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Keynote Address: Paula Zahn

Paula Zahn, Executive Producer and Host of On the Case with Paula Zahn
NIJ Conference 2010
June 14-16

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Keynote Address: Paula Zahn

Paula Zahn, Executive Producer and Host of On the Case with Paula Zahn
NIJ Conference 2010
June 14-16

Keynote Address Part I

Paula Zahn: I've had the pleasure over the last couple of hours, learning a little bit more about some of the issues you have tackled this week, and I have to say, I have tremendous respect for the work you do. I understand that many of you are working in a very challenging environment with devastated budgets, and you really are my heroes and heroines. I know that Kris shared a phrase with me that I think says it all about the kind of work that you're doing here, and that's, “If you change the life of one person, you have changed the world.” So I wanted to start off by giving you all a round of applause for what you do day in and day out.


It was outside of Houston, Texas, back in the 1980s. A woman was viciously attacked by her husband in front of her children on Thanksgiving Day. Most chilling about the story was that his parents were there at the table. They sat there silently, still and unmoved, as their son viciously pummeled his wife black and blue — first with his fists, then with his steel-toed work boots. She miraculously survived her attack and summoned the courage to leave her husband, escape to a shelter and come forward with her story. And that's when I met her, about six months after that attack when I interviewed her at the shelter, and I had learned that her husband had beaten her many times before. Over the years, her children had seen her bruises, her swollen eyes, her bloodied lips. But that Thanksgiving Day was the first time that her children had watched their father beat their mother. They were terrified, paralyzed with fear, unable to stop their father's vicious attack. The mother knew that they might be his next victims, and that's what led her to say, “Enough.”

In many ways, this woman's was the classic domestic violence story. She lived in a suburb, worked a part-time job, was mom to three young kids, lived on pins and needles, going through every day in fear of whether he might beat her when her husband came home from work. She never knew what might trigger an outburst. She said one day, it was making the morning's toast too light. The next day it was perhaps toasting it too dark. For years, she believed that she was to blame, that somehow she deserved to be punished. Only when she saw the fear in her children's eyes did she find the strength to say, “No more.”

This was the first domestic violence story I ever covered as a cub reporter for WFAA TV in Dallas, and I will never forget it. It got a lot of attention. After it aired I got hundreds of letters from victims, from men and women alike, thanking me and the station for bringing awareness to this issue that no one was comfortable talking about.

It's easy to pretend that domestic violence happens to “other people,” but domestic violence doesn't discriminate. It crosses racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, religious and age lines. And even though women are the most immediate victims, this crime affects society as a whole. The cycle of abuse passes on through generations, scarring everyone in its wake.

In the case I just described, the husband had been raised in an abusive environment, and it is no accident that two-thirds of women in prison are themselves victims of domestic abuse. Put simply, the problem of violence against women is everybody's problem, and in 1994 a landmark piece of legislation finally acknowledged that. The Violence Against Women Act sparked a sea change in the way federal, state, local and tribal entities respond to domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking. And as criminal justice experts like you know all too well, the Violence Against Women Act enhanced the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women.

It has funded community resources to prevent violence and support victims. And it has shed light and resources on issues too often overlooked like the prevalence of domestic abuse in Native American communities, and the need to improve services for women of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

The Justice Department has since prosecuted more than 2,600 cases under the provisions that target domestic violence abusers, especially the most aggressive and violent abusers who cross state lines to pursue their victims. Justice has also used stronger cyber stalking laws to prosecute cases using the latest technology. Perhaps most importantly, VAWA fundamentally shifted the conversation. Domestic violence has often been treated with shame instead of rage. It has been kept in the shadows as a private matter instead of being brought into the light as a public disgrace.

But that's changing. At long last, through VAWA and as many programs, we are rendering unacceptable the notion that a battered woman is ever at fault. Over the course of my 30-year career I have covered countless incidents of violence against women, but, as people like you who have devoted your lives to criminal justice understand, you can't report on domestic violence and not want to advocate against it.

Now for the first time, I'm executive producing my own program called On the Case with Paula Zahn for Investigation Discovery, which Kris mentioned. And in the show I delve deeply into cases of violent crime by interviewing those involved. And in the course of researching cases to cover, I've become engrossed in the stories of survivors, the sadness of the victims' families, and their mutual determination to spare other people the tremendous pain they've endured.

In our first season we did a story about a 17-year-old girl named Ashley Reeves who had become involved with a young teacher, a all-American guy who happened to be a coach from a nearby high school. His name was Sam Shelton. They both liked sports. They started meeting together to play basketball. But Ashley's family didn't know how much time they were spending together until she went missing and they discovered the hundreds of texts and e-mails between Ashley and Sam.

The day she disappeared, Sam had asked Ashley to meet him at a park. While the nature of their relationship remains unclear to this day, he later claimed that he wanted to meet up with her to break off the relationship — that things escalated, that he pulled open the passenger door of the car, put Ashley in a wrestling chokehold, and yanked her out of the car. He said he heard her neck pop. He panicked, so he said he dragged her out of the car, strangled her and left her for dead.

After a long interrogation, Sam's tearful confession and a desperate search, Ashley was finally found in the woods, unconscious and close to death. She had been lying face up on the ground, exposed to the rain and cold for 35 hours. But with the help of paramedics, trauma doctors and physical therapists, miraculously, Ashley recovered.

She and so many others on our show choose to step forward and tell their stories in the hope of inspiring other women to seek help, to let them know that they are not alone. They find that the act of telling is an act of empowerment, a way to reassert control over their lives.

Keynote Address Part II

Paula Zahn: I still get very emotional when I think of Ashley because the one image that I just simply can't erase from my mind is after the police officers were able to break Sam and his confession, they actually took him shackled into the woods, and it was like The Blair Witch Project, where he, with flashlights, along with the investigators led the investigators to Ashley's body. And Ashley told me in the interview the one thing that she demanded once she came out of her coma, which lasted over a month, that she wanted to see the pictures of where she was found and what had happened to her because she wanted to be empowered and remind herself that somehow she had survived this savage attack. Can you imagine? She looked at every single one of the pieces from the crime scene.

Thanks to the Violence Against Women's [sic] Act, and thanks to the stories of brave women like Ashley and others. In the last 15 years more victims have reported incidents to police, and the rate of intimate partner violence has actually decreased. But the law enforcement system still faces many obstacles in addressing violence against women.

As you well know, every day more than 680 women in the United States are sexually assaulted or raped. Yet many jurisdictions face a serious backlog of rape kits, which are crucial in resolving rape cases. In Houston the backlog of rape kits today stands at 4,000; in Detroit, 10,000. It's unacceptable.

In Connecticut, it can take over two months for a person who has been ordered into a family violence program to actually begin his sessions. Earlier this year a Connecticut man was arrested for beating his wife and then ordered into a family violence education program. Four months later he was arrested again for beating his wife, three weeks before his classes were scheduled to begin. He was released from police custody. He went straight home and killed his wife and himself. Months of delay cost an innocent woman her life, and cost two children their mother.

On our show we've seen victims from diverse backgrounds, but whose stories all share common themes. This season, On the Case will cover a case about a serial rapist in Colorado who would've been stopped if the reported rape of a young woman had been taken more seriously. He went on to rape more than 12 women after her assault.

Cities like New York have long faced claims that sexual assault complaints have been mishandled by the police. The city recently appointed a task force to identify and solve problems specifically related to sexual assault claims. There's also the perennial challenge of securing adequate funding to provide shelter and support services for victims and their families. As you all know far too well, the economic downturn has made it even harder for states and localities to maintain shelters for battered women and their children, even as economic insecurity makes it harder for women to leave their abusers and seek help.

As the Director of the Office of Violence Against Women recently testified, on one day in September 2009, more than 9,200 requests for services went unmet. And we know that intimate partner abuse can happen well before marriage as in the tragic case of the University of Virginia senior Yeardley Love, which is just the most recent reminder.

For every case that makes headlines, there are countless more incidents of domestic and dating violence that go unreported. According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner abuse and violence. This is just a staggering statistic that you may be familiar with but I had never heard before. One of five teens in a serious relationship, one in five, reports having been hit, slapped or pushed by a partner, never mind those who are afraid to speak out.

Today's technology makes it easier for stalkers to haunt their victims. Young people can use the Internet to bully each other, and girls can be targeted by sexual comments or advances, making them even more vulnerable. And as cases like Ashley Reeves remind us, families may not even be aware their daughters are in a risky relationship. That's why it is so important to educate young people about healthy relationships.

The 2000 and 2005 reauthorization of VAWA included an increased emphasis on dating violence and stalking. But we can't just assume it's the government's job. We all have a responsibility as parents, as teachers, coaches, friends, communities, neighbors to look out for warning signs.

As a mother of three, my greatest concern is always for my children's safety. And as a parent, I guess the one thing I've learned from so many heartbroken parents that I've interviewed is, no matter how much we teach our children the right lessons that violence is never OK, we don't have complete control over them and what happens to them.

So I am proud to have worked with Investigation Discovery to produce a public service announcement promoting the National Teen Dating Abuse hotline and the website www.loveisrespect.org. I've been honored to showcase VAWA's 15th anniversary in my outreach to national audiences.

As you are aware, the media is a powerful tool. We have a pulpit like no other. With that privilege, we also have a responsibility to give voice to the voiceless. We can give women a spotlight and a sanctuary — an outlet to share their stories and remind those who have not yet come forward that they don't have to suffer in silence.

We can scrutinize laws for loopholes that allow criminals to walk the streets. We can expose the system when it takes shortcuts, skimps on vital programs or implements bad law, or in the case that I've covered just recently, just egregious mistakes made in investigations. We have to continue to call attention to these mistakes so they're not made again. We can remind the public that victims of violent crime are not at fault for what happened to them. And that to hold them accountable for their abuse is to victimize them once again.

In their book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, reporters Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue in the 19th century the paramount moral challenge was slavery. In the 20th century it was totalitarianism. In this century it is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape. For too long, our world has accepted this kind of violence, but it doesn't have to be this way.

The brutality we fight today, the muffled destruction of domestic abuse can be overcome. If only we muster up the will to look it squarely in its bruised face. If only we match our words with action, with resources to combat the crime. If only we teach the public that such violence is never tolerable. We have a lot of work ahead, but I am so encouraged to know that you are on the case in such a passionate way. Once again, I applaud all of you for the work that you are doing to make men and women safer in our society, and I couldn't be any more delighted to spend this part of the day with you. Thank you so much for your attention, and continued good luck.


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NIJ Conference
Keynote Address
June 2010
Paula Zahn, Journalist, "On the Case with Paula Zahn"

NIJ Conference 2010 Highlights

Date created: July 14, 2010