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Changes in laws benefit abuse victims

A workshop held Nov. 5 enlightened local police officers about recent updates to laws that affect victims of domestic and sexual abuse. The half-day session, held at the DeWitt Police Department, was sponsored by the Syracuse Area Domestic & Sexual Violence Coalition's Justice, Legal and Legislative Committee, which is staffed and administered by Vera House.

"The laws around domestic and sexual violence are changing constantly," said Loren Cunningham, education director, Vera House. "[Officers] may have received updates on some of the intricacies, but are still thinking about how to implement them in their regular response. Hopefully, they will walk away feeling like they can better respond to victims of domestic and sexual violence with whom they come into contact."

Topics such as case preparation and evidence-based prosecution also informed officers of the extra steps they can take to help gain convictions against offenders. For example, a description of injuries can be supplemented with photographs.

"Little things like that can be really helpful to the prosecution," Cunningham said.

The presentation included guest speakers Lt. Steven Baratta, Family Services Division, Syracuse Police Department; Assistant District Attorney Jeremy Cali, Special Victims Bureau, Onondaga County District Attorney's Office; Sgt. Jack Schmidt, Abused Persons Unit, Onondaga County Sheriff's Office and Jennifer Shaw of Vera House.

Shaw shared general information and changes to community services, such as Vera House's most recent shift in focus. Traditionally, Vera House offered a refuge primarily for women and children. In the last year, the not-for-profit has reconfigured its shelter to include space for men affected by domestic and sexual violence, as well as for homosexuals and trans-gender people.

"Over the past couple years, we did some reconfiguration in our shelter to create space that would be safe and accessible for anyone," Cunningham said.

Cunningham emphasized the advantage in partnering with law enforcement. Community outreach between both Vera House and the Syracuse Area Domestic and Sexual Violence Coalition educates people that all forms of abuse are disrespectful and inappropriate. The law, however, has a stringent definition of what is legally considered a sexual assault or an assault.

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