According to the Department of Justice National Institute for Justice and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one-fourth of all women in the U.S. are beaten or raped by a partner during adulthood and approximately 2.3 million people are raped and/or physically assaulted each year by a current or former intimate partner. Most at risk for violence or assault are young women between the ages of 16-24. The purpose of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is to prevent just such violence against women and girls, although VAWA does not discriminate, so funds are also available to provide services for men and boys who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Since 1994 when VAWA was first enacted, domestic violence reporting has increased 51 percent and the number killed by an intimate partner has decreased by 34 percent for women and 57 percent for men. On April 26 the Senate passed legislation to improve protection for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. On May 8 the House Judiciary Committee approved legislation that took a step backwards.
VAWA provides grants and programs that address the needs of victims of violence including specific population groups: women in the military, elderly women, women with disabilities, women of color, women living in rural communities, those on college campuses, runaway and homeless youth, and children who witness violence. VAWA programs give police, prosecutors, and judges the tools they need to hold accountable perpetrators of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. It makes services available through grants to battered women’s shelters, rape crisis centers, community centers, transitional housing programs and services on tribal reservations. VAWA funds provide mental health and legal services, job training for survivors, intervention, prevention, and recovery programs, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Subsequent reauthorizations of VAWA strengthened protections. In 2000 the main improvements related to law enforcement responses to domestic violence, enhanced education and training on issues related to violence against women, and services for certain populations of victims. It also defined and addressed dating violence. VAWA reauthorization in 2005 focused on victim assistance, especially the needs of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
The Senate’s Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2011 (S. 1925) provides additional protection for three vulnerable groups who, according to the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, are currently underserved by the law: immigrants, Native Americans, and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.
Abuse among immigrants often goes unreported due to fear of deportation, lack of understanding of the laws and legal system and visa dependence on the status of a spouse. Immigrants married to a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident often have their immigration status used as a tool by their abusers who either fail to file the necessary paperwork or threaten to withdraw their status. “Self-petitioning” was created in the 1994 legislation so that immigrant victims could confidentially report crimes without fear of deportation. In 2000 U-visas were created to provide special protections for undocumented immigrant victims of violence. If victims cooperated with law enforcement on the prosecution of their perpetrator, they could apply for a U-visa allowing them to remain in the United Sates without depending on their spouse or partner to sponsor them. Annually 10,000 U-visas may be granted. Since 2007, a total of 5,000 U-visas went unused. S. 1925 allows these to be used in upcoming years along with the annual allocation. The Senate bill also affirms that children of U-visa holders receive the same benefits as their parents.
Violence against Native American women has reached epidemic proportions and, according to the Census Bureau, 50 percent of all Native American married women have non-Indian husbands. Federal law requires tribes to rely on federal or state officials to investigate cases involving domestic violence against a non-Indian perpetrator on tribal land; and in many cases, there is no investigation. S. 1925 gives American Indian authorities limited power to prosecute non-Indians accused of abusing Indian women for crimes of domestic violence, dating violence, and violations of protection orders. The defendant must reside or be employed in the Indian country or be the spouse or intimate partner of a member of the prosecuting tribe.
The Senate bill earmarks funds for community organizations that serve LGBT victims, prohibits discrimination against them by law enforcement and domestic violence shelters, and explicitly allows states to use federal money to help them. VAWA protects victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking from eviction or denial of a housing benefit based on their status as victims or the actions of their perpetrators. S. 1925 requires owners, managers and public housing authorities to relay these rights when serving eviction notices.
Previous authorizations of VAWA bills have been bi-partisan and most recently the 2005 reauthorization bill was unanimously supported. This year however, some Republicans objected to the expansion of protections for LGBT victims, opposed granting more U-visas, and resisted giving Indian authorities the power to prosecute non-Indian abusers. The Senate turned back a broad substitute amendment (37-62) sponsored by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) that included new mandatory minimum sentences for sex crimes. After much partisan wrangling in the Senate, 15 Republicans joined all Democrats in supporting the bill passing it 61-38.
On May 8 the House Judiciary Committee marked up its bill, H.R. 4970, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2012. Advocates for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault have many concerns about the House bill. It eliminates confidentiality protections for victims that self-petition by requiring notification to the alleged abuser that his/her spouse has applied for a U-visa; it fails to recognize the authority of tribal courts to hold non-Indian perpetrators accountable; it has weak provisions that do not address the issues of the LGBT community; and it does not require owners, managers and public housing authorities to notify potential victims of their rights to avoid unlawful eviction. Furthermore, H.R. 4970 would require more VAWA resources to be diverted to pay for costly new audit requirements.
A number of Democratic amendments failed during committee consideration. Among them, the committee rejected Representative Sheila Jackson Lee’s (D-TX) amendment that would have dropped language blocking U-visa recipients from gaining permanent residence. It also turned back Delegate Pedro Pierluisi’s (D-P.R.) amendment adding 5,000 U-visas per year to the current 10,000 total. The committee rejected Representative Zoe Lofgren’s (D-CA) amendment to replace the House bill immigrant language with that from the Senate bill. The committee also rejected amendments to better serve the LGBT community and to strike the bill’s mandatory prison sentences for aggravated sexual assault convictions. The bill passed the Judiciary Committee by a vote of 17-15 with Representative Ted Poe (R-TX) joining all Democrats in opposing it. The House bill is expected to be considered on the floor soon.
S. 1925 set an annual funding authorization level for VAWA programs of $659.5 million, a drop of $136.5 million from VAWA authorization in the 2005 bill. However, appropriators have not provided full funding for VAWA; in fact, funds have steadily decreased over recent years.