The Violence Against Women Act, a federal law that protects victims of domestic and sexual violence and funds programs that serve them, is up for reauthorization by the U.S. Congress. Some area nonprofits rely on grants from the law, but some controversial aspects of the law have made some lawmakers hesitant to support the reauthorization.
The law was first passed in 1994 and has been reauthorized several times since then. The protections and programs authorized by the law lapsed with the partial government shutdown late last year but were then reinstated in the January short-term spending deal. An extension for VAWA was not included in last month’s deal that covers through the end of the fiscal year.
The reauthorization that is now in the U.S. House, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., would fund VAWA programs for about five more years.
The reauthorization passed the House Judiciary Committee on March 13, with a vote of 22-11 along party lines. Republicans Louie Gohmert of Texas and Debbie Lesko of Arizona both attempted to amend the bill to exclude language that protects transgender individuals.
“The claim that transgender women are a danger to other women in shelters is false,” said Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. at the Judiciary Committee hearing.
H.R. 1585, the bill approved by the Judiciary Committee, allows transgender individuals to be newly eligible for some Department of Justice grants and would require the Bureau of Prisoners to recognize the gender identity of transgender prisoners.
“The range of individuals VAWA helps is broad and should be as diverse as our communities around the country. I am pleased that this reauthorization continues our commitment to this principle,” Nadler said.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, is the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee. In a statement to The Times, he said that while VAWA funds important programs, he disagreed with some provisions in the reauthorization bill.
“For years, the Violence Against Women Act has funded critical programs and services that protect vulnerable women and provide assistance to victims of domestic violence. It is my sincere hope that Republicans and Democrats in Congress can work together to reauthorize VAWA in a way that preserves the intent of the law,” Collins said. “However, I cannot and will not support the legislation offered by my Democrat colleague because it politicizes and weaponizes a program that has historically been non-controversial and bipartisan. I remain ready to work with my colleagues on drafting legislation to protect women and girls, assist law enforcement as they respond to domestic violence, and provide services to the vulnerable without sacrificing the safety of women and girls in the process.”
Jessica Butler, executive director of Gateway Domestic Violence Center in Gainesville, said VAWA funds about 12 percent of Gateway’s budget. Two VAWA-authorized grants are used to fund the organization’s transitional housing program and emergency shelter, she said.
Gateway has 10 transitional apartments for families that are homeless due to domestic violence, and the organization’s emergency shelter has 18 beds and stays full — last year, the shelter’s average nightly capacity was 19 people, Butler said.
Stephanie Tolbert, associate director of Circle of Hope in Cornelia, said that organization gets about 8 percent of its budget from VAWA funding, which is used to pay for transitional housing and specialized training for law enforcement and other community partners who work with people who have experienced domestic violence.
Rape Response in Gainesville, which serves people who have experienced sexual assault, does not receive funding from VAWA grants. However, the organization does get about 74 percent of its funding from federal sources, specifically Victims of Crime Act grants.
“It is critical for people to have access to services, and the best way to grow our programs significantly, for domestic violence shelters and sexual assault centers, has been through those federal funding sources,” Jeanne Buffington, Rape Response’s executive director, said. “… Then, we can look to local organizations and churches and the United Way and individuals to provide the match funding or the funding that enables us to serve the community and do that work. We can’t do it all with one source.”
The proposed legislation to reauthorize VAWA includes several updates, including increased penalties for cyberstalking. Buffington said online abuse is becoming more common and can quickly get out of control.
“It’s often a younger population, although it can be any age who is involved in this,” Buffington said. “They may get involved by sending a photo that’s not so bad to someone, and they’re asked to do more and more significant photos.”
Buffington said people who are experiencing cyberstalking or online abuse may feel hesitant to get help because they blame themselves or have been threatened by their abuser.
Tolbert, from Circle of Hope, said technology has normalized some forms of stalking, but the behavior is still a red flag for abuse.
“Digital tools, like apps on cell phones, make it much easier these days for abusers to keep track of their victims and monitor their locations or activities,” Tolbert said in an email. “It’s really not normal for one person to be constantly aware of their partner’s location, but in today’s society, it seems more socially acceptable because a device allows it to be possible. Let me emphasize that stalking in any form is not acceptable, nor is it behavior indicative of a healthy relationship.”
Another amendment to VAWA being considered is the creation of a position at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to focus on housing needs for domestic violence survivors. Tolbert said housing issues can be a barrier for people who are being abused.
“Abusers may provide a significant income to the family unit as a whole. Who’s going to help make the mortgage payment, pay the rent, pay for childcare, pay the car payment, and so on, if that family’s income is essentially cut in half or wiped out all together?” Tolbert said. “It's important to remember that victims do not choose to be in abusive relationships, but often stay because of a lack of available resources, such as affordable housing, that can help them achieve self-sufficiency.”
House Majority Leader U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said in a March 7 statement that he hopes to bring the bill to a vote on the House floor the first week of April.