Competing Versions of VAWA
August 14, 2012
Two competing versions of the Violence Against Women Act are facing off in Congress that has taken the opportunity to adjourn. The Senate version mostly reprises the existing law with inclusions of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgendered persons covered for the first time and provisions made to allow more visas for immigrants claiming abuse. The House version drops the LGBT provisions and contains provisions aimed at reducing the fraud and waste that have plagued VAWA programs from the law’s passage in 1994.
But the Senate bill is unconstitutional on its face because it would raise revenue in the form of new fees for immigrant visas and bills that do so must originate in the House. So the Senate, faced with either passing the House version, revamping the Senate bill or doing nothing, has opted for inertia. To underline the point, House Speaker John Boehner appointed eight House members to serve on the House-Senate ad hoc committee that should have already been assembled to hammer out the differences between the two bills. But rather than appoint the ad hoc commiittee, Senate Democrats have bet that doing nothing on domestic violence while blaming Republicans for the lack of movement gives them their best chance at victory in November. In other words, we’ll likely see no movement on either bill until after the election.
But what kind of bill should be passed? Is it the Senate bill that’s mostly a retread of existing law? Well, activists against domestic violence at Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE) took the unusual step of asking the American people what they thought about VAWA, and it turns out they overwhelmingly want change. SAVE commissioned a survey of over 1,500 likely voters who represent the demographics of the country generally. The results of that survey, the only one of its kind ever to be conducted, show a landslide of support for changing the way the federal government treats domestic violence.
Since its beginning in 1994, VAWA has been beset by a host of problems. Although some 286 studies from the mid-70s to the present show women to be as violent in their intimate relationships as men or more so, VAWA funding goes overwhelmingly to services for female victims and male perpetrators. Less than 2% goes to help male victims or treat female perpetrators.
As with most government largess, VAWA’s suffers from being misspent. When 22 recipients of VAWA funding had their books audited, 21 of them showed irregularities in expenditures and/or accounting. Earlier this year, three people pleaded guilty in federal court in San Francisco to channeling hundreds of thousands of dollars in VAWA funds to friends, relatives and lovers.
Perhaps worse, VAWA unabashedly encourages false allegations of abuse. After all, a wide variety of goods and services flow to a woman who claims to have been attacked by an intimate partner. Free room and board at a DV shelter is just the start. DV shelter employees will advise her on how to get a restraining order removing her husband/boyfriend from the residence irrespective of the fact that the place may be his. From there it’s on to family court where a claim of abuse will immediately get her custody of the children and child support checks from him. In New York, claims of abuse serve to send the woman to the head of the line of applicants if she’s seeking public housing.
More amazingly still, a woman who claims to have been victimized can get a whole new identity including new name and social security number. As the notorious case of Rachel Yould shows, when asked for a new identity, the Social Security Administration doesn’t look too closely at a woman’s claim to have been abused. Yould almost certainly suffered no abuse whatsoever at the hands of her father and even if she had, it was years before she, as an independent adult asked the SSA for a new SSN. Unsurprisingly, she used her new identity to commit multiple instances of fraud against lending institutions for which she is now serving time in federal prison.
So what did the over 1,500 people answering SAVE’s survey say about a VAWA regime that discriminates against men and boys, is riddled with fraud and abuse and rewards false claims? A hefty 69.5% of respondents condemned the waste and fraud that’s endemic to the VAWA system, 65.9% wanted the law to be gender neutral and 63.5% wanted to see the law changed to stop false allegations.
Who were the respondents? Some 21.4% had been a victim of domestic violence or knew someone who has been; 48% were Republicans and 52% were Democrats; 39.6% were men and 60.4% were women and just over half (51.2%) had incomes in excess of $40,000 per year while 48.8% earned less.
In short, We the People seem to know more about how to draft a domestic violence law than Congress does. We know the law needs to be more effective than it is and less wasteful. Above all, we know it needs to help all victims of intimate partner violence, not just the half that are women. And it needs to provide services to perpetrators, both male and female, to help them stop abusing their loved ones.
Will Congress pay attention? Its current preference for making injured Americans pawns in a cynical election-year game is discouraging, but at least now we (and they) know that the people see what their representatives are doing and demand change.