February 20 2013
VAWA's Substantive Flaws Deserve a Fair Hearing
As the House of Representatives prepares to consider the Senate passed Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), members are facing intense pressure to quickly pass the law with little attention to its relative merits or flaws.
In fact, it is unfortunately common for proponents of VAWA to encourage blind support of the law by unjustly maligning the motives of their opponents and promptly dismissing substantive objections.
For example, last week on CSPAN's Washington Journal, Kim Gandy, former President of the National Organization for Women and current president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, bemoaned the lack of unanimous support for VAWA and then generalized opposition to the law as an antagonism towards LGBT, immigrant, and Native American victims.
The host responded by reading a summary of my objections to VAWA, which highlighted the law's propensity for waste, fraud, and abuse, its ineffectiveness in addressing many of the proven causes of violence, and its promotion of criminal justice policies that often harm the victims it was intended to help.
Ms. Gandy immediately replied, "She obviously doesn't offer anything to back that up."
Ms. Gandy must have misspoken, since I have written extensively about the evidence of failures in VAWA. I appreciate that Ms. Gandy shares my desire to promote policies that are beneficial for women. However, in my critical review of VAWA, I have found several flaws that deserve a fair hearing. To dismiss these claims as though they have no substantive foundation is harmful to victims and to the deliberative process.
As I have explained elsewhere, VAWA programs primarily allocate funding based on the idea that women are disproportionately the victims of domestic violence and that violence against women is perpetuated by men's desire for power and control. This foundation overlooks a great deal of social science research and evidence from clinical practice showing that men and homosexuals are frequently victims of domestic violence and that the causes of such violence are numerous and complex.
Furthermore, the GAO and the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General have found that VAWA programs have not been adequately assessed and that a significant amount of the funding allocated by act has not been spent on servicing victims. Proponents have rejected accountability measures proposed by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) to address these flaws.
VAWA also contains several grant programs that duplicate one another or overlap with grant programs provided by the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services. Senator Coburn (R-OK) proposed an amendment to consolidate duplicative programs and to use much of the $600 million in savings to eliminate the enormous backlogs of rape kit evidence. These rape kits -- which include physical and medical evidence that allows police to identify and prosecute offenders -- often go untested in cash-strapped localities. Although this amendment would clearly benefit female victims, VAWA sponsor Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) urged his colleagues to reject the measure and the amendment failed.
The reticence of many VAWA advocates to adopt adequate safeguards against waste and fraud is compounded by their unbending support for new additions to the act. For example, supporters of the Senate-passed reauthorization have been unwilling to compromise on the provision expanding tribal court jurisdiction over non-Indians accused of sexual assault and domestic violence on Indian lands. Proponents have even gone so far as to accuse their opponents of believing Native American women are not human enough to warrant protection.
Such accusations are outrageous and ignore the substantive problems with this provision. While it is true that Native American Women face extremely high rates of domestic and sexual abuse, the transfer of jurisdiction may not effectively respond to the problem. As one author points out, tribal governments have a history of inadequately handling sexual assault cases and protecting the constitutional rights of the accused. Proponents of the tribal provision and the media have completely ignored alternative solutions to the problem of violence on native lands, such as those passed by the House last year.
The representative process is designed to be deliberative in nature. Sadly, too often in today's political climate, powerful interests attempt to suppress such discussion by demonizing the other side. That's exactly what is being done to voices challenging VAWA orthodoxy. The American people deserve better. Before renewing this politically attractive law, representatives should consider alternative solutions and give a fair hearing to those with substantive concerns.