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On Friday, Nov. 16, Penn staff, Philadelphia City Council members and local advocates convened in City Hall to announce the release of a report called “Violence Against Women in Philadelphia: A Report to the City.”

The report, which was published by the Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence at Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice features 12 agencies who service domestic violence victims. The report addresses their actions and makes recommendations for the groups.

Susan Sorenson, director of the Ortner Center, noted that while other reports have been produced on domestic violence, this report was novel because of its approach.

“Oftentimes people in the trenches — like at the police department, the battered hotlines, the battered women’s shelters, the rape crisis center … are looking at each [individual] case,” Sorenson said. “I wanted this report to give us a view from 10,000 feet, if you will, so that we could look at the issue as it cuts across so many different things.”

“This report really documents how it cuts across all sectors in the city, and if the [people in the trenches] don’t recognize it then they’re not dealing with it efficiently,” she added.

But sexual violence is not just a problem for the city. Acting as the lead student researcher for the report, College senior and 34th Street editor Elizabeth Sivitz said she learned that only about one or two students a year will come forward to report a sexual assault at Penn. According to the report, there are well over two hundred expected cases of sexual assault per year at the University alone.

“The takeaway for students should be ‘don’t stay silent,’” Sivitz said. “Awareness is the first step, and I really don’t think people are aware.”

Aside from raising awareness about the prevalence of sexual assault, Sorenson believes the contribution of the report is “saying something positive about what’s going on in Philadelphia.”

“A lot of organizations are taking really positive steps around these issues,” she said. For example, despite multiple criticisms of Philadelphia’s family court, the number of Protection from Abuse Orders — or restraining orders — issued in Philadelphia per capita is about two times higher than that of the rest of Pennsylvania, meaning a greater number of people are receiving protection.

However, according to the report, there are many areas for improvement.

City Councilperson Jannie Blackwell, who helped bring this report to the City Council’s attention, stressed that the problems with domestic violence in Philadelphia aren’t related to a lack of expertise but a lack of resources.

“We have the people … who know what to do if they’re given the opportunity to do it,” Blackwell said. “The biggest issue is always trying to garner the dollars and have government commit to spending more dollars, to do what it can to alleviate this issue.”

With regard to budgetary shortfalls, Sorenson points specifically to a 2011-2012 budget cut to General Assistance, a program which previously gave about $200 per month to certain adults without children — including victims of domestic abuse.

“The people who are victims have fewer resources,” she said. “They don’t have any place to go. They don’t have shelter beds to go to … and their unemployment rates are high, so they’re likely to return to the abuser and trade being abused for being able to be housed and have food.”

Even after extensive research for the report, Sivitz was only struck by the complexity of domestic violence when she began interviewing abusers themselves at Menergy, a battering intervention group in Philadelphia.

“Hearing men cry because they loved their wives and they couldn’t stop abusing them was really shocking,” she said. “It is in many cases a psychological problem, and it’s not as easy to fix as it had seemed like it was. And that’s really when it felt very emotional for me.”

Although the issue of domestic violence may be disheartening, the product of the Ortner Center’s work has received positive attention. Councilperson Blackwell called the report a “fabulous publication.”

“It is a modern, easy-to-read publication that tells you where you can go and who’s dealing with the issues,” she said.

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