VAWA at the Crossroads


Nearly two decades after it first passed, the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) may be headed for major changes.

The Senate Judiciary Committee reviewed a reauthorization bill today that would expand the scope of the act by providing more services to under-served populations such as American Indian women, women in the military and victims of sex trafficking. During the Senate Judiciary Committee’s mark-up session, there was a 10-8 vote.

Introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), the bill would also strengthen prevention efforts, expand access to safe housing for women and children and allow more groups to become eligible to receive federal funding.

This landmark legislation—the first to recognize that domestic violence required a national response—has historically received widespread bipartisan support since it was passed in 1994 and reauthorized in 2000 and 2005.

But this time it may run into political headwinds.

Widespread concern about federal spending and questions about the management of VAWA grant funds could stop the bill in its tracks this year.

Allegations of Fraud

Standing in the way of the a smooth passage to the reauthorization is Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee's top Republican. Grassley, who has been a VAWA supporter in the past but has yet to endorse the current proposal, says that because audits from two federal agencies found that a number of VAWA grantees were mismanaging their funds, anti-fraud measures must be inserted into the legislation before the bill can move forward.

Audits conducted between 1998 and 2010 by the Justice Department's Inspector General found violations of grant requirements ranging from unauthorized and unallowable expenditures, to sloppy record keeping and failure to report in a timely manner.

The Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), one of the bill's leading supporters and the agency that disburses the federal grants, rejects the claim that grantees are improperly administering their funds.

“The Office on Violence Against Women takes its grant-making responsibilities very seriously and is dedicated to managing its grant programs effectively and with transparency,” Beatrice Hanson, the agency's principal deputy director, told The Crime Report.

“Each of the grantees [questioned by auditors] was able to provide appropriate documentation to resolve that it had not misspent any funds.”

Despite this outcome, Grassley and other Republicans, including Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), are expected to insert strong accountability measures into any bill that would authorize federal funding—not just for VAWA but for all federal grant programs. An overriding concern about government spending in the Senate and the House—particularly among Tea Party Republicans who seek to reduce spending in all areas—is especially heightened during this election year, making VAWA's fate unclear.

$400 Million Annually

How much government spending are we talking about?

Annually, VAWA grantees share about $400 million in federal funds. It's unlikely that Congress will authorize additional funding for VAWA or any other spending bills this legislative session due to economic factors and political pressures to reduce spending.

In an effort to increase accountability, Grassley may introduce measures that could require annual audits and studies to determine the effectiveness of VAWA programs. The Senator is also expected to fight for an amendment that would require all grantees to match 25 percent of their federal funds with cash donations.

VAWA advocates, including the National Organization for Women, argue that a mandate to match federal funds is one many local programs will not be able to meet. Not only are state governments decreasing their contributions to grantees but also private donations are in decline—and they say Grassley's measure during this economic climate will force vital programs to close their doors.

A House version of the bill has yet to be introduced. Insiders say that if the reauthorization can pass in the Senate with strong bipartisan support and accountability measures that satisfy Republicans, then the law has a chance of being reauthorized this year. If it doesn't make it out of the Senate, then the VAWA reauthorization may be forced to wait until next year.

New research shows that VAWA is needed now more than ever.

Although crime is dropping nationwide, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released in November shows that the incidence of violence against women is higher than has been previously documented. Researchers now say that nearly 1 in 5 women have been the victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, and 1 in 3 have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

Advocates say expanding the scope of the law to better serve more women is needed. But critics have raised questions about the CDC data.

The Plight of American Indian Women

Consider American Indians. Katy Jackman of the National Congress of American Indians cites Marcus Levings, former Chair of Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota. Preparing to testify on another law, the 2009 Tribal Law and Order Act, Levings told Jackman, “My daughter was brutally raped and beaten two weeks ago and she's still in the hospital.”

He explained that the perpetrator had committed this crime before, but federal authorities failed to prosecute. Jackman recalled that Levings spoke “so matter of fact, like this is something that happens every day…It's a pretty devastating example of why things need to change.”

For many American Indian women, violence is an everyday occurrence. According to the Department of Justice, 1 in 3 American Indian women will be raped in their lifetime. That's three and half times higher than the national average.

The problem: Tribes don't have jurisdiction to fully prosecute these crimes that occur within their territories.

The proposed reauthorization would restore jurisdiction to tribes so they can prosecute crimes of violence against women committed by non-Indians within their territories. Since a Supreme Court decision in 1978, only federal prosecutors have had that power.

Tribes say that restoring their authority to investigate, prosecute, convict, and sentence perpetrators of violence against women would be a major breakthrough in addressing pervasive crimes against Native American women.

Susan Carbon, director of the Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women, agrees, telling The Crime Report that, “addressing the needs of native women is a priority. Over the course of the past couple of years, we've identified some legal gaps that exist in providing services to native women and ensuring that their needs are being met and that offenders are being held accountable in tribal communities—it's an important part of the process.”

Expanding the Act

Many women are looking to VAWA for more comprehensive, effective and cost-saving responses to other kinds of crime, including domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.

“When VAWA was originally passed in 1994, it was seen as a landmark piece of legislation—people tended to look at these crimes and blame the victim for causing the violence,” said Carbon. “We needed to have a comprehensive national approach to address these crimes—and that's an ongoing need we still have.”

Before the new CDC study, research from the National Institute of Justice showed that 1 in 6 women have been the victims of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. The new study found that younger women have a higher incidence of sexual assault than previously established. Data showed that of women who are raped, nearly 80 percent experience their first rape before age 25; of those, 42 percent experience their first rape before they turn 18.

The new research “was an extremely useful study,” said Paulette Sullivan Moore, the vice president of public policy for the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “We've always known our reporting numbers were low—this study provides us with more accurate prevalence. It shows that we have a critical problem and it should demonstrate every reason why VAWA needs to be reauthorized.”

The new proposed legislation seeks to “not only impact women that are underserved, but those that are un-served,” said Terri Poore, vice president and policy chair of the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence.

Populations that face barriers to accessing existing, more traditional services include rural residents, and women who experience violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity and racial and ethnic background. Other at-risk populations are those with language barriers, immigration status and those with mental or physical disabilities. The new legislation specifically targets these groups for expanded assistance that will better serve their needs and increase their ability to access services.

“VAWA is at a critical juncture to press beyond traditional services,” said Poore. “We need to dig deeper and further to make sure all survivors are served by looking at new and different approaches; we've come a long way since 1994, but we still have a long way to go.”

VAWA is getting support from some key state leaders.

Lobbying From Attorneys-General

On January 11, the attorneys general from 52 states and territories urged Congress to reauthorize VAWA to “ensure that vital programs working to keep women and families safe from violence and abuse continue uninterrupted.”

Key among their concerns are strengthening prevention and intervention programs, improving the response to sexual assault and preventing domestic violence homicides.

Since Congressional funding is likely to remain static at $400 million annually, some question whether the proposed expansion of the act will dilute the funds available to existing grantees.

“We really need to see an increase in funding for all VAWA programs,” said Poore. “But we don't want to do that at the cost of other programs.”

Carbon said that while the dilution of funds is a legitimate concern, it doesn't have to be the case.

“We have turnover among grantees to ensure that new organizations receive funding,” she said. “And there is a sustainability component to each grant: Organizations need to show how they will sustain their organizations once the grant ends, so we hope those mechanisms will be in place.”

According to Carbon, prevention is critical.

“If we're really going to put an end to violence against women, we have to start earlier in the process,” Carbon said. “We have to focus on prevention, not on spending all our resources after the violence has occurred. We need to begin at the beginning and get more of our resources to kids.”

Still, the needs of women victims of violence are growing.

“Across the nation, homicides have gone down, we know crime across the board has gone down, but we still have these staggering numbers on violent crimes against women,” Carbon added. “We need to reauthorize VAWA, it's enormously important.”

Deirdre Bannon is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. She is a recent graduate of Georgetown University's graduate school of journalism, and she welcomes reader comments.

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