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Senate Subcommittee Examines the Violence Against Women Office

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs held an April 16 hearing on the Violence Against Women Office (VAWO) at the Department of Justice (DOJ). Subcommittee Chair Joseph Biden (D-DE) said the hearing was needed to determine “where we are going in the fight against domestic violence.” He also added that both the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 and 2000 were the two pieces of legislation he is “most proud” to have sponsored.

The Violence Against Women Office was created in 1995 to carry out certain programs created under the 1994 VAWA. The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000 reauthorized most of those programs and created new programs, including programs to address the needs of battered immigrant women, dating violence, and services for disabled and older women. In addition, the programs enhance direct services for victims, including victim advocacy, emergency shelters, and legal services.

On October 18, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved, by voice vote, a bill (S. 1319) to reauthorize the DOJ. The bill includes a provision that would establish a permanent Violence Against Women Office within the Department. The director of the office would be appointed by the President and would report to the Attorney General. The same provision was included in the House-passed bill (H.R. 2215), which was approved on July 23 (see The Source, 7/27/01, p. 1). Both bills also would make the office a separate entity within the DOJ as it was when it was originally created. Currently, the office is located within the Office of Justice Programs (OJP).

In her testimony, Diane Stuart, Director of the VAWO, advocated keeping the office within the OJP. She said, “It is not where the office is located that deserves our attention, it is whether we have the structure, resources, and support necessary…to end violence against women.”

The VAWO currently has a budget of approximately $400 million and manages more than 1,200 active grants. According to Ms. Stuart, “It is critical to have the right resources in place to keep our operations running smoothly and efficiently…due to the strong OJP infrastructure, we are able to do just that.”

Lynn Rosenthal of the National Network to End Domestic Violence disagreed with Ms. Stuart, saying, “Now more than ever, we need an active, high-profile Violence Against Women Office to help establish baseline standards…and to provide consistent interpretations as to how the mandates of VAWA are to be met.” She explained that when the VAWO was a separate entity, “the director and her staff were able to work with other components of DOJ and other federal agencies to develop comprehensive policies regarding the implementation of VAWA.”

She noted that when VAWO moved to the OJP, the office became “more focused on the technical aspects of grant making and less on the policy issues that emerge in building programs that address victim safety and offender accountability,” adding that this is “cause for great concern.”

Speaking in support of making the VAWO permanent, Chief Judge Vincent Poppiti of the Family Court for the State of Delaware said that the office “will assure that succeeding administrations continue to embrace and fully implement the provisions of the Violence Against Women Act.” He added that a permanent office would be “a tribute to those who have worked tirelessly to bring the issue of violence against women to our public consciousness…, especially to the victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.”

San Diego City Attorney Casey Gwinn advocated keeping the office in OJP saying, “There is a tremendous need to elevate the status of the work of the VAWO and to reinvigorate a national focus on the importance of domestic violence issues.” He added that removing VAWO from OJP would “damage the very real and very positive progress that Diane Stuart is currently making in bringing together so many parts of OJP that support the work of VAWO.”

Laurie Ekstrand of the General Accounting Office (GAO) discussed a recent GAO report that evaluated the VAWO’s discretionary grant programs and other grants by various OJP bureaus and offices. Ms. Ekstrand said although the GAO’s findings have shown “a need for improvement in VAWO grant monitoring and improvements in the evaluations that are intended to assess the impacts of VAWO programs,” both VAWO and OJP have “indicated a commitment to making the improvements.” She added that to ensure progress, “commitment to improvement and oversight are needed.” According to Ms. Ekstrand, VAWO and OJP have cited reorganization plans, and both are anticipating a management information system to be used as the “foundation for improved grants management, including improvements in monitoring and evaluation.”

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