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Local abuse victim's testimony helps to change Oregon law

Bill alters unemployment rules

Although it's not an appealing tradeoff, perhaps the pain and suffering White Salmon's Vicky Blomeley endured will end up helping others.

Blomeley, who was forced to quit her job and move from Portland after being repeatedly assaulted and threatened by an extremely abusive boyfriend, later also became the victim of the state bureaucracy: Her application for unemployment insurance was rejected by the Employment Department of the State of Oregon in November 2004.

The findings of fact in the case show that Blomeley told her employer in Portland that she planned to leave work because she was moving out of town to try to escape the abuse from her boyfriend.

Legal Aid Services of Oregon took up Blomeley's cause, and argued her case to the state's appeals board.

"Vicky Blomeley should not be penalized because she chose the most reasonable alternative to escape a potentially life-threatening situation," read an excerpt of the closing statement of Pamela Haan, an attorney working on Blomeley's case.

In December, however -- despite findings that confirmed accounts of stalking, beatings and threats to her life, the agency determined that the claimant, Blomeley, "voluntarily left work without good cause" and "had not pursued all her options."

The injustice of the situation motivated Blomeley to make sure others didn't have to experience the same penalty.

"When my abuser forced his way back into my life, I decided the only way to save myself was to completely leave everything behind, including my job, and to move to a new state," Blomeley explained in testimony before the Oregon Legislature in March. "I relived a horrible experience once again in the unemployment hearing. Telling an unemployment hearings officer that I have had restraining orders in the past, but when the abuser got out of jail, the abuse was worse because I had taken steps to protect myself."

Her testimony helped pave the way for Oregon House Bill 2662 to be approved. The bill, which was signed into law by Ore. Gov. Ted Kulongoski earlier this month, was fashioned with the recognition that "sometimes victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking must quit their jobs in order to get safe."

The bill extends unemployment compensation protection to victims of assault and stalking.

"Victims of violence who are forced to leave work for safety reasons should not be disqualified for unemployment benefits," read a summary of the new law. "The bill gives victims and their employers a positive option to avoid violence in the workplace, saving victims, families, co-workers, and employers."

The state of Washington passed similar legislation in 2004.

"It's important to strengthen our laws to support victims, rather than perpetuate their victimhood. What was going on in this situation, she was being forced into being a victim, possibly to her demise," said Chris Connolly, a legal advocate for Blomeley through White Salmon's Programs For Peaceful Living.

Connolly pointed out that Blomeley was at risk just by going to work.

"Abusers can find them at work. Hers actually followed her from work," she said.

Connolly said by denying Blomeley unemployment benefits, it made it much tougher for her to escape the abuse, and noted that Blomeley's case was not an isolated one.

"Obviously, it's not unusual. They were seeing enough of it that they needed to pass a law to deal with it," Connolly said.

Blomeley's testimony before the Oregon Legislature was chilling.

"I got several restraining orders which my abuser continually violated," she testified. "He was arrested numerous times and convicted of assault and restraining order violations. None of that stopped him ... my abuser always returned after being released from jail. He blamed me for having been in jail and would threaten to kill me if he went to jail again."

Knowing she had helped in getting a law passed that would help others who were in the same position she had been in was gratifying to Blomeley.

"It's a very positive feeling, very uplifting. It helps put all the bad experiences behind me," Blomeley said on Monday.


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