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Liz Roberts Explains the Impact of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)

By Liz Roberts
May 23, 2017

VAWA, or the Violence Against Women Act is a federal program that protects women against all types of violence and abuse, including domestic violence and sexual violence. The Office on Violence against Women (OVW) was created by VAWA which Congress passed in 1994. Since then, VAWA has offered government help for domestic abuse and other violent acts against women. In this blog post, I will explain the history of VAWA and its critical role in helping women who are victims of violence heal.

Prior to 1994, What Services and Options Were Available for Domestic Violence Survivors?

I started working with abused women and their children in 1983. At that time, the only support available was through a network of small, independent non-profits, which operated on shoestring budgets and were truly grassroots. In fact, the shelter where I volunteered in the 1980s was only staffed by volunteers—many of us very young and very inexperienced—most of the week. The staff was tiny, the budget was tiny. It was a labor of love for the women who kept the shelter going. We were passionate, but we didn’t have all the skills and resources we needed. These shelters and the 24-hour hotlines they ran were truly the sole refuge, the only meaningful resource, for survivors. There was a lack of understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence in most mainstream agencies, including hospitals, the police, and child protective services.

When VAWA was passed in 1994, it made a huge difference. It led to an influx of resources for these grassroots programs.  And, even more importantly, it created incentives for community partnerships to respond to domestic violence. Because of VAWA, police, judges, district attorneys, and advocates began to come together to develop a coordinated community response to the problem in cities and towns all across the country. And these partnerships transformed the response to victims, creating many more options and moving to eliminate many of the systems problems that put survivors and their children in danger.

Since VAWA was Enacted, How has the Landscape of Available Resources for Domestic Violence Survivors Changed?

VAWA created a federal office – the Office on Violence against Women — dedicated to addressing domestic and sexual violence. OVW has provided important leadership in developing more effective responses to domestic violence. In addition to funding and evaluating coordinated community response models (as described above), OVW spurred the creation of specialized courts, prosecution and policing; funded national programs like the National Domestic Violence Hotline; and supported a variety of national training and technical assistance projects which have helped agencies like Safe Horizon to build our expertise and respond to a broader range of victims.

Since 2000, VAWA reauthorizations have broadened the reach of VAWA funds to include healthcare, legal assistance, focused services for communities of color and underserved populations, children and youth services, rural programs, services for the elderly and disabled victims, immigrant survivors, the LGBT community, Native American communities and sexual assault on college campuses. Thanks to VAWA, survivors of domestic violence across a wide spectrum of communities and identities are much more likely to have access to services that are accessible and culturally competent to meet their needs.

As a Social Worker and an Expert in Helping Domestic Violence Survivors, how has VAWA Impacted your Work?

VAWA has made it possible to build alliances across a variety of agencies—from the police department to the court system, from child protection to hospital emergency rooms—so that victims of domestic violence have a better chance of getting the right response no matter where they show up. It has allowed the federal government to provide important leadership in our field, while also injecting critical resources that allow us to offer more robust and comprehensive services for survivors, in more locations. Thanks to VAWA, immigrant victims of domestic violence who would otherwise be under the control of their abusive spouses, have a way to stay in this country safely.

How Does VAWA Impact Safe Horizon’s Work?

Safe Horizon receives more than $1 million in VAWA funding. This critical funding supports our partnerships with the district attorneys, the courts, and the NYPD; it allows us to run a homicide prevention program in Brooklyn as part of a national demonstration project; and it allows us to provide legal services to survivors facing difficult custody and divorce battles with their abusers. Without VAWA, thousands of survivors here in NYC, and hundreds of thousands across the country, would be left without these vital supports.

  • Liz Roberts

    Liz Roberts is deputy CEO and chief program officer at Safe Horizon. Liz joined Safe Horizon in 2010 and provides expertise in domestic violence services across the entire organization. She was previously with the New York City Administration for Children’s Services as director of domestic violence policy and planning, assistant commissioner for child and family health, and deputy commissioner for family support services.