The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing July 13 to assess what has been accomplished in the past 17 years by the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) as the committee begins consideration of the act’s reauthorization.
Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) emphasized that since 1994 the bipartisan VAWA has been the “centerpiece of the federal government’s commitment to combating domestic violence, sexual assault and other violence crimes against women.” Leahy noted that the law has provided legal remedies, social support and coordinated community responses to the complex issues of domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. The rate of domestic violence has declined, he said, but the country still has a long way to go. He pointed out that each year 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by a partner and one in six women and one in 33 men are victims of sexual assault. One in 12 women and one in 45 men have been stalked in their lifetimes.
Leahy said that access to support services must be increased, especially in rural communities and among older Americans. Also crucial, he indicated is addressing high rates of violence experienced by Native Americans and immigrant women.
Jane A. Van Buren, executive director of Women Helping Battered Women Inc., testified that support from VAWA programs has allowed her group to build a strong response to domestic violence in Chittenden County, Vermont. Comprehensive services her organization has been able to provide include support and counseling for children exposed to and affected by violence, transitional and short-term emergency housing, legal advocacy and collaboration with law enforcement, employment and job readiness training, credit counseling and repair, crisis intervention, safety planning, and extensive public education and training.
“The safety net VAWA has provided survivors over the years is now a lifeline for many,” Van Buren said. She noted, however, that while a 2010 census by the National Network to End Domestic Violence found that in just one day more than 70,600 adults and children were served by local domestic violence programs, more than 9,500 requests for services went unmet.
A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report showing gaps on national data collection on domestic violence was presented to the committee by Eileen R. Larence, director of homeland security and justice at GAO. The gaps resulted from challenges in collecting and reporting data on the demographic characteristics of victims receiving services under the act. Concerns include victim’s confidentiality and safety, resources constraints, the overburdening of recipients, and technological issues. Larence indicated in the report that efforts are underway at the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice to address the gaps to provide better and more complete data during the reauthorization process.
The ABA, which supports VAWA reauthorization, has a particular interest in Title I of the bill, which addresses the justice system’s response to domestic violence. The association supports a continued focus on training for judges and court personnel and support for the legal assistance and STOP grant programs, which provide funding for civil and criminal legal services for victims of domestic violence.