Rising Above 

Week of events brings attention to rape kit crisis, visas for domestic violence victims.

On Valentine's night, survivors of rape and domestic violence will have the chance to practice a little healing self-love in an "ecstatic dance" session with DJ Intuigroove.

That's just one of several local events scheduled for One Billion Rising, a national movement aimed at using dance to end violence against women and girls. Now in its second year, the local event will focus specifically on Memphis' back-logged rape kits as well as the hurdles undocumented women may face when they apply for special visas after reporting domestic violence.

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"The tagline for the event is 'rise, release, dance,' so the rise is taking action and the release and dance are healing," said Allison Glass of the Women's Action Coalition, the local organizer of the event.

In December, a federal class action lawsuit was filed against the city, alleging that civil rights violations occurred when the city failed to test more than 12,000 rape kits, which have been back-logged for years. So far, the Memphis Police Department (MPD) has sent 2,226 of those kits off for initial testing to determine if there's enough DNA to test further. The MPD refused to comment about the status of kits because of the lawsuit.

"Many of the cases that are awaiting DNA analysis right now are on the cusp of expiring from the statute of limitations. We are losing cases every day," said Meaghan Ybos, a rape survivor who works with the Memphis Area Women's Council. Ybos' own rape kit was back-logged for nine years.

A bill that would do away with the statute of limitations for rape cases is making its way through the General Assembly. Currently, the statute of limitations is 15 years.

The other issue of focus for this year's One Billion Rising is that of U Visas for undocumented victims of domestic violence. If any undocumented immigrant is a victim of a crime, he or she can apply for a U Visa, which allows him or her stay in the country for four years on a work permit. After three years with a U Visa, one can apply for lawful permanent residency.

Before the visa is issued by the Department of Homeland Security, the local police and district attorney's office must certify that the applicant was helpful in the investigation and prosecution of the crime committed against him or her.

But immigration attorney Sally Joyner, who is working with the Women's Action Coalition on One Billion Rising, said the MPD and the Shelby County District Attorney's office are using factors such as an applicant's own criminal background and the length of the victim's relationship with her abuser to determine whether or not the agencies will certify a U Visa.

"The MPD is basically saying they're not interested in signing certifications for women who have been in long-term relationships with their abusers, for women who came to this country with their abuser," Joyner said.

The MPD did not respond to requests for comment. District Attorney General Amy Weirich confirmed that her office does perform a background check on U Visa applicants, but she said that's because an applicant's criminal record is wiped clean if a U Visa is approved. She said criminal records are weighed on a case-by-case basis.

"If you've got a pending murder case in California, it wouldn't serve the ends of justice to have that wiped clean," Weirich said.

On Tuesday, February 11th, from 6 to 8 p.m. at First Congregational Church, One Billion Rising is hosting a community conversation about both of these issues. They're also hosting a screening of The Bro Code: How Contemporary Culture Creates Sexist Men at First Congo on Sunday, February 9th, at 4 p.m. and a candlelight vigil on Friday, February 14th, at 5 p.m. at Poplar and Highland followed by the "ecstatic dance" session at 7:30 p.m. at Co-Motion Studio. Sunday, February 16th, will be a day of support workshops and dance and yoga sessions for survivors of rape and domestic violence.

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