Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Victims Committee

Chaired by Lucille Marsh, Esq., the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Victims Committee works to address the particular needs of these victims and improve the legal response to their unique situations. The Committee’s current priorities include:

  • creating a statewide framework to assist victims of human trafficking;
  • advocating for legislation to assist victims of domestic violence and sexual assault; and
  • conducting training sessions for judges and lawyers about this topic.

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 Interstate Compact for Juveniles (ICJ) rules 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 update.

Protocols to Address the Needs of Human Trafficking Victims: Over the course of two years, 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.

Assisting Victims of Domestic Violence And Sexual Assault: Shortly after Pennsylvania implemented its COVID-19 stay-at-home order, several victims’ advocacy organizations requested the Committee’s help with addressing a marked increase in the incidence of domestic violence and child abuse and a corresponding decline in the number of calls by victims and witnesses to helplines. In response, the Committee successfully arranged for then-Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine to devote a portion of her daily COVID-19 press briefing to informing the public about the continued availability of access to the courts and to domestic violence and child abuse victims’ services during the course of the pandemic. The Commission continues to monitor both issues.

Supporting Legislation Creating a Statewide Rape Kit Tracking System: In response to a report from Auditor General Eugene DePasquale that identified at least 3,200 untested rape kits in Pennsylvania, Act 164 of 2018 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. Since the passage of Act 164, the Committee has been working with Interbranch Commission member State Senator Katie Muth to monitor the implementation of the legislation. Based on a successful tracking system established by the state of Idaho, Senator Muth recently introduced a new bill, S.B. 860, requiring the Department of Health to launch a statewide rape kit tracking system, to be administered and funded jointly by the Department of Health and the PA State Police, and which will be anonymously accessible to victims and authorized users. The Committee is planning to advocate for passage of the new legislation, including sending a letter in support of it to Senate Judiciary Committee members.

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 in favor of passage of the bill during a hearing before the PA Senate Judiciary Committee in 2018. The testimony is attached at right, under Reports.

With the threat of exploitation growing as a result of 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.

Guide on Safety Procedures in Courthouses and Related Facilities in Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Cases: After learning of several tragic instances involving shootings of domestic violence victims and judges in state courts and court-related facilities, the Committee began researching safety procedures in Pennsylvania’s courts, particularly in cases involving domestic violence and sexual assault. The Committee’s investigation resulted in the production of our 2016 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, which includes a safety check list to be used by court administrators on a monthly basis, was distributed to all Pennsylvania judicial districts and centers that provide assistance to victims and survivors of domestic violence.

Pamphlet on Safety for Domestic Violence Victims: 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 of domestic violence and their families, including information on accessing the court for 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.

Other Anti-Human Trafficking Initiatives and Trainings: 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. Specifically, the Committee is working with the firm to disseminate information to victims throughout the Commonwealth regarding the availability of legal counsel.

Several years ago, the Committee also brought two police detectives, who head a special anti-human trafficking unit in the Dallas, Texas Police Department, to Pittsburgh to conduct a training session on commercial sex trafficking of juveniles. 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.

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 areas of public benefits assistance, human trafficking, expungements, eviction defense, utilities restoration, and name and gender marker changes.

The Committee’s past initiatives include:

  • advocating for the use of the Sexual Violence Benchbook, included at right under “Reports;” and
  • other initiatives contained in Chapters Ten and Eleven of the Final Report of the Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System.