Cracks in the Edifice of VAWA

The first fissures have appeared in congressional support for VAWA.

Hearings are currently going on in the Senate Judiciary Committee for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.  Read about them here (Washington Times, 7/14/11).  And as you might expect, representatives of Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE) were on hand to report on the proceedings.

SAVE’s Dr. Edward Bartlett tells us that, in the past, Judiciary Committee hearings on VAWA were collegial affairs, which is to say that everyone agreed on pretty much everything and the waters of committee discourse remained calm.

This year it’s different.  For one thing, SAVE had nine people there wearing T-shirts with the message “I Was FALSELY ACCUSED of Domestic Violence.”

More importantly, ranking Republican Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa had two witnesses whose testimony may outline the fissures in the support for VAWA I mentioned. 

One of those was Julie Poner whose ex-husband used false allegations of domestic violence in his native country to gain legal entrance to the United States.  So Fissure Number One is the problem of false allegations.  That’s important for countless reasons.

Bartlett reports that after yesterday’s hearing, SAVE representatives approached committee member Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and “emphasized how every false allegation takes away desperately needed services and protections from real victims.”  Apparently Klobuchar got the message and was sympathetic.

The second fissure is the problem of where the money goes. 

Reviews of VAWA grantees have uncovered vast problems with record-keeping and unallowable expenditures, said Mr. Grassley. “Simply put, in today”s economic environment, we cannot tolerate this level of malfeasance in federal grant programs.’

I disagree.  I would prefer Grassley to have said “we cannot tolerate this level of malfeasance in federal grant programs in any economic climate.”  But I’ll take what I can get.

What level of malfeasance is the senator referring to?  Well, for starters, the president’s Office of Management and Budget candidly admits that it doesn’t have enough information on what shelters and other grantees do with the money we give them to assess their success or failure.  We also can’t do that because there are no standards for success or failure.  Those standards don’t exist because no one’s thought to establish them. 

In short, shelters and other recipients of the $551 million in VAWA funding are pretty much free to spend it any way they want with no consequences for the rampant “malfeasance” Grassley referred to.

And that brings us to Fissure Number Three.

Government Accountability Office official Eileen Larence testified about the dearth of data related to VAWA and domestic-violence issues. But she cautioned Congress that “challenges exist for collecting this data,’ such as people”s confidentiality and safety, staffing costs and definitions of abuse.

She gets the day’s prize for understatement.  Put another way, DV shelters refuse to tell the government that pays them what they do.  So there is indeed a “dearth of data.”  There need not be, but there is.  All Congress has to do is treat VAWA the same way it treats every other federal program except the CIA (interesting comparison, no?) and we’d at least be headed in the right direction.

Congress needs to establish standards for DV shelter performance and require accurate reporting of what’s done, what’s spent and for what.  Some agency with enforcement authority needs to oversee compliance.  That’s as basic as it gets and yet DV shelters have to date been all but exempt from all of it. 

One of the consequences of VAWA funding and shelter behavior flying under the radar is to take the entire system out of the democratic process.  When administrative agencies are empowered by Congress to establish standards of performance and oversee compliance, we the people are able to know what is going on behind the closed doors of those receiving our tax money.  That way, we can demand change if it’s warranted.

But when we don’t know what’s going on inside DV shelters, we can’t very well bring our influence to bear on our elected representatives.  What would we say?

As far as I know, that wasn’t mentioned at yesterday’s hearings, but for the first time since its original passage, there are cracks in the edifice of VAWA’s hitherto unquestioning support.  And that portends more of the same.  There are plenty of other issues with VAWA beyond the three that have come up, but once Congress gets the regulatory bit in its teeth, the law will unavoidably become more sensible, gender-neutral and recipients of grants will have to conform to the standards set.

None of that is ideal.  The ideologues will still rule the roost, but as time goes on, they’ll more and more be expected to prove their claims, justify the exclusion of women with teenage boys, verify that those receiving services are actually victims of DV, etc.  Shelters will less and less be havens for drug dealers.  Homeless women will be directed to homeless shelters so that actual victims of DV will have room at shelters.  Male victims will start to receive protection and female perpetrators will get treatment.

And with the emphasis on tight budgets, I’d expect the definition of domestic violence to be narrowed considerably.  At some point, some senator is bound to start asking why federal funds are being used to house women because their husbands shouted at them or they were afraid they might. 

Remember, that’s one of the things Eileen Larance emphasized as problematical – “definitions of abuse.”

All that is to say that the edifice is finally showing signs of cracking.  Will VAWA be reauthorized this year?  Of course it will be.  But change is in the wind.

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