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Dating Violence VAWA Inclusion Mandate

Five Principles for Re-Thinking VAWA: A Bipartisan Approach

Five Principles for Re-Thinking the Violence Against Women Act: A Bipartisan Approach E. Everett Bartlett, PhD President, Coalition to End Domestic Violence As we know, Congress only approved short-term extensions to the Violence Against Women Act in 2018.[1] It did not succeed in accomplishing the five-year reauthorization of the law. In the Senate, a VAWA

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E. Everett Bartlett, PhD

President, Coalition to End Domestic Violence

As we know, Congress only approved short-term extensions to the Violence Against Women Act in 2018.[1] It did not succeed in accomplishing the five-year reauthorization of the law.

In the Senate, a VAWA bill was never introduced, even though a hearing was held on March 21.[2] In the House, Rep. Jackson Lee did introduce a reauthorization bill, H.R. 6545.[3] But lacking Republican support, the bill never went before the Committee for a vote.

It is clear that the problem was not a lack of legislative interest or concern. The real issue lies with an evolving understanding of the nature of domestic violence, and especially a broad public concern over the problem of over-criminalization in our society.

The solution to this apparent impasse is to take a step backwards to better understand the contours of this evolving understanding. To accomplish this, I am proposing five principles for re-thinking VAWA. I believe all of these principles enjoy general bi-partisan support:

Rely on science, not ideology

In 2004, the National Academy of Sciences released a comprehensive analysis of VAWA, concluding that domestic violence programs are often “driven by ideology and stakeholder interests rather than plausible theories and scientific evidence of fact.”[4] By “ideology,” the NAS was referring to the prevailing model of “patriarchal control,” which posits domestic violence is a by-product of men’s abiding thirst for power and control over women.

But six years later, the Centers for Disease Control released the results of its NISVS survey. This historic survey found female-on-male partner violence was more common than male-on-female violence.[5] Even more surprising, the survey found the highest rates of violence were found in lesbian same-sex relationships.[6] The “patriarchal control” model obviously doesn’t fit with these well-documented facts.

Both liberals and conservatives believe in the need for truth, and embrace the role of science to elucidate the truth.

Avoid over-criminalization

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any country of the world. University of Maryland law professor Leigh Goodmark recently noted, “scholars have argued that the turn to criminal law to address intimate partner violence contributed to mass incarceration.”[7] Goodmark urges use of a more balanced approach that views domestic violence as an economic, public health, community, and human rights problem.

Last year, the FIRST STEP Act was approved with strong bi-partisan majorities in Congress.[8] For the first time, Congress acted to reverse the decades-long process of creating new crimes, expanding definitions of existing crimes,[9] reducing due process protections, and increasing punishments.

Clearly, the goal of reducing over-criminalization enjoys the support of both Republicans and Democrats.

Address waste, fraud, and abuse

Last March the Washington Post published a report titled, “Mice in the couches, mold on the walls: Years of problems at this government-funded shelter.”[10] The problem at the Safe Passages Shelter was not a lack funding, because its annual budget was $1.3 million. Rather, the problem was a lack of programmatic and financial accountability. Eventually, the shelter had to be temporarily closed.

This was not an isolated problem. Department of Justice audits of 47 VAWA grantees found that 34 of them were “Generally Non-Compliant.”[11] In other words, 72% of the grantees flunked the audit.

Both conservatives and liberals are troubled by accounts like the Safe Passage Shelter. Surely, all persons can support measures to prevent closures of abuse shelters and to prevent the pilfering of funds designed to stem partner violence.

Recognize the problem of false allegations

By any measure, we now experiencing an epidemic of false allegations of domestic violence. One survey found that 9.7% of American adults report they have been falsely accused of domestic violence, sexual assault, or child abuse.[12]

One online petition states, “Laws enacted to protect the victims of the vile crime of domestic violence are being misused by both citizens as well as law enforcement, and in this process innocent men’s lives are being destroyed.”[13] This petition currently has over 39,000 comments.

False allegations not only ruin the lives of the falsely accused, they also undermine the credibility of future victims. That’s a concern that liberals and conservatives alike can relate to.

Involve a broad range of stakeholders

For years, a group known as the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence has controlled the VAWA reauthorization process. But if you visit the NTF website,[14] there is no listing of staff names, addresses, phone numbers, or member organizations.

As one observer concluded, “U.S. public policy on domestic violence is being controlled by an organization that is utterly secret. We neither know…what the NTF is, what it does, who funds it, who is affiliated with it, or whether it violates federal law.”[15]

To address this problem, the 40 members of the Coalition to End Domestic Violence have requested that they “have a seat at the table as full and frequent participants in the drafting process.”[16]

Inclusiveness is implicit in the American ideals of democratic decision-making and citizen involvement. “Inclusiveness” is a goal that both liberals and conservatives can support.


Given the difficulty in accomplishing the VAWA reauthorization, we are now making two recommendations:

  1. A contract will be made with an external, independent, and scientifically based organization to do a thorough assessment of the Violence Against Women Act. This assessment will be similar in scope to the one conducted in 2004 by the National Academy of Sciences. The report would contain legislative recommendations. This likely would entail a two-year process.
  2. During this period, Congress will pass a two-year extension of the existing VAWA law with straight-line appropriations.

In short, viewing domestic violence as a human problem, rather than as an ideological crusade, will allow us to move forward with this vitally important piece of legislation.






[5] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, Atlanta, Georgia. Tables 4.7 and 4.8.

[6] NISVS: 2010 Findings on Victimization by Sexual Orientation. Tables 6 and 7.

[7] Leigh Goodmark. Decriminalizing Domestic Violence: A Balanced Policy Approach. 2018. Page 3.