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A Blow to Women

Local consequences of the House Republicans’ decision to block reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act

by Erin Pihlaja on January 10, 2013

Is the Violence Against Women Act getting pushed off the fiscal cliff?

The act, which provides federal funding for the investigation of cases of violence against women, and the prosecution of those perpetrators, has been renewed and largely uncontested in both the Senate and the House of Representatives since 1994. But that didn’t happen this year.

“I am extremely disappointed—it’s quite shocking,” said Lisa Frisch, executive director of the Legal Project in Albany, a not-for-profit that provides free or low-cost legal help for people, including victims of domestic violence. “VAWA has been passed in a bipartisan way since it first began. Unfortunately it got very political, and it’s this year’s sacrificial lamb.”

Attesting to the value of VAWA: Equinox's Magee. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

“The [Senate’s] expansions increased safety and accessibility to Native Americans, immigrants, LGBT people, college campuses and communities of color,” said Frisch. “VAWA has truly done nothing but help and support not just victims but police, prosecutors, judges, and advocates.”

Roughly half of sexual assaults do not get reported, but a 2011 government study (the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey) found that one in five women said they were raped or involved in an attempted rape; one in four were physically abused by an intimate partner; and one in six were stalked.

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network estimates that someone in the United States is sexually assaulted every two minutes.

Frisch recalled the difference that the introduction of VAWA, and the resources that came with it, made in dealing with cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse. “Light years—I’m talking light years from where we were almost 20 years [ago] to today,” she said.

According to Frisch, the Legal Project recently worked on a project funded by a VAWA grant to increase safety on college campuses and to better assist victims of sexual assault, stalking and domestic violence in those populations. The grant included work at the College of Saint Rose, Siena College, Albany Law School, and the Sage Colleges. “It allowed us to strengthen the relationship across community collaborators to assist victims,” she said. “It included materials provided to staff and students, and provided an opportunity for state corridors and the community to come together to meet on an ongoing basis to develop a protocol of how they could work together.”

She also pointed out that the Domestic Violence court in Albany was a recipient of VAWA funding. “We wouldn’t have that court if we didn’t have the original VAWA grant.”

Handling sexual abuse and domestic violence cases requires a different approach, Frisch noted. “These are not generally ‘stranger’ crimes like a drive-by shooting. These are people who know each other. VAWA makes us aware that the way our systems work traditionally with crime doesn’t always work in respect to intimates.”

Funding from VAWA comes from the federal government to New York state through the Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), which then awards grants to various applicants based on proposals, said Janine Kava, a spokeswoman for the DCJS.

The award letters are in the process of going out, she said; this year $6 million will be distributed to 115 different programs throughout the state. The breakdown: “Twenty-five percent to law enforcement, 25 percent to district attorney offices, 30 percent to victim services programs, 5 percent to courts, and 15 percent was for discretionary purposes.”

“I’d have to say that pretty much anyone who provides services for most domestic violence or rape crisis programs receives VAWA funding,” said Karen Ziegler, director of the Albany County Criminal Victims and Sexual Violence Center. “Most of us will be affected by lack of funding if VAWA doesn’t get passed and quickly.”

Ziegler said that the center served 2,500 victims of domestic violence in Albany County last year, and that domestic violence affects more than half of the cases the agency sees. “I have a case worker, a prosecutor, and a sheriff’s investigator,” she said, “whose salaries are significantly impacted through VAWA funding. Without it, I couldn’t guarantee their positions.” But losing VAWA funding could have an even greater consequence, Ziegler said: “In my opinion, instances of domestic violence and child abuse are going to go up in Albany County. Without our support these victims are left vulnerable to whatever the batterer chooses to do to them.”

“We just received a new grant for transitional housing for victims who are fleeing domestic violence or for when they are coming out of a domestic violence shelter,” said Kathy Magee, the executive director of domestic violence programs at Equinox in Albany. Grants help provide what Magee said are “supports for people who are moving on with their lives” like “rental assistance, case management, and counseling.”

Equinox has received VAWA grants to partner with the Center for Disability Services to help victims who are disabled. The organization also serves immigrant and LGBTQ victims.

Magee is “angry” that the expansions for VAWA were not authorized. “If there is a lessoning of interest in VAWA, the funding will go down,” she said. She remarked on the recent rape cases in Steubenville, Ohio and in New Delhi, India. “We were there not that long ago, we could slip back,” she warned.

–Erin Pihlaja