trafficking Victims: In July 2020, the Committee sought and obtained from the Interstate Commission for Juveniles an important clarification (attached at right) concerning the applicability of the rules of the Interstate Compact for Juveniles (“ICJ”) to juvenile human trafficking victims. As clarified, the rule will permit juvenile human trafficking victims who are not under court supervision as delinquents or dependents in their home states to remain in the state in which they were found, rather than be involuntarily returned to their home state. This clarification will enable the juveniles to obtain support in their new location away from their traffickers and insecure homes. Because the ICJ’s rule clarification explicitly prevents the involuntary return of victims to their home states, which can result in tragic consequences, the Committee is actively pursuing opportunities to educate juvenile service providers, law enforcement, and the courts about this important policy clarification.

Protocols to Address the Needs of Sex Trafficking Victims: The Commission convened a series of four meetings with prominent stakeholders in the field to develop a sheltering protocol for use, with local modifications, across Pennsylvania to address the immediate needs of victims of human trafficking. This effort resulted in the production of a guide by the Commission, entitled Guiding Principles to Address the Needs of Victims of Human Trafficking in Pennsylvania, which was published in 2020 by the PA Office of Victims Services on its website. The guide provides an overview of existing legal protections for victims and survivors and lays out a set of guiding principles to be used by jurisdictions throughout the Commonwealth to address the unique needs of victims of sexual exploitation.

Anti-Human Trafficking Legislation: Over the past several years, the Committee has sent letters to legislative leaders in support of numerous bills addressing the needs of human trafficking victims and the prosecution of their traffickers. Notably, the Commission assisted in the drafting of the Safe Harbor Act, and Executive Director Lisette McCormick testified (attached at right) in favor of passage of the bill during a hearing before the PA Senate Judiciary Committee in 2018. With the threat of exploitation growing due to technological advances on the Internet and social media platforms, the Committee continues to advocate for legislative changes that facilitate the prosecution of traffickers and provide appropriate support services for victims.

Pro Bono Civil Court Representation of Human Trafficking Victims: The Committee is collaborating with K&L Gates to promote the law firm’s Anti-Human Trafficking Initiative, which provides pro bono, civil court representation to victims of human trafficking, particularly but not exclusively in the LGBTQ community. The Committee is also sharing information about the Hugh Lane Wellness Center, an organization serving the LGBTQ+ community in Western PA that has launched free civil legal aid services for low-income LGBTQ+/HIV community members in the area.

Anti-Human Trafficking Education and Training Programs: Several years ago, the Committee arranged for a training session on commercial sex trafficking of juveniles by the two founders of a long-standing anti-human trafficking unit in the Dallas, Texas Police Department. The program was designed to educate and train local and state law enforcement officers, prosecutors, child advocates and healthcare providers on identifying children who are at risk for being trafficked, proper interviewing techniques to use with juveniles who are arrested for prostitution, safeguarding victims, and successfully prosecuting their traffickers. Since then, the Committee has collaborated with other organizations, such as PCAR, PCADV, and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition, to promote and continue to offer training on this issue.

Statewide Rape Kit Tracking System: In response to a report that identified at least 3,200 untested rape kits in Pennsylvania, Act 164 was signed into law on October 24, 2018. The law amended the Sexual Assault Testing and Evidence Collection Act to establish a Commission to review funding needs and create a hotline for hospitals to call if a rape kit is not retrieved within 72 hours. The legislation was critically needed due to the reluctance of prosecutors to pursue rape charges against a perpetrator without the medical evidence provided by the kit. In late 2021, Interbranch Commission member State Senator Katie Muth introduced related legislation, S.B. 860, requiring the PA Dept. of Health (DOH) to launch a statewide rape kit tracking system, based on a successful system established by the state of Idaho, to be administered and funded jointly by the DOH and the PA State Police (“PSP”) and which would be anonymously accessible to victims and authorized users.

Although SB 860 did not pass, then-Governor Wolf signed Act 70 into law in July 2022. Among other things, Act 70 arranges for the PSP to collaborate with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape on the production of a report detailing the resources needed to establish a statewide rape kit tracking system. The Committee is monitoring the report’s progress to ensure that our Commonwealth does not lose momentum on this important system, which has already been implemented in 37 other states.

Guide on Safety Procedures in Courthouses and Related Facilities in Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Cases: After learning of several tragic instances involving the murders of domestic violence victims and judges in state courts and court-related facilities, the Committee produced a guide (attached at right) entitled And Safety for All: A Guide for Making the Courts Safe for Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. The guide includes a safety check list to be used by court administrators on a monthly basis, which was distributed to all PA judicial districts and centers providing assistance to victims/survivors of domestic violence.

Pamphlet on Safety for Domestic Violence Victims/Survivors: In 2007, the Committee produced a pamphlet (attached at right) entitled Domestic Violence: Safety Tips for You and Your Family to provide essential and practical safety tips for victims/survivors of domestic violence and their families, including information on how to obtain Protection from Abuse Orders. Over the course of the past 14 years, the Commission has distributed the pamphlet, printed in both English and Spanish, to police departments throughout the Commonwealth for use by officers responding to domestic violence calls. The pamphlets also have been provided to statewide victims’ services and advocacy organizations, such as PCADV and PCAR, for distribution to their clients.