BOSTON (State House News Service) — Most lawmaking business has been paused as the Legislature turns its attention to the coronavirus outbreak that has shut down most of the state, but advocates reminded lawmakers Thursday not to forget bills to help sexual assault and domestic violence survivors — many of whom face heightened risks during the emergency conditions — and to reprioritize the legislation as soon as possible.
In a virtual advocacy day, organizers brought together by the JDI coalition called for action on legislation restricting local police involvement in federal immigration enforcement, promoting comprehensive sex education, boosting aid to low-income families, and increasing access to resources for survivors of college campus sexual violence.
Rep. Natalie Blais, who cosponsored several of the bills, told those who tuned in to the videocall that their advocacy is still "urgently needed" while the State House is closed to the public.
"It is clear that we need to prioritize legislation that will support the health and well being of our communities as we come out of this crisis," she said.
Participants made efforts to reach their lawmakers remotely Thursday, and the Zoom call hosted by JDI — also known as Jane Doe Inc. — had more than 160 people involved.
All of the proposals discussed, they said, have become even more important during the spread of COVID-19 because survivors are more vulnerable to abuse when they are out of work or may need to stay in an unsafe situation amidst widespread closures.
"The current situation only compounds and exacerbates what they are experiencing in particular," said JDI Executive Director Debra Robbin.
The pieces of legislation supporters backed are at varying stages in the legislative process. One bill is new, filed Wednesday by Rep. Marjorie Decker and Sen. Sal DiDomenico as short-term support for the state's lowest-income families amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Their legislation (HD 4951) would pay all families receiving state benefits a "bonus month" of aid as soon as possible, a stopgap to help them through work shortages and strain caused by the widespread closures.
"We are in an immediate crisis, and it affects low-income people in a way some of us can't even begin to imagine," said Jamie Sabino, co-managing attorney of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute's Civil Legal Aid for Victims of Crime Initiative.
Another bill supporters pushed Thursday, which passed the Senate 33-2 in January, would require schools that teach sex education to use age-appropriate, medically accurate and LGBTQ-inclusive matierals and to cover consent.
That proposal (S 2475) is pending before the House Ways and Means Committee, and its lead House sponsor, Rep. Jim O'Day, said in February he is "optimistic" about its chances.
Rep. Tram Nguyen said Thursday that a bill backed by advocates strengthening protections against college campus sexual violence and granting survivors more supports is "a priority" of House Speaker Robert DeLeo this session.
Advocates at Thursday's virtual event also renewed support for the so-called Safe Communities Act (S 1401 / H 3573), which has not yet come up for a vote in either branch this session after a packed and heated hearing on its contents.
The legislation would limit the ability of local law enforcement to participate in federal immigration matters, which supporters say will help improve police-community relations and prevent undocumented survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault from suffering in silence.
"If the Safe Communities Act had been passed, these undocumented survivors would have a better safety net because it would give them confidence in reaching out to law enforcement," said Gladys Ortiz, program coordinator for the REACH Beyond Domestic Violence organization.
Speakers also called for legislation increasing financial support to low-income families and more annual budget funding for both domestic violence and sexual assault prevention and treatment.
While a Department of Public Health line item for prevention and response has increased each of the past two years and is slated for another increase in Gov. Charlie Baker's fiscal year 2021 budget proposal, advocates said the boosts so far are too small to create an increase in services.
A $5.3 million larger line item in the annual spending bill — whose debate may be delayed because of the coronavirus — would pay for two more advocates at every rape crisis center in Massachusetts and one more advocate in each community-based domestic violence or emergency shelter program, supporters said.
"We know that programs are seeing the additional demands for services, especially during this time," said Hema Sarang-Sieminski, policy director at JDI. "Every time there is news of sexual violence-related matters in the media, we see requests for service going up."
by Chris Lisinski, State House News Service
(Photo: WBZ NewsRadio graphic)