EDITORIAL: Punishing those fleeing domestic violence

The York Dispatch

Domestic violence victims shouldn’t have to worry if a cry for help will get them evicted.

If York City Council isn’t careful, though, that will be a potentially deadly consideration for women or men trying to escape abuse.

In recent years, Yok County has seen a startling number of domestic-related homicides. We turn to our task force. We offer toll free help lines, shelters and other resources.

Just ask for help, we practically beg. Yes, it’s a leap — emotionally, financially — but we’ll help you through it.

But will we?

York City Councilman Henry Nixon gives the first responders memorial tribute during the 2016 Court of Valor & Safekeepers Shrine Ceremony with York's Observance of the 15th Anniversary of 9/11 at Prospect Hill Cemetery in North York, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

What if the abuser finds their victim in the new safe home? What if they harass their victim and make a scene? What if they are persistent and increasingly violent?

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Under a York City nuisance ordinance council President Henry Nixon now wants to enforce, that victim could still pay a price for that fixation.

According to the ordinance, a city property receives points each time a police officer responds to criminal activity there. A property that racks up 12 or more points in six months, or 18 or more points in 12 months, may be shut down by the city.

After a violation, property owners receive a notice explaining why the points have been assigned and are asked to address the situation to prevent future police visits, which include terminating "the lease of any tenant who is permitting or maintaining the nuisance activity on the property," according to the plan.

The thing is, several offenses are associated with domestic violence, such as public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and firearms-related offenses.

Therefore, if an abuse victim calls police for help during an incident, that could result in points assigned to the property.

Imagine a victim who has escaped from an abusive relationship, moved and begun rebuilding their life when their former partner tracks them down.

The abusive behavior begins again, and the victim is left with two bad choices: report it and risk being evicted, or don't report it and risk their safety.

The city's abatement plan, in its current form, is a minefield of potential legal and ethical ramifications, according to Rachel Pinsker, legal services manager for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

"The ordinance is really concerning," she said.

According to Pinsker, there is a strong connection between domestic violence and homelessness, and nuisance abatement plans only exacerbate the problem.

A 2013 study out of Milwaukee examined the impact of the city's nuisance ordinance and found a third of the citations issued over a two-year period were the result of 911 calls from a domestic violence victim.

In the 157 citation letters connected to domestic violence incidents, 56 included the landlord's response. In 57 percent of the cases, the victim was evicted, and in 83 percent of the cases, landlords relied on either eviction or the threat of eviction to deter future 911 calls, the researchers found.

Nixon said he’s aware of the concerns, and the council will be consulting with its solicitor to address any areas that put abuse victims at risk.

"We'll certainly try to look at it carefully," he said. "It's most certainly an unintended consequence."

Let us add: It’s an unacceptable “unintended consequence.”

It shouldn’t even be on the table until Nixon and the council have a plan to deal with it.