Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Monday that she is launching the first “citywide strategic plan” that will address gender-based violence and human trafficking and is dedicating $25 million to the initiative.

Work to create the plan started in February when Lightfoot formed the Gender-Based Violence Advisory Council and dedicated $2.5 million toward domestic violence services. The new plan seeks to use all corners of the city’s government to address and prevent these problems in a trauma-informed and culturally specific ways, Lightfoot said.

“This is the first time in our city’s history that we’ve taken such a comprehensive, systematic approach to addressing gender-based violence,” Lightfoot said. “And it’s no secret that we’re facing a crisis in our city when it comes to this violence. Gender-based violence is always something that is present.”

The $25 million will go toward emergency financial assistance, legal services, housing, services for young people who experience or witness violence at home and prevention education efforts, according to the mayor’s office. A new position of director of gender-based violence strategy and policy will also be created in the mayor’s office in addition to hiring of more staff to address these issues, pending approval from the City Council.

All city departments and sister agencies will be involved in the plan, including the Chicago Police Department, but the Police Department will not receive any of the $25 million, the mayor’s office said.

Last year, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of gender-based violence cases “significantly escalated,” Lightfoot said at a City Hall roundtable. The real number, though, is likely much higher given these crimes are largely underreported.

In 2020, the Illinois Domestic Violence Hotline, which receives funding from the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services, received 28,292 calls, a 16% increase from 2019, according to the mayor’s office. Of those calls, 39% came from Chicago.

“I’ll be the first to admit that the criminal justice system is not the be-all and end-all answer to our violence challenges, particularly when it comes to addressing gender-based violence and human trafficking,” Lightfoot said. “That’s why this plan and these investments will also help create options for survivors that promote safety and stability outside of the criminal justice system itself.”

Scheherazade Tillet, co-founder and executive director of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering Black girls through gender equity and racial justice, said Monday at the roundtable that the plan is urgent.

“During the pandemic, we have seen historical amounts of trauma impacting (Black women and young girls),” she said.

Tillet said that this is a moment to redefine who the first responders to domestic violence are. Her organizations train young people to know about the resources in the city that they can reach if they witness or experience this violence, and that this plan will help fund those community resources and education.

“There’s a whole lot of people who are not getting the services that they deserve … as community-led organizations are often with less resources and doing more work with harder cases, specifically in the pandemic,” Tillet said. “And that’s what’s exciting about having a budget increase and making sure it doesn’t gets trickled down to the people who actually need it.”

Cristina Rodriguez, a youth advisory member with The Network, an organization that advocates for domestic violence survivors, said she believes it’s important for the city to incorporate more counselors into schools and to make sure those counselors are informed on when to recognize potential gender-based violence and provide resources.

Rodriguez said these crimes specifically affect Black and brown people, including Black transpeople, who are often left out of the conversation.

“I’ve seen it happen to a lot of my peers. I’ve seen them get affected from homelessness in really harsh ways this past year because of the pandemic. And even without, it feels as though the pandemic was sort of a resurgence for a lot of violence that was being swept under the rug and sort of just exploded in a lot of people’s homes,” Rodriguez said. “So I really, really, really have hope that there’s going to be more resources for those people, because it feels as though there’s nothing for them to rely on.”

Amanda Pyron, executive director of The Network, said in a phone interview with the Tribune that their program withdrew from the city’s Office of Violence Against Women-funded project in April, which was made to improve CPD’s response to gender-based violence. The decision to withdraw came after the fatal police shooting of 13-year-old Adam Toledo in March in Little Village.

“During our time on the (Office of Violence Against Women) funded working group, we have been told that Chicago Police Department policies may be reviewed by partner agencies, but not revised in any way. This is meaningless consultation and not indicative of true partnership or desire for improvement,” Pyron wrote in an emailed letter to Lightfoot’s chief of staff. “I want survivors to know that The Network understands they cannot trust the Chicago Police Department in the wake of this violence. I want them to know that we are fully committed to providing alternatives to a police response to gender-based violence and that these efforts now have our full investment.”

Pyron said her organization does support the citywide plan and is glad it addresses gender-based violence as a public health crisis. They are opposed to any increase in the police budget related to gender-based violence, but support an increase in funding to community-based programs.

Pyron said her organization plans to hold the city accountable to make sure the funds are distributed appropriately and timely because “survivors are saying very clearly that they cannot afford to be safe. It just simply is expensive, or the risk that the system poses is greater than the risk that their abuser poses,” especially for those who are undocumented immigrants.

“It absolutely has been a long time coming. It’s been long overdue. … No doubt about it. This is a beginning. This is a launching off point,” Pyron said. “We’re excited. It’s tough as an advocate because we have been waiting on this for a really, really long time, but this is a good beginning.”

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