Score political points or help victims of domestic violence?

Since its original bipartisan passage in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act has been fairly uncontroversial. The act, which seeks to protect victims of domestic and intimate partner violence and also institute programs to reduce it, was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005 with little fanfare (click here for a history of the act). This year's reauthorization was being held up by some Republicans in the Senate, many of whom formerly supported it.

On Tuesday, however, Sen. Dean Heller (R., Nev.), who is in a tough reelection fight with Rep. Shelley Berkley (D., Nev.), became the bill’s 60th co-sponsor, assuring a filibuster proof majority. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) has said he will push for a vote soon.


The statistics on intimate partner violence are alarming. Nearly 1 in 4 women are beaten or raped during their lifetime. On average, three women are killed every day in the United States by a current or former partner. Approximately 1 in 6 adult women and 1 in 33 adult men have experienced a rape or attempted rape.

The physical and emotional scars from such violence are devastating. So too are its economic burdens. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the “costs of intimate partner rape, physical assault, and stalking exceed $5.8 billion each year, nearly $4.1 billion of which is for direct medical and mental health care services.” An additional $900 million is lost to reduced productivity in the workplace and at home home; another $900 million in lifetime earnings is lost by those who are killed.

Children are victims as well: an estimated 15.5 million of them are exposed to domestic violence each year. Those kids are “more likely to attempt suicide, abuse drugs and alcohol, run away from home, engage in teenage prostitution, and commit sexual assault crimes,” the CDC reports.

In its almost 20 years of existence, the Violence Against Women Act has developed several core programs, including the Department of Health and Human Services' National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233).

The Office on Violence Against Women at the Department of Justice oversees a number of grant programs: STOP (Services, Training, Officers, and Prosecutors) Violence Against Women Formula Grants to States, the department says, “promotes a coordinated, multidisciplinary approach to enhancing advocacy and improving the criminal justice system's response to violent crimes against women.” The Sexual Assault Services Program provides “intervention, advocacy, accompaniment, support services, and related assistance for adult, youth, and child victims of sexual assault, family and household members of victims, and those collaterally affected by the sexual assault.” And the Legal Assistance for Victims Grant Program “increases the availability of civil and criminal legal assistance in order to provide effective aid to victims who are seeking relief in legal matters arising because of abuse or violence.”

The great success of the Violence Against Women Act has been measured both in lives saved and in economic terms. One study found that “VAWA grants were associated with reductions in rape and assault.” An independent evaluation found that the act has “made it possible to provide desperately needed civil legal services to more victims of domestic violence who cannot afford a private attorney.” Another research paper found that just the first five years of the act “saved $14.8 billion in net averted social costs.”

There is still some bipartisan support for the reauthorization bill. Sen. Mike Crapo (R., Utah) is a co-sponsor, and he has said he believes that the law “provides critical services to these victims of violent crime, as well as agencies and organizations who provide important aid to those individuals.” Crapo also said that he will “continue to fight to keep these funds intact for women and children.”

But more extreme members of the Senate have been holding up the reauthorization, complaining that the expansion of the act's programs that are part of the bill are a barrier to passage. According to the New York Times, the new bill would “continue existing grant programs to local law enforcement and battered women shelters, but would expand efforts to reach Indian tribes and rural areas.” The new bill also helps provide free legal assistance to victims of intimate partner violence – and, more controversially, “would also allow more battered illegal immigrants to claim temporary visas, and would include same-sex couples in programs for domestic violence.” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), who has voiced opposition to the reauthorization, is particularly upset about the inclusion of same-sex partner victims and more immigrant visas.

Vocal opponents to the reauthorization include the Family Research Council, which is particularly against the bill's “special homosexual protections.” This is in line with previous stands by the Family Research Council, which has been designated a hate-group for its anti-gay positions by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The bottom line is this: Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act is a no-brainer. It must go forward to continue the important protections and programs that have worked for nearly two decades. With its 60th co-sponsor, the bill’s passage now seems likely, assuming that all 60 co-sponsors vote for it. In this case, it seems, the anti-immigration rhetoric and homophobic hate will be overcome. Cooler, more rational heads will prevail.

Even so, the bill’s opponents remain guilty of turning their backs on the 2.3 million Americans who are raped or sexually assaulted by a spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend (current or former) each year. Are political points worth that kind of pain?

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