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December 01, 2011

VAWA Reauthorization Legislation Unveiled in Senate

The ABA commended Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Michael D. Crapo (R-Idaho) for sponsoring legislation last month to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which the association emphasized has provided, since it original enactment in 1994, life-saving assistance to hundreds of thousands of women, men and children who are victims of domestic, sexual, stalking and dating violence.

In a Nov. 30 letter, ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman stressed that the economic crisis has had a disproportionate and devastating effect on these victims, who rely on victim services programs to escape violence and rebuild their lives. These programs are unable to meet the increasing demand for services throughout the country, he said.

“We fully understand the pressures placed by the economic climate on lawmakers to cut federal programs,” Susman wrote, “but in this instance failing to reauthorize VAWA would be more than short-sighted.” 

He noted the leadership role the ABA has taken and the important role of the legal profession in addressing domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking crimes. Since 1994, the ABA Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence (formerly the Commission on Domestic Violence) has provided critically necessary training in litigation skills and strategies for domestic and sexual violence attorneys litigating these complex and complicated matters in trial courts across the country with limited resources.

Leahy said that his bill, S. 1925, reflects Congress’s ongoing commitment to end domestic and sexual violence. The legislation, he said, “seeks to expand the law’s focus on sexual assault, to ensure access to services for all victims of domestic and sexual violence, and to address the crisis of domestic and sexual violence in tribal communities, among other important steps.”

The bill also responds to current difficult economic times by consolidating programs, reducing authorization levels, and adding accountability measures to ensure that federal funds are used efficiently and effectively, he added.

The authorization level would drop from $65 million to $57 million for the Legal Assistance for Victims (LAV) program, which currently is funded at $41 million and has expanded the availability of legal assistance for many victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. The provisions also would strengthen the training requirements for those providing legal assistance to such victims and allow grantees to recruit, train and mentor pro bono attorneys and law students to assist victims under the act.

To address the problem of violence against Native women and families, S. 1925 incorporates provisions that were introduced as separate legislation, S. 1763, by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii). S. 1763, the Stand Against Violence and Empower Native Women (SAVE) Act, seeks to ensure that victims have access to support services and to provide tribes with adequate resources for prosecuting those who are committing the violent crimes. The bill, which was approved Dec. 8 by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, also would provide Native communities with the resources necessary to develop policy that addresses the needs of victims and to study and respond to sex trafficking of Indian women.

In a Nov. 23 letter for the record of a Nov. 10 hearing on S. 1763, Susman expressed strong ABA support for legislation and appropriate funding to strengthen protection and assistance for victims of gender-based violence, including American Indian and Alaska Native women. He cited a study by the Department of Justice that revealed that two-fifths of Indian women will experience domestic violence and one-third will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Most of those who commit crimes against Native women are not Native themselves, and the tribes have no ability to prosecute non-Natives for domestic violence and sexual assault in their own communities.

ABA policy adopted in February 2010 urges Congress to reauthorize VAWA and highlights the need for legislation that “provides services, protection, and justice for underserved and vulnerable victims of violence, including children and youth who are victims or witnesses to family violence and victims who are disabled, elderly, immigrant, trafficked, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) and/or Indian.”

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