By Susan Spencer
June 19, 2017
One in four American women will experience domestic violence, and for many the nation’s network of shelters and crisis centers act as, quite literally, lifelines. But it wasn’t always so. According to Liz Roberts, deputy CEO and chief program officer at Safe Horizon in New York, the leading nonprofit victim services provider in the US, there was a time when “the protections we now take for granted for people who are experiencing domestic violence simply didn’t exist.”
SUSAN: FIRST, TELL ME ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF THE VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN ACT.
Liz Roberts: For the advocates who were working on issues of domestic violence and sexual assault, VAWA was a huge accomplishment. It was the first comprehensive legislation that addressed the issue of violence against women. Just to put it into context, one of the very first shelters for victims of domestic violence was opened in the late 70s. So prior to that, women were really on their own to figure out how to survive.
SUSAN: WHAT DID THE ACT ACCOMPLISH?
Liz Roberts: It made a big difference by directing substantial new resources to local domestic violence programs. Also, VAWA funded communities to develop coordinated responses. It encouraged essential collaborations between law enforcement, community based services, child welfare, and other key players in the community. It created more of a safety net. I have no doubt that those coordinated responses have saved thousands of lives.
Since then, there have been new provisions that respond to trends. For example, the 2005 reauthorization addressed the issue of stalking using digital methods, which was an emerging trend at that time.
SUSAN: IS VAWA UNDER THREAT?
Liz Roberts: Right now, it’s too soon to say for sure, so we need to be vigilant. The Heritage Foundation proposed eliminating VAWA funding, so we were very concerned in January. However, the White House budget proposal actually includes a small increase to VAWA, which is good news. What concerns us now is that the White House proposal draws its funding from a large pool of funds known as the Victims of Crime Act Fund. In the long run, this strategy could deplete the overall funding for services to crime victims.
We will also be closely watching the possibility that the Department of Justice could change the focus of the VAWA funds, directing money towards law enforcement and away from the non-profits that operate hotlines and shelters in communities across the country. And we may face a fight in 2018, when VAWA is up for reauthorization. While this legislation has historically enjoyed bipartisan support, there was a huge partisan struggle over the law in 2013, when it was last reauthorized. It is so important—not only because it provides support for critical victim services, but also because having one office that looks at domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking is powerful, since these issues overlap so much.
SUSAN: WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF PROGRAMS THAT HELP VICTIMS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE WERE TO BE CUT?
Liz Roberts: I think some domestic violence shelters or community-based programs would be forced to close. It would leave survivors in small towns, rural areas, having to go a very long way for services, since the services are already pretty spread out. There could also be a loss of resources in police departments and prosecutors’ offices, since many of them are able to secure VAWA funding for their own in-house advocates. I think you’d see less support for survivors in criminal justice, and overall less expertise. I think the rape on campus issue is another place you would see it really backsliding.
SUSAN: WHAT CAN WOMEN WHO ARE CONCERNED ABOUT DOMESTIC VIOLENCE DO?
Liz Roberts: I would encourage women to get to know the providers in their own community. Contact the local rape crisis center, the local domestic violence shelter or hotline. And find out what their situation is, what they’re worried about, and be prepared to provide support, whether that’s going to a rally, or making calls, or donating your time or money.
Susan: And of course, write or call to your local legislators if you support VAWA.