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Vital VAWA: Act’s reauthorization expands domestic violence protections

Vital VAWA: Act’s reauthorization expands domestic violence protections

It’s hard to believe there was ever a time when reports of stalking, sexual assault, domestic violence and dating violence weren’t taken seriously by law enforcement, courts or the general public, but there was – and it wasn’t even 30 years ago.

When the Violence Against Women Act was first authorized, it had an immediate and quantifiable effect on prosecution of these crimes and also devoted substantial resources toward prevention. From 1994 through 2010, rates of intimate partner violence declined by 64% , according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

Still, more than 35% of North Carolina women and 30% of North Carolina men will experience some form of stalking or intimate partner violence, be it physical or sexual, in their lifetime, according to a 2021 report  issued by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In 2020, a 24-hour survey of local and state domestic violence hotlines logged more than 20 calls an hour, every hour. That same year, there were 91 intimate partner homicides in North Carolina. 

Every few years, VAWA grant funding expires and Congress entertains reauthorization. The most current version expired in 2019, and although the money keeps flowing, the ever-changing scope of VAWA can’t be expanded to protect marginalized groups – especially tribal citizens, undocumented immigrants and the LGBT community – until it’s reauthorized. 

Senators last week unveiled a bi-partisan compromise version of VAWA that’s slightly different from the version that passed the House  in March, 2021, and President Joe Biden asked for the bill on his desk “as soon as possible.”

With razor-slim Democratic margins in the Senate and some controversial expansions omitted, VAWA was inserted into a $1.5 trillion omnibus appropriations bill. Biden signed the bill on March 11, but will it be enough? 

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SEE ALSO: Strong collaborative partnerships support victims in WNC

Originally, the Violence Against Women Act was signed by President Bill Clinton on Sept. 13, 1994. The bill’s primary Senate sponsor , Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) later called it one of his most important legislative achievements in a career that at that point had spanned 20 years and would go on for another 16 in the Senate, before taking him to the White House twice.

The initial aims of VAWA were modest but important, as the task of addressing intimate partner violence was literally starting at square zero. 

“It was pioneering in 1994 because there weren’t coalitions and collaborations across the country,” said Monika Johnson-Hostler, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault for the past 20 years. “There were not nearly enough of the services that we do have today. We have over 2,000 domestic violence shelters and over 1,500 rape crisis centers that did not exist in 1994.”

Funds totaling $1.6 billion were appropriated and directed to a variety of purposes through grants to states and tribes where the rates of violence against women were highest. 

Although North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein’s office doesn’t play a role in enacting federal legislation, Stein has consistently advocated for VAWA and the funding it brings to the state. 

“The Violence Against Women Act supports domestic violence and sexual assault victims and helps bring perpetrators of these crimes to justice. It will also help us to better prevent crime and work more sensitively with victims, including through new funding for restorative justice programs,” Stein told The Smoky Mountain News on March 2. “No one should ever have to live in fear of violence, and we must do everything in our power to prevent it.”

The grants from VAWA 1994 would go on to fund shelters, to make public transit more secure, to make prosecution more efficient and to educate public school students at all grade levels – as well as college students, judges and attorneys – about rape prevention. 

“What we know to be true is that funding, along with the support that bill, has garnered really has allowed us to increase the work that we’ve done to provide direct services,” Johnson-Hostler said. “I would also say the cornerstone of what we do is prevention work, and that wasn’t happening. That part required leadership with law enforcement, medical professionals, prosecutors, everyone who would be a first responder or the first place a survivor would go are brought into a collaborative process that ensures that we create the best response for survivors in our local community.”

Provisions in VAWA also made gender-related crimes a federal Civil Rights violation, forced protective orders from any state to be recognized by every state, made it a crime to cross state lines to harass or assault a spouse or intimate partner or to force a spouse or partner to cross a state line. 

In the courts, VAWA increased penalties for sex crimes against victims under the age of 16 and authorized judges to double maximum sentences on repeat sex offenders. 

It also and amended the Federal Rules of Evidence to prohibit evidence of a victim’s reputation, past sexual behavior or even their clothing  from being considered as mitigating factors in rape cases – a critical point in the 1988 Jodie Foster movie The Accused

Language in VAWA has long been construed to provide protection to victims who are men, as well. 

House Republicans slashed  funding for VAWA in 1995, and five years later, a portion of VAWA giving accusers the right to sue their attackers in federal court was struck down as unconstitutional. 

Congress had claimed jurisdiction due to the 14th Amendment’s Commerce Clause, which gives the federal government regulatory oversight of almost anything involving interstate commerce. Congress claimed the $10 billion in taxpayer cost in caring for victims of domestic violence gave them the right to intervene, but the Rehnquist court disagreed  in U.S. v. Morrison.  

In 2000, VAWA was again reauthorized with broad bipartisan support, and expanded access to legal immigration for victims of human trafficking and certain victims of violent crime including domestic violence and sexual assault. VAWA’s subsequent reauthorization in 2005 expanded and improved many of these immigration-related provisions. 

The attempted 2012 reauthorization of VAWA saw a revolt by conservatives opposed to the immigration-related provisions of VAWA 2005 and the extension of VAWA protections to same-sex couples and transgender people, but it passed anyway in 2013 with the LGBT and immigration provisions intact. 

For the first time, a federal funding statute had explicitly banned discrimination against “actual or perceived gender identity or sexual orientation,” just two years before landmark the U.S. Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges forced states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. 

When the federal government briefly shut down in late 2018, VAWA expired, was briefly reauthorized, and then expired again on Feb. 15, 2019. Since then, reauthorization has languished. 

SEE ALSO: Investigators say victim safety is top priority

“The Violence Against Women Act unfortunately has never in my 20-plus year tenure been reauthorized before it expired,” Hostler said. 

The topic of potential reauthorization came up just before the 2020 General Election in North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District. 

During a congressional campaign forum  hosted in Cullowhee on Sept. 5, 2020 by The Smoky Mountain News, Blue Ridge Public Radio and Mountain Xpress, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Richard Sneed asked Henderson County Republican Madison Cawthorn and Asheville Democrat Moe Davis about VAWA. 

It was Sneed’s first question, and as he only got to ask two questions it was perhaps indicative of Sneed’s interest in the matter given all the other federal issues the tribe must manage.  

“The United States is facing a tumultuous time, dealing with race-based issues particularly relating to police reform. Native nations across the U.S. experience an increased rate of domestic violence, rape and kidnapping. On some reservations federal studies have shown women are killed at a rate of over 10 times the national average,” Sneed said. “First, do you plan to support the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act when it comes before Congress again? And secondly, how does the protection of missing and murdered indigenous women fit into your police reform agenda?”

Cawthorn, who eventually won the race, indicated an initial willingness to support VAWA reauthorization. 

“You know, if that act does come up that protects women from domestic violence, it’s something I would be more than willing to vote for,” he said. “The reason is because I believe it is the duty of the government to protect the weak and if there is a woman, or a man for that matter, who is facing a situation where they’re facing domestic abuse or violent of any kind, I believe it’s the role of the government to step in and protect them.”

When the House passed its own version of the VAWA reauthorization act in March, 2021, Cawthorn joined reps Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Lauren Boebert (R-CO) as well as 169 other Republicans in voting no. The bill passed, 244-172 , largely along party lines. No Democrats opposed the bill. 

One of the reasons that so many Republicans opposed the House version was because of something called “the boyfriend loophole.”

Right now, federal law prohibits the purchase of weapons by people convicted of domestic violence who have lived with, been married to or have a child with their victim. 

The House version would have expanded the weapons ban to current or former intimate partners as well as those convicted of stalking. 

“It requires adjudication,” Hostler said. “I think that’s important and I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but North Carolina is one of the states with the highest number of domestic homicides with a gun.”

The National Rifle Association vehemently opposed  closing VAWA’s boyfriend loophole. 

On Dec. 16, 2021, senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) announced they’d come up with a framework to reauthorize VAWA, albeit without closing the boyfriend loophole. 


fr VAWA jolie

Actress Angelina Jolie speaks in favor of the Violence Against Women Act during a Feb. 9 Senate Judiciary Committee press conference, as California Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein (left) looks over her shoulder. C-SPAN photo.


North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr recently added his name to the list of cosponsors of the Senate version of VAWA, which was introduced last week, but fellow North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis was an early cosponsor

“I’ve worked very closely with Sen. Ernst on several measures,” Tillis told The Smoky Mountain News on Feb. 17. “You may know that she is actually a victim of sexual assault herself.”

Ernst told Bloomberg News  three years ago that she’d been raped by a boyfriend while a student at Iowa State University in the late 1980s or early 1990s and that the incident had left her feeling “embarrassed” and “humiliated.” Ernst, an Army veteran and now the highest-ranking Republican woman in Senate leadership, never reported the incident to police. 

Nevertheless, Tillis wanted to steer clear of the boyfriend loophole issue. 

“I felt like [VAWA] needed to be reauthorized, but we also needed to make sure that it did not move into areas that I think could cause problems for the bill,” Tillis said. “So, I thought that by being a cosponsor, I had a seat at the table, and we could influence what the final product looks like.”

Tillis’ staff legal counsel Cirilo Perez said that “the boyfriend loophole was agreed upon on by both sides [to be] taken out of the Senate version.”

Another equally important issue that did make it into the final version of VAWA revolves around the authority of tribal law enforcement officials to prosecute non-tribal members. 

On tribal lands, non-tribal members who are involved in crimes adjacent to domestic violence, like endangering children or assaulting an officer, have to be prosecuted in federal court. Some tribes have asked for the power to do that locally. 

Perez said that Senate negotiators from both sides of the aisle agreed to update the Title VIII section, Safety for Indian Women, that will expand the provision from the 2013 version of VAWA to allow tribal prosecutors to prosecute non-Indians who commit domestic violence. However, the non-Indian defendant can file a writ of habeas corpus in tribal court. Individuals found guilty will still be placed in federal prisons. 

A spokesman for Tillis confirmed that the update will indeed apply to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. 

SEE ALSO: VAWA reauthorization expands tribe’s ability to hold abusers accountable

On March 9, the Senate’s version of the bipartisan Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2022 was released, but not as a standalone bill that could be debated or amended – it was inserted into a $1.5 trillion, 2,700-page omnibus bill. 

An omnibus bill is a single large bill that combines several (often unrelated) measures into one document. 

The cumbersome nature of omnibus bills means that true scrutiny of and debate over the issues contained therein are stymied, and the bill must be voted up or down without changes. In essence, it’s a classic example of government sausage-making – a “take it or leave it” measure where almost everybody gets something they want and almost everybody gets something they don’t want. 

The omnibus bill that Congress sent to Biden’s desk includes $575 million in funding for VAWA, almost $14 billion for aid to Ukraine, $4 billion for rural development including broadband and $1.5 billion to expand law enforcement capabilities on the southern border. 

Given the historical data available, VAWA’s been vital in addressing the needs of intimate partner violence victims in North Carolina for the past 28 years. 

Given the population growth projections for North Carolina and its associated increase in demand for services, VAWA will remain vital, at least for the next few years – now that Biden’s signed it, VAWA and the grant funding it provides will be authorized through 2027. 

“Today, it’s equally important because we’ve spent the time and have momentum to say that our services are here and we support the needs of survivors,” Johnson-Hostler said. “As those needs grow, the Violence Against Women Act has to grow to meet those needs.”

If you or someone you know may be in an abusive relationship, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233. 

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