Congress Must Reauthorize, Expand, and Improve VAWA in 2019

People hold a rally for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, June 2012.

Twenty-five years ago, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a landmark piece of legislation that dramatically enlarged the criminal justice system and changed how it responded to crime. The 1994 crime bill is perhaps best remembered for instituting sweeping increases in penalties for drug-related offenses, incentivizing the construction of new jails and prisons, and creating funding streams that fed enforcement-only approaches to public safety. As the Center for American Progress has noted in previous products, many of these provisions created harmful effects that persist even today.

But the bill was not all bad. Title IV of the 1994 crime bill created the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which marked a seismic shift in responses to and support for victims and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. At the time of the act’s passage, public perception often treated different forms of gender-based violence (GBV), such as intimate partner violence (IPV), as private family issues that should be kept personal and for which a police response was not appropriate or necessary. VAWA created a system for enforcement where there was none, while simultaneously recognizing the importance of a comprehensive approach to ending GBV by funding essential social services for victims and survivors.

VAWA represented a critical step forward and has provided a solid foundation to build upon as learning has developed about effective interventions. As the first federal policy dedicated to creating a framework to address different types of GBV—such as domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking—VAWA has always been a vehicle for new improvements to strengthen protections available to survivors. During each reauthorization process, which has happened three times since 1994, lawmakers have incorporated new provisions into VAWA that are informed by the latest research and best practices for addressing GBV against women, men, and nonbinary individuals. Never before has VAWA’s reauthorization consisted solely of the same language as a previous bill without updates or expansions. As a result, VAWA has always evolved and has become more effective in saving lives.

This column calls for lawmakers currently considering the 2019 reauthorization of VAWA to continue building upon the momentum of the past 25 years to further improve the federal government’s comprehensive public health response to gender-based violence.

VAWA’s growth into a holistic approach to gender-based violence

Because VAWA created the first federal mechanisms for enforcement to address IPV, its criminal justice provisions were recognized to have filled the most dire need. A 1999 Clinton administration report said, “This law not only strengthened criminal laws and provided funding to enhance their enforcement, but also provided a foundation for a successful long term criminal justice effort to end violence against women.”

But experts in the early days of VAWA warned against a disproportionate reliance on enforcement without balanced investment in social services and prevention. In 1998, Patricia Ireland, then the president of the National Organization for Women, testified in Congress in support of VAWA but said, “Law enforcement is not the only solution. A vast array of education, intervention, training and research programs is necessary to effectively address the multi-faceted social problems of domestic violence and sexual assault.”

Each reauthorization since 1994 has included in its focus an expansion of such nonenforcement services. In 2000, a strongly bipartisan VAWA created new transitional housing programs and expanded protections to combat abuse against older and disabled survivors of abuse. This reauthorization increased funding for rape prevention and education, as well as expanded the definition of crimes covered under VAWA to include dating violence. Five years later—by unanimous consent, as in 2000, with support from congressional Republicans and Democrats alike—the 2005 reauthorization emphasized the need for a holistic public health approach to domestic violence by encouraging community-coordinated responses built on partnerships between law enforcement, community service providers, housing professionals, and health care providers. The bill created new support systems for American Indian and Alaska Native women, who disproportionately experience gender-based violence, and addressed unique challenges for immigrant victims and survivors.

In 2013, reauthorization efforts further refined programs for tribal jurisdictions and immigrants, in addition to creating a nondiscrimination clause that extended protections to all victims and survivors of GBV regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability. These expansions have complemented protections under other laws, such as the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act and the Victims of Crime Act.

Despite 25 years of enhancements to VAWA’s resources and social service provisions, however, the demand for access to such programs has only grown in recent years. According to the annual census of domestic violence programs from the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), a snapshot of a single day in September 2017 saw 72,245 individuals receive services for shelter, housing, transportation, legal assistance, prevention and education, and counseling. But on that same day, an additional 11,441 requests for services went unmet because the programs did not have sufficient resources. Upon the release of the census, NNEDV President and CEO Kim Gandy explained the stakes: “Turning away survivors and their children can mean sending them back into violent and dangerous situations, forcing them to confront the challenges of homelessness, or preventing them from gaining access to legal or medical resources.”

A 2017 survey by the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence (NAESV) showed that almost 40 percent of prevention programs had a waiting list of a month or longer. And demand may continue to grow, as the momentum of the #MeToo movement empowers more people to speak out about violence perpetrated against them. To address this gap, NAESV recommends a 200 percent increase in federal funding for the Rape Prevention and Education Program, one of VAWA’s largest prevention grants.

Reauthorizing a VAWA that addresses the growing need for comprehensive solutions

This year, Congress has an opportunity to continue the momentum of learning and of improving VAWA. Federal policymakers are currently debating the 2019 VAWA reauthorization, which will set the program’s priorities for the next five years. Last month, the House of Representatives passed a version of the 2019 VAWA reauthorization known as H.R. 1585. The bipartisan vote came despite significant opposition from some House Republicans, many of whom called for an unprecedented reauthorization of VAWA’s existing programs without any improvements or expansions, as a means of closing off debate to changes they do not favor. Such a move would have stifled the momentum of improving VAWA and failed to address growing demands for its lifesaving programs.

As the Senate considers its own version of the bill, it must refuse to confine itself to a narrow reauthorization that ignores the issues that must be addressed in order to adequately provide for victims and survivors. As the president and founder of Futures Without Violence, Esta Soler, said, “We can no longer choose between services for victims, or training for law enforcement, or prevention programs that stop the violence before it starts. We must do it all. We must mend the victims and end the violence.”

The next VAWA reauthorization should incorporate best practices to lessen the economic impact of IPV by breaking down barriers to housing and employment. The legislation should implement common-sense safeguards to prohibit individuals with a history of violence from accessing firearms; this would greatly reduce the lethality of IPV. Existing gaps in enforcement can be closed by further improving criminal justice responses for tribal jurisdictions and eliminating the “law enforcement consent loophole” that currently allows officers to claim that sexual interactions with individuals in their custody were consensual; all such interactions would then be considered nonconsensual. Given the diversity of ways in which racial and ethnic groups experience gender-based violence, Congress must increase funding to ensure that sufficient, culturally competent services are available to help victims and survivors of GBV in every community in America. Finally, Congress should grow its investment in research and the development of strategies to prevent violence.

Conclusion

Since its original passage as part of the 1994 crime bill, VAWA has established a vitally important and previously nonexistent infrastructure that responds to domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. Now is not the time to shy away from the serious work of improving the federal government’s responses to gender-based violence. The American public is looking to lawmakers to demonstrate their commitment to supporting victims and survivors of GBV by reauthorizing VAWA in a way that maintains enforcement measures and expands investment in prevention and services for victims and survivors. Congress can and must continue to push for comprehensive approaches to end violence against women.

Lea Hunter is a research assistant for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress.