Tell Congress: VAWA Works. Let’s Keep it! – by Julia Spann

Written by LIFT Alliance

Perkins was gunned down by the father of her three-month-old daughter, Jovan Belcher, who then killed himself.

Kasandra’s murder made the news because her boyfriend was a professional football player, but family violence is a tragedy that hides in plain sight all around us, every day. Hundreds of Texas women and children are killed by family members each year, often after years of suffering emotional and physical abuse that leaves them broken and traumatized. The costs — in law enforcement, incarceration, hospitalizations, and loss of productivity — run into the billions of dollars each year.

Our nation responded in 1994 by passing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). With that comprehensive legislative package, the U.S. created new federal stalking and firearms crimes, developed a process for legal relief for battered immigrants, established the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and authorized funds to support shelters and other services for survivors of abuse and sexual assault. It also began to develop a community response that involved law enforcement, prosecution, court, and victim services.

It was, for those of us on the front lines of this issue, a major sea change, and it has allowed SafePlace to establish a number of innovative and successful programs that serve victims.

Thanks to VAWA funds, SafePlace offers transitional housing to mothers and children. We have developed and implemented programs for people with disabilities, who often face additional challenges when trying to break away from abusive relationships. VAWA funding helps us offer early childhood services and esteem-building activities for children who have been exposed to violence, either as victims or witnesses. Most of the children who come to the shelter with their moms have also experienced abuse, and helping them to recover is an important priority for all of us. VAWA is also providing essential funding for a new SafePlace program, Planet Safe, which will provide a secure transfer and visitation spot for divorced families – a service that does not currently exist in Central Texas.

A report released last month by the Bureau of Justice Statistics revealed a stunning 64% drop in the overall rate of intimate partner violence since 1994. Legislators on both sides of the aisle agree, and the evidence proves it: The Violence Against Women Act is a resounding success.

It also expired at the end of 2011. This year’s appropriations could be the last, unless Congress acts very soon to reauthorize it.

We still have a long way to go to eradicate violence. In the past 18 years, SafePlace has twice increased its capacity to provide safe haven to survivors. We now have 105 beds available for people who are escaping violent homes, and every night, each one of those beds is full, and there’s a waiting list in case space becomes available at the last minute. In other words: Every single night of every single year, our shelter cannot meet the needs of our own community.

Obviously, we can’t keep building bigger shelters. We’ve got to keep at the hard work of stopping the violence, and VAWA plays a large part in that.

The Senate passed the full reauthorization of VAWA in April, with bipartisan support. This version of VAWA is supported by the National Sheriff’s Association, the National Association of Attorneys General, the National Fraternal Order of Police, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the American Bar Association, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and more than 300 other domestic violence, law enforcement, sexual assault, civil rights and religious organizations and associations.

The House passed a version in early May that is opposed by those same groups. The disagreement has to do with specific legal provisions for tribal populations, the LGBTQ community, and undocumented immigrants, which the House version removed. At SafePlace, we believe no one deserves to be a victim of domestic violence. The work we do every day centers around people who have been told repeatedly that they don’t deserve help and that no one cares about them. We work very hard to counter those negative messages with our clients, regardless of their immigration status or the gender or nationality of their abuser. We undercut the power and success of VAWA when we tell anyone that the abuse they’ve suffered doesn’t count in the eyes of the law. That’s why, along with our colleagues on the front lines in shelters and victim-service agencies across the country, we oppose the House version of VAWA.

Right now the fate of the bill is unclear. Congress is scheduled to adjourn next week, and the “fiscal cliff” negotiations are obviously taking center stage. If our legislators leave town without taking action on VAWA, they could be mothballing one of the most successful programs the federal government has ever developed.

We can’t let that happen. Please encourage House Judiciary Chair Lamar Smith, as well as your local Representative, to reauthorize the full version of VAWA before they adjourn for the year.

And let’s keep reauthorizing this legislation — until no more babies are left behind to grow up without their mothers.