The Real Violence Against Women Act

The Violence Against Women Act has been a bipartisan effort of Congress since 1994, when it was originally co-sponsored by Senators Biden and Hatch, with a total of 68 Republican and Democratic sponsors.  It was then passed in the House with 226 Republican and Democratic co-sponsors.  It has been reauthorized two more times, both times with equally strong bipartisan support.  VAWA has been signed into law three times, twice by Bill Clinton and once again by George W. Bush.

Now the Republicans in the Senate are gingerly holding back on reauthorizing this incredibly successful, cost-saving – indeed, life-saving -- program, with only a few brave Republicans signing on to the bill.  The rest of them, many of whom eagerly signed on in years past, are strangely silent when approached by their constituents to sign onto S. 1925, the latest reauthorization also known as the Leahy-Crapo bill (named after the bipartisan original co-sponsors).

Are Republicans not interested in supporting and protecting victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking?

We don’t believe that.  We believe that many well-intentioned, caring Members of Congress have been subjected to a campaign of misperceptions about VAWA.  Because inaccurate statements are being circulated about the bill, we want to address them in order to make sure that all Members of Congress understand what VAWA really does and does not do.

Here’s what’s being said about VAWA – and here’s what the real VAWA does.

Critics say VAWA costs $1 billion a year, but the truth is that Congress has appropriated approximately $400 million a year over the past five years to support state and local programs addressing the four crimes of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.  The lion’s share of that funding ends up in communities, supporting law enforcement, prosecution, courts, and victim services.  This funding supports hard-working police officers who answer desperate 911 calls.  It supports the prosecutors who fight crime in their communities by holding offenders accountable.  It supports the courts that provide protection to victims of these crimes and impose sanctions on the offenders.  It also supports the counseling, sheltering, and supportive services that help victims and their children heal from the impact of these crimes.

Would anyone in Congress really want to take a stand against supporting these crime-fighting efforts?

Senator Charles Grassley, ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced an amendment to impose stricter accounting policies on VAWA grantees. Senator Grassley would also like to altogether eliminate the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. He says this will save money.

He cited ostensible cases of “fraud” perpetrated by grantees as his rationale.  Yet, these were not cases of fraud.  If he had asked the Department of Justice for more information, he would have learned that the cases he referenced were all closed out without findings of fraud.  Over on the House side, Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) did ask the Department of Justice for an explanation about these cases.  He received a letter back from the Department outlining what the Office of the Inspector General found in each of the cases.  The answer?  No fraud.  Just grantees who needed more training in how to keep their books according to federal, not private accounting, rules.

In fact, VAWA grantees have some of the strictest reporting and financial auditing requirements of any of the grant programs awarded by the federal government.  Grantees must provide 26 page quarterly reports that list every service provided and the numbers of persons who benefitted from those services.  VAWA grantees are regularly audited.  The Office of the Inspector General has said that the Office on Violence Against Women does a better job of monitoring grantees’ use of funds than any other Office in the Department.

If VAWA is a successful, cost-effective, crime-fighting program, why would Senator Grassley and his fellow Republicans want to eliminate its very foundation?

Other critics of VAWA keep repeating a misstatement about VAWA, claiming that it forces states to adopt a “mandatory arrest” policy.  These critics have obviously not read the actual language of the statute.  VAWA does not require states to adopt mandatory arrest laws.  Those who work in the field know full well that mandatory arrest policies don’t work.  What does work is good training and good resources. VAWA  funds training for law enforcement officers to learn the best techniques for investigating the crimes of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking and making arrests only where there is probable cause. That’s what the real VAWA says.

Critics of VAWA have been saying that VAWA discriminates against men.  If they would take the time to read the U.S. Code, they would find that VAWA says explicitly that “Nothing in this subchapter shall be construed to prohibit male victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking from receiving  benefits and services under this subchapter.” (42 U.S.C. 13925(b)(8).  The real VAWA does not discriminate against male victims.

Critics are also concerned that the FBI recently amended the definition of “rape” for the purposes of capturing data from police departments for the Uniform Crime Reports system.  This amendment ensured that all cases of rape are included in the UCR, including the kind of sexual abuse of young males that took place at Penn State.  This is an important change in the UCR system, but it does not change the definition of rape in VAWA.  Those who say it creates a new crime in VAWA have not understood the difference between a reporting definition used by the FBI and the crime of rape in the U.S. Code.

Critics, including Senator Grassley, claim that the Leahy-Crapo bill is giving immigrants a “new” way to use services in the U.S.  What the real VAWA does—and has done since Senator Grassley voted for VAWA in 1994, in 2000, and in 2005—is ensure that immigrant victims of these crimes can safely report these crimes to law enforcement and participate without fear in the prosecution of these crimes.

There is nothing new about these provisions.  They have been in use for almost two decades, and have the overwhelming support of law enforcement and prosecutors.   These provisions have helped them fight crime in their communities.  Why would any Member of Congress want to impede those efforts—especially when they have been working so well for so long?

Critics of VAWA, including Senator Grassley, claim that Leahy-Crapo reauthorization creates “too many victims.” What really bothers Senator Grassley is that VAWA would protect all victims of these crimes, regardless of their age, gender, race, sexuality, or faith.  Victims who rely on their faith to sustain them will look for help in a church, a synagogue, a mosque, or a temple.  A victim suffering from PTSD will look for help in a clinical setting.  An immigrant victim may disclose the violence in a community-based immigrant organization.  A gay man may talk, for the first time, about what is happening to him at an LGBT program.  A teen may seek relief from dating violence at the youth center.

We need to have all of these gateways open to all the victims who need help.  Any victim of these crimes may be at risk of suffering immediate or escalating harm.  We can't afford to say, "There are too many victims.  We can’t help you."

The Leahy-Crapo reauthorization of VAWA says, "We will help you wherever and whenever you need help."  That’s the real spirit of VAWA.  Read the Leahy-Crapo bill.  Understand what it really says, and it will be clear that this is the real VAWA, the tool that the justice system and victims rely upon to respond to all victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. 

From The National Task Force on Violence Against Women, courtesy of NCADV