She is executive director of the Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, made up of 45 organizations around the state that serve women who have encountered violence.
Timmons, 49, coordinates the services of women’s shelters and rape-crisis centers across the state. She also plays a key role in shaping the state legislative agenda for groups that combat sexual violence.
Born in Camas, Wash., Timmons was herself a victim of childhood sexual abuse. Now a mother of four daughters—and a grandmother of two—she has taken up “indigenous healing methods,” including herbalism, storytelling and a drum circle, where she plays with other survivors. “It works on the body,” she says, “and the body holds the memory of the trauma.”
With the Oregon Legislature’s 2013 session starting in earnest this week, WW sat down with Timmons to discuss why protections for women often fall through the state’s safety net, how the laws on restraining orders need to be changed and where victims can go when they have nowhere to turn.
WW: Is Oregon moving in the right direction on dealing with sexual violence?
Vanessa Timmons: We’re making progress. Some really innovative things have happened in Oregon over the last couple [legislative] sessions. One being the Healthy Teen Relationships Act, making sure that all of the middle schools and high schools have domestic-violence curriculum and training about teen-dating violence. That’s a really important step in the right direction.
Where I’d like to see things move more quickly is we are severely underfunded in our state. We’re funding at less than 50 percent of what’s needed. We would need $16 million to bring baseline services—that means emergency shelters. That’s not looking at prevention or anything like that.
Why are shelters closing or reducing services? Are budgets being cut?
From visiting shelters, this is what I see: We’re raising awareness of what domestic violence actually is. We’re raising awareness of what the impact of domestic violence is on children—how it affects their cognitive development, their ability to graduate, later criminal behaviors. We talk a lot about the fatality risk of domestic violence.
So if you keep services at the same level, and you increase awareness across the board about what domestic violence is, you’re going to have an increased need for domestic-violence services. You’re in effect creating a deficit without cuts.
What effect is that deficit having on women and families?
I have personally worked with survivors [where] this means the difference between leaving and staying. It’s not just about, “What am I going to do for this week or next week?”
We’re looking at having the need for permanent low-cost housing. The need for entry-level jobs. The need for access to mental-health counseling for them and their children.
So when we don’t have these comprehensive services, [it’s] the difference between really feeling hopeless and having nowhere to go, or being able to create a life for yourself.
Looking at that very concretely: It’s survivors sleeping in their cars. It’s survivors couch-surfing. Camping is very common. I’ve done safety planning with survivors in hospital waiting rooms—they’re staying in the waiting room because it’s free, it’s clean and it’s well lit.
What’s your highest priority in the legislature that’s not money?
Housing. Increase access to affordable housing for survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
Another one that’s not money or housing would be to get the Sexual Assault Protection Order passed so that survivors of sexual assault could get a restraining order without having to say they’re having an intimate relationship with someone who is their perpetrator.
The protective orders that are available right now are designed for domestic-violence survivors. But there’s no protection order for someone who’s a victim of sexual assault. Even though most sexual-assault survivors know their perpetrator, they would not identify that as an intimate relationship.
What’s the most troubling fact about domestic violence in Oregon?
There’s so many things. What troubles me most right now is the lack of intersection in the way the services and the responses happen.
It’s very difficult for a survivor who is a woman of color, who maybe has drug and alcohol and mental-health issues, who is experiencing poverty, to get help. The programs don’t work together well. And I don’t mean that to shame anyone.
There are areas where our services work very well. And there are areas where it completely falls apart.