Congress needs to reauthorize domestic violence protection act
BY JULIE DELCOUR Associate Editor
Sunday, January 13, 2013
1/13/13 at 7:02 AM
Tulsa police last week investigated whether a brutal quadruple homicide case could be linked to domestic violence. Investigators, of course, may uncover an entirely different motive for the shooting deaths of the four women discovered Monday inside an apartment in a high-crime area near 61st Street and Peoria Avenue.
What is not subject to change is that last year more than 60 Oklahomans died in domestic violence-related deaths. As bad as that count is, the number would be far worse if not for federal legislation passed 18 years ago that has helped hundreds of thousands of domestic abuse victims.
The Violence Against Women Act is credited for dropping domestic-related U.S. homicides by 60 percent. The act, which also protects male victims, has beefed up the criminal justice system's ability to address domestic and sexual abuse and expanded services for those who have been victims of such crimes. At least 600,000 law enforcement officers, judges and prosecutors have been trained through VAWA funds.
Congress, however, failed to reauthorize the act last year after conservative House members resisted adding expanded protections for Native Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender victims and immigrants, all vulnerable populations. Twice before, in 2000 and again in 2005, Congress proudly and quickly had reauthorized the successful, cost-effective legislation.
No such luck this time. The do-nothing 112th Congress, so preoccupied with averting a fiscal cliff, didn't compromise on VAWA reauthorization before year's end, allowing it to expire. Unless something changes, some House members apparently are prepared to allow victims of domestic abuse to go over a physical cliff and into harm's way. But at least they'll still have those conservative principles.
"By refusing to accept the principle of protecting all victims of domestic violence, House Republican leaders are conveying a belief that rapes of gay people and immigrant women are not 'legitimate' rapes, as Rep. Todd Akin, the failed Republican candidate for the Senate from Missouri, put it so appallingly," the New York Times said in November. "Is that really what Republicans want to stand for?"
That's a fair question. A lot of us are pretty sure we know the answer.
Now, the 113th Congress will have to start over with reauthorization. Who knows what form it will take? In the meantime, at least $11 million in VAWA grants in Oklahoma - including two sizable ones in Tulsa - hang in the balance.
"It's maddening," says Marcia Smith, executive director of the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, a 29-agency group.
"What bothers me the most is that the issue holding it up is not about money, it's the reluctance to expand services. These all are human beings we are talking about," said Smith, who attributes much of this state's progress in reducing domestic violence to programs funded by VAWA.
Considering that Oklahoma had nearly 25,000 reported cases of domestic abuse last year, the reauthorization of VAWA is no small matter. Without grants, many services will simply vanish, including much of the training for law enforcement and providers as well as federal money spent on victim shelter, counseling and other services.
"This work is all about safety - first of all safety for victims, then safety for our communities. We have been successful and it would be shame if we go back to the dark ages of the '70s-90s," Smith said.
If sequestration - those looming, automatic cuts Congress still has not tackled - occur later this year, domestic violence programs will be in desperate straits. Programs funded by federal sources could experience an 8.5 percent across-the-board funding cut, an unthinkable blow to essential services.
"Last year, domestic abuse providers in Oklahoma had to turn away 1,400 victims because they didn't have enough money to help. We are so thinly staffed anyway," Smith said. "Imagine the impact if grants are reduced. An estimated 200,000 victims would not receive services if VAWA is not reauthorized." Without VAWA, rural domestic violence programs almost surely would go by the wayside or be greatly reduced as well as many services in high-demand urban areas such as Tulsa.
What's most alarming is that Congress is well aware of the good - actually life-saving - work that has occurred because VAWA was there over the past 18 years. Nearly no one disputes VAWA's value.
When Smith started in 1997 with OCADVSA, the state's umbrella coalition for domestic violence services, Oklahoma ranked third nationally per capita in deaths attributed to domestic violence.
"For 10 years we stayed in the top 10, then one year we crept down to 11. Last year we were 17th in the nation. That's not good but it's better than where we were, and I attribute that reduction to VAWA."
Federal funds have allowed local and state providers to provide services that would not exist otherwise. VAWA has provided support to raise awareness, train responders and help victims escape, deal with or at least understand the dangers of staying in dangerous situations. Domestic violence is still out there but its effects would be so much worse without VAWA.
The reauthorization delay jeopardizes lives. It is yet another outrage by a Congress that is hopelessly addicted to outrage and, I would add, pointedly committed to putting politics over people.
Original Print Headline: GOING OVER the physical cliff
Julie DelCour 918-581-8379
A victim of domestic violence, who calls herself "Sierra," is seen at a safe house in Nevada County, Calif. The Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Coalition has been forced to rely on the generosity of area residents to provide shelter for those escaping abuse after it had to close the shelter it operated in response to California's budget crisis. Associated Press file