For nearly 20 years, law enforcement and victim assistance programs have provided much needed services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault due in part to grant money provided through the Department of Justice's Violence Against Women Act.
What is the Violence Against Women Act?
The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA) was created to assist criminal justice agencies in improving their response to domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking, as well as increase the availability of services for victims of such crimes. Since its inception, the Violence Against Women Act has come up for reauthorization twice, once in 2000 and again in 2005. On both occasions, it received quick approval by the United States Congress.
Over the last 18 years, the program has awarded more than $1.6 billion in grants. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, the grants have assisted "state, tribal, and local governments and community-based agencies to train personnel, establish specialized domestic violence and sexual assault units, assist victims of violence, and hold perpetrators accountable."
The grants have also provided training for members of the faith based community and health care industries on how to recognize the signs of domestic violence. Grant funds have also played a key role in allowing sexual assault agencies to provide counseling services and advocacy programs to victims of sexual assault. Awareness campaigns and outreach services to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence have also been aided by VAWA. Domestic violence shelters get a large portion of their funding from the VAWA program. These shelters provide a safe harbor for victims of domestic violence and their children.
Since VAWA was passed in 1994, there has been more than 3.2 million instances of reported violence against women in the United States, an average of 1 woman becoming a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault every 66-seconds.
How does VAWA help the community?
I spoke with an officer from the Metro Nashville Police Department who is former detective with the department's Domestic Violence Unit. She asked her full name not be used because she had not received permission to speak with Digital Journal.
Digital Journal: What is the greatest impact VAWA has had on the department's Domestic Violence Unit?
L.F.: If it had not been for VAWA, the unit would not have been established. Shortly after VAWA came into existence, the department and a former Sargent by the name of Mark Wynn established the unit. The fact that the department could create the unit is a direct result of VAWA and that has to be the greatest impact it has had.
Digital Journal: How has VAWA assisted law enforcement and victims?
L.F.: Grant money from VAWA provides training which helps detectives better understand the full dynamics of domestic violence. That in turn makes it easier to talk to and understand what victims are telling them. It allows the detective to be more compassionate and non-judgmental. It can be a big step for a victim to call the police of come into the office and file a report. They need someone who is understanding, patient and compassionate.
Another important thing is it allows the unit to have counselors here at the office. The detectives do all they can, but they are not trained in how to be an actual counselor. Being able to have domestic violence counselors on site nearly around the clock is a huge help to victims. The counselors are also great at helping with the children. They will talk to the children and keep them occupied while the victim is talking to a detective. They also help the detectives gain valuable information about whether child abuse, physical or sexual, is involved. That information means we can provide extra assistance to the children and get other agencies such as the Department of Children's involved if needed. That helps us build a stronger case against the batterer.
On April 26, 2012, the U.S. Senate passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (S. 1925) by a 68-31 bipartisan vote. The bill was sent to the House on April 27, 2012. On June 1st of last year, the bill was sent to the House Subcommittee on Insurance, Housing and Community Opportunity.
What had been a relatively easy bill to pass in the past became a source of controversy in 2012. Some in the House leadership opposed the bill because they believed it should not extended domestic violence protection to lesbians and transgender individuals, illegal immigrants or Native American women. Instead of amending the bill and sending it back to the Senate, the bill has sat in limbo, waiting for something to happen.
In December, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said:
"I am speaking with the vice president and his office and trying to resolve the issue of the differences surrounding the VAWA bill."
The "differences" Cantor was speaking about was the inclusion, not of gays and lesbians, but of Native American women. On December 6, 2012, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy told members of the Senate that the House leadership was blocking the VAWA Reauthorization bill "because of their objections to [the] tribal women provision."
According to a Washington Post report, Native American women are 2.5 times more likely to be assaulted than non Native American women. On some reservations, the murder rate of women is ten times the national average.
Republican Reps. Judy Biggert and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen actually believed the bill was not inclusive enough.
Republican Rep. Sandy Adams, author of the House VAWA bill, said she supported a bill "that covers all victims."
Despite the staggering statistics and the fact that fellow Republicans supported reauthorizing an inclusive bill, Cantor continued to insist that the provision for Native American women be removed and refused to allow the bill to be brought up for a vote. The result? For the first time in nearly two decades, there is no Violence Against Women Act in place, which means funding for law enforcement efforts, advocacy, shelters, rape counseling, and other programs will expire.
As L.F. said:
Shelters already have to turn people away sometimes, leaving victims and their children in the cold or back in a potentially life threatening situation. Losing such a huge chunk of funding means cut backs. Failure to allow reauthorization means women and children are endangered."