President signs VAWA legislation after Congress clears bipartisan bill

New law also extends Trafficking Victims Protection Act

President Obama signed an ABA-supported bipartisan bill March 7 to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).                                 

The legislation, S. 47, cleared the House Feb. 28 on a 286-138 vote after members rejected a narrower substitute amendment.                                    

S. 47, which had passed the Senate Feb. 12 by a 78-22 vote, includes provisions for the first time to ensure that victims seeking assistance under VAWA cannot be denied services based on gender identity or sexual orientation. The new law also strengthens tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Native Americans who assault Native American spouses and dating partners in Indian country and includes provisions to reduce the backlog of untested rape kits.                    

In addition, the measure reauthorizes the Legal Assistance for Victims (LAV) program, which makes competent pro bono legal assistance available to victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault or stalking.    

Also unexpectedly included in the measure is reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), a law strongly supported by the ABA that funds programs combatting sex and labor trafficking in the United States and internationally. The provisions, added as an amendment during Senate consideration of S. 47, encourage the distribution of a national human trafficking hotline within federal and state agencies and establish grant programs for states to assist child victims of sex trafficking. The provisions also help foreign governments investigate possible human trafficking by labor recruitment centers and strengthen the ability of prosecutors to bring human trafficking cases.    

Efforts to reauthorize VAWA, which had expired in 2011, stalled during the 112th Congress when the Senate and House passed different versions of the legislation. The ABA supported the Senate version, opposing the House bill because it did not include provisions to expand services to underserved populations, such as victims of faith communities and those who are denied services because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.    

The legislation died at the end of last year for procedural and substantive reasons. Procedurally, the House argued that the Senate bill included a revenue provision that did not originate in the House as required by the Constitution. Substantively, the House objected to provisions related to immigration, tribal jurisdiction, and services for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LBNGT) individuals.    

Final congressional approval of S. 47 is a victory for the ABA, which considers VAWA and TVPA reauthorization as priority issues. In recent letters to both House and Senate, ABA President Laurel G. Bellows noted the ABA’s longstanding support for efforts to address domestic, sexual and stalking violence and emphasized that the legal profession fulfills an important role in addressing these crimes. The ABA Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence, she said, has increased access to justice for victims by mobilizing the legal profession.    

Bellows circulated a letter late on Feb. 27 urging House members to reject the substitute amendment and pass S. 47. She emphasized that the Senate-passed bill was crafted to reflect discussions with more than 2,000 advocates and experts from across the country.                    

Calling the expansion of VAWA protections a “critical victory for fairness and human dignity,” Bellows said, “Now we’ll be looking to Congress and President Obama to agree on a fiscal agenda that empowers law enforcement, aid groups, lawyers and courts to provide services to victims of violence and hold their attackers responsible. Allowing budget cuts to decimate the very programs Congress authorized through VAWA would send a terrible message that austerity is more important than public safety. We must leave intact the resources necessary to assist victims to recover fully from their traumatic experience.”                    

During House debate, Senate Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) quoted from the ABA’s letter in urging the House to reject the substitute amendment and pass S. 47.                   

President Obama emphasized that VAWA “has saved countless lives and transformed the way we treat victims of abuse.” He added that the vote passing the legislation “will go even further by continuing to reduce domestic violence, improving how we treat victims of rape, and extending protections to Native American women and the LGBT community.”                                                                          

 

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