Domestic violence advocates agree, they’ve never seen anything like this before. Seated around a conference table inside the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence Monday morning, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and domestic violence advocates discussed the status of the Violence against Women Act (VAWA.)
VAWA was passed in the Senate last week, but is now facing opposition from the House, particularly Republicans who do not want to see same-sex couples and non-citizens integrated into VAWA’s protections. Advocates at the roundtable said they have never before feared for the renewal of VAWA until now.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Peg Langhammer, executive director at Day One, a sexual assault and trauma resource center. “It’s incredible that it’s getting this kind of challenge.”
Deb DeBare, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence (RICADV), agreed.
VAWA, the Violence Against Women Act, was initially passed in 1994, providing funding to law enforcement and community-based programs that respond to and deal with crimes of domestic violence. But new Senate-approved additions to the bill concerning Native Americans, homosexuals and illegal immigrants have put the brakes on with the Republican majority in the House of Representatives.
“If they stick to what they want to do, they’re going to get clobbered,” said Whitehouse of the Republicans opposing the bill as it stands.
Now local agencies are beginning to wonder what will happen to them should VAWA not pass.
“This is essential,” said Langhammer. “It’s critical to our survival.”
Langhammer said Day One could not provide the level of service it does to their clients without the VAWA legislation and funding it provides. She said VAWA supports programming like counseling, victim support and law enforcement collaborations.
Langhammer said the passage of the bill in the mid-1990s allowed organizations like hers to implement programs that are still in existence today.
“It was a mandated collaboration that worked and still works,” she said.
Although Langhammer believes VAWA will ultimately pass, she said she has “never been so worried about it.”
DeBare said people have been asking her what will become of RICADM if the bill doesn’t pass.
“But I honestly don’t know what happens,” she said. “We’ve never had to worry about it before.”
In addition to the debate over the new provisions in VAWA, Kate Reilley of the Sojourner House said Republicans aim to eliminate some of the educational components of the bill.
Attorney General Kilmartin said the bill is as much about education and outreach as anything else.
“It’s the teenagers,” he said. “It’s a difficult dynamic, unless we use the funds for education and outreach.”
He discussed adolescent and pre-teen relationship dynamics and how early intervention is key. The advocates agreed.
“It’s there,” said Ann Burke of the Lindsay Ann Burke Memorial Fund. “It’s been there for a long time but we’re turning a blind eye to it.”
Advocates agree that educating young children, as early as the fifth grade, is important. Reilley said ensuring competitive anti-domestic violence programming is as important as developing literacy and math programs.
Langhammer said she believes a big problem with the House is the belief that agencies like her own should be funded on a state level.
“They all think everything should be done in the states and by the states,” she said. “In this state, God help us.”
For Burke, whose daughter was a victim of domestic violence, passing VAWA is more than an issue of funding.
“It’s a sign of the times, what’s going on in Congress,” said Burke. “What is more important than our lives?”
Kilmartin suggested that the advocates come together to draft a letter, explaining how VAWA, or the lack of it, would affect their agencies.
“That would help me immensely on the floor,” said Whitehouse. “I do think they are paying attention to the other side. Let your voices be heard.”