Report from Governmental Affairs

A Wider Net

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Congress was set to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 this fall as both parties cited its role in assisting victims of do­mestic violence.

The law made domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault federal crimes, at least in some circumstances. It also mandated creation of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. The law also provided for training to help members of local, state and federal agencies deal with domestic violence crimes, and authorized funding to assure that victims of do­mestic violence have legal representation.

Reauthorization of the act is one of the ABA’s legislative priorities for the 109th Con­gress. The association has voiced strong support as reauthorization bills have moved through the Sen­ate and House of Representatives.

In correspondence to Senate leaders in September, ABA Governmen­tal Affairs Director Robert D. Evans noted that programs and policies under the act have led to “profound improvements” in the criminal justice system’s response to domestic violence and sexual assaults.

In the past decade, Evans pointed out, more than a million battered women have obtained protection orders in U.S. courts. More than 300 courts have implemented specialized doc­ket processes to address the distinct nature of domestic violence cases. And more than 660 new state laws on domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking have been passed.

The Senate passed S. 1197, its version of the reauthorization act, in October. The bill’s chief sponsors were Democrat Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Republicans Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. New provisions in the measure would expand the 1994 act’s focus on criminal law as a response to domestic violence. The changes include housing support and employment protections that are designed to help victims become self-sufficient.

In the ABA’s view, S. 1197 “strikes an appropriate balance between renewing core programs, closing loopholes, expanding successful programs, and developing critically needed initiatives for children and prevention efforts,” wrote Evans. “By reaffirming the need for a coordinated community response from victim services agencies, legal aid, law enforcement, prosecution and the courts, VAWA 2005 increases the likelihood of positive outcomes for victims of domestic violence and their children.”

Increased Funding Expected

The House incorporated less extensive VAWA reauthorization provisions in a Justice Department authorization bill. Conferees were expected to resolve differences between the bills in the Senate and the House, where Reps. Mark Green, R-Wis., and John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., are the lead sponsors.

The final version of the reauthorization bill was expected to authorize an increase in funding for the act’s legal assistance program from $40 million to as much as $65 million. The bill would also allow legal assistance programs that receive funding to represent domestic violence victims in criminal and civil cases.

Recent studies indicate that the single most important factor cited by domestic violence victims in their ability to leave their abuser is having legal counsel, says Mar­garet B. Drew of Cincin­nati, who chairs the ABA Com­mission on Domestic Violence. She points out that funding under VAWA supports many of the legal aid lawyers who represent domestic violence survivors.

Drew also emphasizes the importance of funding that supports services designed to keep victims and their children safe. “While substantial progress has been made in the field, in large part due to VAWA, we cannot relax our pursuit of safety for victims and their children,” she says. “By reauthorizing VAWA, Congress rec­ognizes the extent of domestic violence in our culture, the need to address domestic violence in the public arena, and the need for our government’s ongoing commitment of funds to ensure that true change might be effected.”

This column is written by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the federal government.

Rhonda McMillion is editor of Washington Letter, an ABA Governmental Affairs Office publication.

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