The New York Times
By Melena Ryzik and Katie Benner
March 18, 2021
Tucked into President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package are tens of millions of dollars for organizations dedicated to curtailing domestic abuse, which skyrocketed during the pandemic, as well as vouchers for people fleeing violence at home, to help them find safe shelter and rebuild their lives.
These measures are the most concrete signals to date that Biden’s domestic policy agenda will aim to combat domestic abuse, an issue that has long animated his four-decade career in politics.
As a senator, Biden sponsored the bill that became the Violence Against Women Act, the first federal legislation intended to end domestic violence, which the House voted to renew Wednesday. As vice president, he created a position to coordinate federal efforts around abuse and sexual assault. That adviser reported to him.
As president, Biden signed off on a version of the American Rescue Plan that funnels $49 million in aid and hundreds of millions of dollars in housing assistance to victims who have been trapped during the pandemic with their abusers. A senior White House adviser will also focus on gender violence as part of Biden’s newly formed Gender Policy Council.
“The most vicious of all crimes are domestic crimes,” he said in 2009, when he was vice president. “The worst imprisonment in the whole world is to be imprisoned in your own home.”
Expected to be a signature legislative achievement for Biden, the American Rescue Plan has laid the groundwork for sweeping, progressive changes to decades of economic and social policies that have often favored corporations and the rich, with a vast share of the proposal to benefit Americans who are most in need.
Combating domestic abuse is in keeping with that theme. Experts say that intimate partner violence forces victims out of the labor market and leads to greater risk of poverty and homelessness. And abuse is a broad problem that affects 1 in 4 women, 1 in 7 men and countless children, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Groups that work to end domestic abuse believe that the Biden administration’s policies could signal a substantive shift in addressing a crisis that cuts across race, class and gender. That he is doing so amid a pandemic that has disproportionately affected people of color, and a racial justice and police reform movement that also intersects with issues faced by survivors, has been applauded by advocates.
“For us, imagining that we will have folks in the White House paying attention, not only to violence against women but to these intersections — it is a deep sigh of relief,” said Karma Cottman, the executive director of Ujima, the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community.
Former President Donald Trump’s policies were seen as overtly hostile toward survivors of domestic abuse. His hard-line immigration measures made victims without legal status fear deportation should they seek help, according to some survivors and advocates, and under his watch, the Violence Against Women Act, known as VAWA, was not reauthorized for the first time.
Trump, who himself has been accused of sexual assault and harassment, was also dismissive of claims of abuse. When his White House staff secretary Rob Porter was accused by two former wives of battery, Trump said that he doubted the allegations and sympathized with Porter. Porter denied wrongdoing and resigned.V
AWA, which throughout its 25-year history had broad bipartisan support, lapsed under Trump, in part because Republicans did not believe they could work with the White House on it.
In a 244-172 vote, the House on Wednesday reauthorized a new version of the bill, but its prospects in the Senate are unclear.
Lynn Rosenthal, who served as Biden’s first White House adviser on violence against women and is now overseeing his commission on sexual assault in the military, said his advocacy was “life-changing” for victims. “You can’t overstate the importance of federal leadership on this issue,” she said.
The coronavirus laid bare the social and economic privations that often allow such abuse to thrive, as lockdown restrictions only led to more instances of violence. For many communities, Cottman said, it was “a double pandemic.”
“There’s this sobering reality that there’s so much cleanup that has to happen,” she said.
The rescue plan earmarks $49.5 million to organizations like hers, to provide “culturally specific” support, as the law puts it, for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault who were affected by the pandemic and other public health concerns.
That kind of targeted funding is crucial, Cottman said, for “small community organizations that are essentially lifesaving in their communities.” Among her goals, she said, is helping survivors obtain personal protective equipment.
Some organizations that support abuse survivors, like FreeFrom, prefer that relief money go directly to those who have been abused, giving them the flexibility to cover expenses that can restore their independence, like day care, transportation or health care. They hope Biden will eventually fulfill his campaign pledge to allocate $5 billion in such cash grants to survivors in need.
A broad analytical study released last month affirmed that the stay-at-home orders issued in response to the pandemic greatly intensified domestic abuse, by cutting victims off from people who could report signs of trouble or help them escape violence, and by exacerbating economic factors often connected with abuse, including unemployment, financial insecurity and substance use.
The analysis, issued by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, found that domestic abuse reports in the United States increased by more than 8% after the lockdowns began, putting a hard number on what has long been known in anecdotal accounts.
The rescue plan also provides $5 billion in housing vouchers for several at-risk demographic groups, including those fleeing abuse, assault, dating violence and human trafficking. The vouchers, experts say, help address the fact that the vast financial burden of leaving an abusive relationship often begins with housing.
Davida, a 38-year-old woman from North Carolina, did exactly what victims of domestic abuse are instructed to do: The first time her boyfriend hit her, she called the police. She left the apartment that they shared to report the violence in court, and obtained an order of protection, a copy of which she provided to The New York Times. (She spoke on the condition that her last name not be published for her safety.)
After her boyfriend threatened to kill her, Davida said she saw no choice but to abandon her home and flee with her son. Fearing she would be stalked — an exceedingly common scenario, experts said — she wound up in a shelter in another state, a move that cost her a job at a call center, just before the pandemic hit. That single episode, when her boyfriend pummeled her without warning, destabilized her entire life.
Even after a victim escapes an abuser, the situation may be fraught. “Often you’re dealing with a housing lawyer, a custody lawyer, a shelter provider, a counselor, a counselor for children; you might have Child Protective Services involved,” said Liz Roberts, the chief executive of Safe Horizon, a New York service provider. “What we ask of survivors in those situations, and the complexity of the systems they have to navigate, is really daunting.”
With the help of a career-readiness program at Sanctuary for Families, a shelter and service provider, Davida turned an internship into a part-time job. But more than a year after the assault, she and her son are still homeless. “Every day I wake up, I’m starting all over,” she said.
Crisis counselors say that alleviating survivors’ housing issues would help set their recovery on the right track, but vouchers are not the only solution. Federal and local governments could also prioritize their needs by “continuing the moratorium on evictions, and prohibiting street sweeps of people experiencing homelessness, both of which disproportionately affect women fleeing domestic violence,” said Caroline Bettinger-López, a law professor at the University of Miami, who was previously a White House adviser on violence against women.
The resources in the rescue plan for emergency housing assistance are to remain available until 2030.
Cottman called the acknowledgment from the Biden administration a huge moment of inflection. After years in which providers struggled to gain public attention and protect their meager budgets, they can begin to think bigger about how to help survivors.
We are able to really think about, what are the things that our communities need?” she said. “What are the pieces that we can re-imagine, while at the same time maintaining funds for core services? You can’t do any of this, without ensuring victims and survivors have places to go.”