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Stefani proposes ballot measure to create independent victims’ rights office, right to counsel for domestic violence survivors

A new city office dedicated to helping crime victims will be on the ballot in June of 2022. 

On Tuesday, Supervisor Catherine Stefani announced a ballot measure to establish a city office tasked with helping crime victims and witnesses, and to create a legally enshrined right to civil counsel for domestic violence survivors. Stefani said the initiative is motivated by crime trends in San Francisco and the barriers that domestic violence survivors face when seeking legal and other support. 

“Too many survivors are forced to choose between economic security and their personal safety, especially when they do not have access to full-scope legal protection,” said Stefani, who represents District 2. “This new program will ensure that survivors of domestic violence will never again have to face these difficult choices alone.”

Stefani’s proposal would create an office called the Office of Victim and Witness Rights—a non-law enforcement agency tasked with providing comprehensive support to all crime victims. Stefani told the SF Standard that should the initiative pass, the office could begin serving domestic violence victims immediately by partnering with Bay Area legal aid groups, but may take a year or longer to hire staff and fully define its scope. 

In support of the ballot measure, District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney said the office could help crime victims navigate the many consequences of having been a victim or a witness to a crime—everything from a referral on where to get a broken window fixed to mental health care for trauma. 

“All of those things require assistance and support from our city,” Haney said. “No victim should be alone in this.”

Stefani said the details of the cost and structure of the office, who would lead it, and the full range of its services will be determined by budget discussions in 2022. Haney said at Tuesday’s press conference that as chair of the city’s budget committee, he is committed to funding the new office should the initiative pass. Voters will weigh in on the measure in a statewide primary scheduled for June 7, 2022. 

The proposed office would be entirely separate from the police department and District Attorney’s office, a move that Stefani said she hopes will encourage more crime victims to seek out help. Citing concern over domestic violence reporting and prosecution rates, Stefani earlier introduced a local ordinance to require regular reporting of domestic violence cases by police and prosecutors. 

Endorsing the initiative, District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí said creating an office independent of local police will be critical.

“A disproportionate number of people that are victims of violence hail from communities of color, and having our current victim services housed in law enforcement can be triggering and can be a barrier to asking for help,” Safaí said. 

For victims of domestic violence—who may be hesitant to seek help due to lack of resources or other concerns—the proposal aims to establish a right to civil counsel by giving grants to legal aid groups who represent survivors pro bono.

In front of City Hall on Tuesday, domestic violence survivor Karen Miron said resources that are free and accessible are what got her and her daughter out of an abusive relationship when she had nowhere else to turn.

Karen Miron sits on the steps of City Hall on November 16, 2021, after delivering a testimony about her experience as a domestic abuse survivor. | Camille Cohen

Miron said she had run out of money fighting for full custody of her daughter from her abuser when Open Door Legal, a local legal aid nonprofit, stepped in to help her win full custody. She said she wants those same services to be available to all domestic violence survivors. 

“Many women like me, they don’t leave because they don’t have the resources or any kind of help,” Miron said. “So they stay, thinking this is it, this is life, there is no help in sight.”