Key Senate Committee Considers VAWA

Key Senate Committee Considers VAWA

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has been highly effective in helping stop domestic violence and other violent crimes against women, expert witnesses told the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 10. Actress, advocate and rape survivor Gabrielle Union, Office on Violence Against Women Acting Director Catherine Pierce, and Lindsay Ann Burke Memorial Fund President Ann Burke were among those who testified at the hearing on the continued importance of the Violence Against Women Act. They told Committee members that victims of violence and their families can recover from violence, with the right support and services.

“Since 1994, the Violence Against Women Act has been the centerpiece of the federal government’s commitment to combating domestic violence and other violent crimes against women,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said in opening the hearing. “Its passage and reauthorization were a signal achievement in support of the rights of women in America. This landmark law filled a void in federal law that had left too many victims of domestic and sexual violence without the help they needed.”

VAWA supports the work of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, courts, shelters and other programs to stem domestic and dating violence, sexual assault and stalking. VAWA was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005, and is due to expire in 2011.

“There has been tremendous progress made in combating violence against women,” Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-AL) added. Since enactment of VAWA in 1994, rates of non-fatal and fatal domestic violence have declined and states have passed more than 600 laws to combat these crimes. “Every dollar of Violence Against Women Act funds need to be wisely and responsibly spent,” he continued. “Let’s make sure these programs are the most effective programs to help women and children.”

More Work to Do

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) praised the legislation as an important tool to help police, prosecutors, the court system, health care providers and many others raise awareness about domestic violence, prosecute abusers and help victims. “As a former prosecutor, I heard firsthand the stories of victims of sexual and domestic violence,” Senator Klobuchar said. She served as a county attorney from 1998 to 2006. “This legislation has had a profound role in protecting women and supporting the victims of sexual and domestic violence. Its reauthorization is vital for America’s women.”

Senator Edward Kaufman (D-DE), who took the seat formerly held by Vice President Joseph Biden on the Committee, praised the Vice President for his leadership and dedication to ending violence against women and girls. “But we still have a long way to go, we can’t afford to turn our backs on the women and children who still most need our help,” Senator Kaufman said.

Office on Violence Against Women Acting Director Catherine Pierce testified on the progress the United States has made since passing VAWA in 1994 and the challenges that remain. Pierce said, “While VAWA has made a tremendous difference, we recognize that we have left some women behind, especially women of color... Every day, stories of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking remain in our headlines. This is unacceptable.”

Pierce said the federal response to violence against women and children in the next version of VAWA should include more resources for victims of sexual assault in rural areas; programs that look into better homicide prevention, domestic violence and child custody, and children exposed to violence; and more use of research to inform practice.

A crime survivor herself, actress and advocate Gabrielle Union is a vocal advocate for victims of sexual assault. She testified, “We have to make human beings a priority, make women and children a priority. We need adequate funding for domestic violence and sexual assault programs.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) helped introduce Ann Burke whose daughter, Lindsay Ann Burke, was murdered by an abusive ex-boyfriend in 2005. After her daughter’s death, Burke helped pass a Rhode Island state law requiring teen dating violence education in public schools. Whitehouse called Burke an “inspiration” and said, “We’ve seen what wonderful successes she has drawn from such a tragedy.”

Burke told the Judiciary Committee, “After Lindsay’s murder I spent hours researching this topic and wondering why we didn’t educate our teens about the dangers of dating violence.” She asked, “How many more daughters have to lose their lives?”

Other witnesses at last week’s hearing included: Director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence Karen Tronsgard-Scott; National Chair of Force 100 Collene Campbell; and Chief Assistant in the Office of the Maricopa County Attorney Sally Wolfgang Wells.

To view a webcast of the hearing or read written testimony from each witness, please click here.

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