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Violence Against Women Act Focus of Senate Committee Hearing

On June 10, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing, “The Continued Importance of the Violence Against Women Act,” to examine the successes and shortcomings of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) (P.L. 109-162).  

In his opening statement, Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said, “I saw the devastating effects of domestic and sexual violence early in my career as the Vermont State’s Attorney for Chittenden County. Violence and abuse reach into the homes of people from all walks of life every day, regardless of gender, race, culture, age, class, or sexuality…Since I was a prosecutor, our nation has made remarkable progress in recognizing that domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, and dating violence are crimes, and in providing legal remedies, social support, and coordinated community responses. Since enactment of VAWA, the rates of non-fatal and fatal domestic violence have declined, more victims have felt confident to come forward to report these crimes and to seek help, and states have passed more than 600 laws to combat these crimes. Despite this progress, however, our country still has a long way to go. Millions of women, men, children, and families continue to be traumatized by abuse. We know that one in four American women and one in seven men are victims of domestic violence…Numbers like these are why I advocated for increased funding in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for important VAWA programs, which are necessary to address the rise in crime and which will have an immediate economic impact.” 

Acting Director of the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) at the Department of Justice, Catherine Pierce, gave an overview of VAWA, beginning with its initial passage in 1994, and subsequent reauthorizations in 2000 and 2005. Ms. Pierce outlined the many grant programs that are “forging effective partnerships among federal, state, local, and tribal governments,” to provide a range of services to victims, including those in rural areas, older women, women with disabilities, and Indian and Alaska Native women. She detailed several programs at OVW, including its work with the National Center for Full Faith and Credit to ensure that protection orders issued in one jurisdiction are enforced in others.  

Ms. Pierce told the committee that OVW is striving to improve their programs and responses in several areas, most notably those that serve women of color, women with disabilities, and military spouses. On the latter, OVW has piloted projects “to enhance collaboration between civilian and military agencies at two demonstration locations, Jacksonville, FL, and Fort Campbell, KY. Our goal for this ongoing project is to produce a model for military-civilian cooperation that other communities can replicate.”  With regard to Indian/Alaska Native communities, Ms. Pierce said that OVW “appointed a deputy director for Tribal Affairs at OVW, who oversees a staff of four grant program specialists, coordinates implementation of Title IX of VAWA 2005 [Title IX authorizes grants for tribal programs designed to improve safety and justice for Indian and Alaska Native women], and meets with tribal leaders nationwide to gain a more intimate understanding of the needs and challenges that tribes face…We currently are adapting the National Protocol for Sexual Assault Medical Forensic Examinations to specifically address the needs of tribal communities…In addition, OVW is supporting a technical assistance project that will train lay advocates and paraprofessionals on collecting basic forensic evidence where SANE [Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner] nurses do not exist for American Indian and Alaska Native victims.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) asked Ms. Pierce about the ongoing issue of sexual assault victims having to pay for their own forensic examination kits, or to pay upfront and seek reimbursement from the state at a later date. Ms. Pierce assured her that OVW is working with all relevant state, local, and tribal law enforcement groups to ensure compliance with VAWA law (42 U.S.C 3796gg-4), which prohibits such agencies from charging victims if they receive Services-Training-Officers-Prosecutors (STOP) grants.

Gabrielle Union, an actress and rape survivor; Karen Tronsgard-Scott, director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence;Ann Burke, founder of Moms and Dads for Education (MADE) to Stop Teen Dating Abuse and mother to victim Lindsey Ann Burke; Collene Campbell, national chair of Force 100 and former mayor of San Juan Capistrano, CA; and Sally Wolfgang Wells, chief assistant at the Office of the Maricopa County Attorney, also testified.

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