Today, we honor the anniversary of the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA), the first Federal commitment to create a pathway to safety for survivors of domestic violence and their children. Before FVPSA’s passage on this day in 1984, domestic violence had long been a hidden problem, and survivors often endured abuse in silence because they had nowhere to go.
Thirty years later, a national network of domestic violence programs funded by FVPSA offers an escape for millions of women, children, and men each year. But not everyone experiencing abuse is able to access the help they need. Older people are among those who still need more.
More research is needed, but we know that domestic violence among older persons—including physical, sexual, emotional, and economic abuse by an intimate partner—disproportionately affects women. Women who experience domestic violence in later life can face additional challenges in seeking support to escape abuse. Gaps in services can result in older women being excluded, further exacerbating their vulnerability.
The National Clearinghouse on Abuse in Later Life, a project of the Wisconsin Coalition against Domestic Violence, observes (PDF) that there is a significant decrease in the number of women aged 50 and older accessing services from domestic violence and sexual assault programs. According to advocates in the field, this is partially due to the focus of many programs on assisting women with children, who are eligible for public benefits aimed at families. This can mean that less support is available for survivors between the ages of 50 and 64. No longer parenting, these women are ineligible for financial assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, but they are still too young for Social Security.
As a former domestic violence advocate who also has spent many years working within the network of aging services, I can attest that few options exist to assist survivors in this age group who want to become independent from their abuser but do not have the financial resources to do so.
FVPSA was the result of years of activism from the domestic violence movement, led by advocates seeking to secure safety for all survivors. It has made an enormous difference, and things are continuing to get better. As FVPSA Director Marylouise Kelley notes in her reflection on the 30th anniversary, “Shelters are becoming more welcoming and accessible for all survivors (regardless of race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, age, physical ability or language proficiency).”
While it’s true that in recent years, domestic violence programs have done a better job of accommodating a more diverse range of survivors with unique and varying needs, older survivors can still fall through the cracks. As our country continues to expand its awareness of the impact and prevalence of domestic violence, we also need to improve our ability to provide services to people who need them in later life.
Today, let’s celebrate the progress our country has made in responding to domestic violence, but let’s also commit to establishing a network of service providers and shelters that are fully equipped to support all survivors, including those in later life.