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 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."
The (VAWA), passed in 1994, was the first federal legislation specifically aimed at helping victims of domestic violence. The act authorized the (OVW),whose 25 grant programs support domestic violence shelters, sexual assault crisis centers and hotlines, and legal support for victims, among many other programs. While VAWA and OVW remain funded for now, their future is far from certain, say advocates. Landcruisers editor in chief Susan Spencer sat down with Roberts to talk about the historical importance of VAWA and how it helps women break free from domestic violence—and what the landscape would look like if federal support and funding to assist them disappears.
(The following article has been edited for length and clarity.)
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 was available to victims of domestic violence on a local level?
Liz Roberts: It varied from state to state. I saw firsthand that Massachusetts was a leader. The first shelter in Boston literally was an apartment rented by two women who were survivors of domestic violence, and they opened their home to other women in the same situation. Over the next ten years or so, women would figure out how to buy a house, or someone would donate a house, and they would create a shelter, and it was all done primarily with private resources and a tremendous amount of volunteer involvement. It took more than 15 years to go from those first shelters to the government taking on the issue of violence against women in a significant way. That was what the 1994 passage of VAWA really represented. It was the first time there were substantial resources and leadership from the federal government.
Susan: Why did it take so long?
Liz Roberts: There was a lot of commitment to preserving marriages above all, and a belief that domestic violence was a rare problem. We now know one in four American women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, but that data wasn't available at the time. There was a lot of resistance and a lot of discomfort with the issue.
Susan: What has shifted since 1994?
Liz Roberts: It has been an accumulation of years of advocacy, education and people like former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and other key legislative leaders who really got it on a deep level. If you listen to Joe Biden talk about violence against women, he is so informed and so passionate about it. Over years of hearing women's stories, people like Joe became strong advocates. We wore people down with our persistence! One of the remarkable and positive things about VAWA is that it has typically had great bipartisan support and was reauthorized in 2000, 2005 and 2013.
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: So this act has created a bulwark against these issues.
Liz Roberts: There's substantial funding from state governments for the core services for domestic survivors, for example for sexual assault, but state governments tend to fund something and leave it as is. There's often not a lot of innovation and forward thinking. I think the federal government has been a driver of innovation in the field.
Susan: What kind of innovation?
Liz Roberts: One example is the Family Justice Centers. We think of it as a one stop shopping model for adult survivors that brings all the players together under one roof—the district attorney, the police, advocates, civil attorneys. The Brooklyn Family Justice Center was started with funding from VAWA, and we now have centers in all five boroughs of New York City because it is such an outstanding model. There are many other family justice centers around the country that started in that way as well. It was a modest initial investment by the federal government that led to a huge investment by local government once the value of the model had been proved.
Also, one of the important services that VAWA funds that is very hard to find at a local level is civil legal services for victims of domestic violence. So if you think about a woman who is in a long term relationship with someone who is abusive, and let's say they have two children in common, and she flees the relationship, often those two children become pawns of the abuser. It's a way to continue to get at his ex. So there is a large likelihood that there will be a custody case, and many survivors cannot afford a private attorney. It's expensive for somebody with a good income, and completely out of reach for most of our clients here at Safe Horizon. So having legal services available for folks who cannot afford a private attorney is critically important. VAWA has funded those services across the country in a very significant way, including at Safe Horizon.
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.
Additional reporting by Cathy Garrard