November 29, 2017 Dear Chairman Grassley, Ranking Member Feinstein, Chairman Goodlatte, Acting Ranking Member Nadler, Chairman Gowdy, and Ranking Member Jackson Lee,
The National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence (NTF) is grateful for your leadership in recently introducing a resolution to commemorate Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM). We also appreciate your efforts to prevent and improve the response to sexual harassment. As was noted in the statement that accompanied the DVAM resolution, “Congress has made support to survivors a national priority for over three decades” and yet, as was also highlighted in the statement, “We’ve come a long way, but we still have a lot of work to do on this front.” We are pleased to have this opportunity to work together with you and your staff in preparation for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Congress has a historic opportunity to improve access to safety and justice for all survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking (hereafter ‘domestic violence and sexual assault’), and to further strengthen prevention efforts that reduce domestic violence and sexual assault.
The NTF comprises national, state, tribal, territorial and local leadership organizations and represents hundreds of thousands of advocates and others working to end domestic violence and sexual assault. As we gather input from the field to identify what is working well and how best to address existing gaps in the statute, our primary goal is to listen to the voices of survivors and those who support them in order to improve policies to be more survivor-centered and trauma-informed. It is imperative that the reauthorization of VAWA moves our nation forward in preventing and ending domestic violence and sexual assault and improving access to safety and justice.
Since the inception of VAWA, Congress has focused on providing support for the development and improvement of a coordinated community response. With each iteration of VAWA, based on the lessons learned in the field, Congress has sought to close gaps and remove barriers to help survivors access necessary services, support and justice. It has become clear we must move beyond a “one-size fits all” approach in order to develop different pathways to safety in a more comprehensive manner, including, for example, funding for transitional housing and civil legal services.
We have heard directly from thousands of service providers and advocates about the challenges survivors face, and it has bolstered our collective resolve to address the gaps and barriers for diverse communities. Marginalized and underserved communities deserve targeted resources for innovative, promising practices for program and capacity building for culturally specific organizations. These targeted VAWA provisions and grant programs provide a vital response that addresses the intersecting issues affecting racial and ethnic minority communities, Native American survivors and survivors on tribal lands, LGBT survivors, and survivors who are underserved and face additional barriers as a result of disabilities, geographic isolation, immigration status, age, religion, and other factors that often compound challenges victims/survivors face accessing safety and well-being. One of the hallmarks of VAWA legislation is the goal and commitment to work toward ending domestic violence and sexual assault against all survivors and providing support for different pathways to safety. We look forward to the opportunity to solidify and expand the lifesaving VAWA provisions that protect marginalized, underserved and vulnerable communities.
Over the years VAWA has greatly strengthened federal partnerships with state, territorial, and tribal governments to more effectively and efficiently reduce domestic violence and sexual assault, including through the provision of training and technical assistance, while giving jurisdictions the flexibility to respond to their own unique needs. While we have made many important advancements since VAWA was originally passed in 1994, in some instances implementation continues to be a challenge. Communities need continued support to fully implement a number of provisions contained in previous iterations of VAWA and other federal laws to combat domestic violence and sexual assault. Furthermore, while there has been significant progress in improving federal and state laws, advocates and law enforcement who work directly with victims/survivors have identified a number of loopholes that must be closed in order to strengthen the law, protect victims/survivors, and hold perpetrators accountable.
The NTF believes that improving prevention efforts is critical to ending sexual violence, intimate partner violence, dating violence, stalking, and all forms of domestic violence and sexual assault. The health, economic, and safety benefits of preventing domestic violence and sexual assault are extensive. Focusing more attention and resources on prevention will save victims/survivors, communities, states, and federal agencies billions of dollars, increase productivity, and foster healthier individuals, families and communities.
Initial steps have been taken in past VAWA reauthorizations to include support for some prevention initiatives, such as the Rape Prevention and Education Program, and the youth and campus programs. In the 2013 reauthorization, the campus sexual violence provision added definitions and requirements for prevention strategies, bystander education, and awareness campaigns for colleges and universities through amendments to the Clery Act. While a necessary and important site for prevention efforts, focusing solely on college communities does not have the same impact as approaches that engage across the lifespan. It is necessary to expand and build upon these efforts in a more comprehensive manner to support individuals throughout their lives, as well as families/caregivers, schools, and diverse communities, with relevant and effective prevention strategies.
There are various ways that prevention strategies can be highlighted and resourced to recognize the importance of preventing victimization while responding to immediate needs and crises. Prevention strategies must be comprehensive and utilize multiple strategies to take into account the complexity of domestic violence and sexual assault. The growing research in the prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault shows that prevention approaches work to reduce violence and promote health and safety through best practices and evidence-based strategies. For example, utilizing public health frameworks such as the CDC’s socio-ecological model and preventative healthcare strategies encourage programs and interventions that seek to prevent initial violence (primary prevention), intervene with immediate support to prevent re-victimization (secondary prevention), and provide long-term responses to deal with the lasting impacts of domestic violence and sexual assault and accountability for those who harm (tertiary prevention). All three of these prevention strategies should be prioritized to create a comprehensive response to domestic violence and sexual assault.
Promoting prevention approaches is a crucial step in further reducing victimization and ending domestic violence and sexual assault. The NTF urges next steps in VAWA reauthorization to highlight and prioritize comprehensive prevention strategies, while also continuing to strengthen and build upon efforts to improve access to services, safety, and justice for all survivors.
As recognized by VAWA, members of all communities, regardless of immigration status, deserve to live without the fear of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and dating violence and ensuring this will make everyone in our communities safer. Immigration laws and policies play a critical role in preventing and addressing abuse and exploitation, including the specific practices used in an immigration context that can exacerbate abuse. Abusive partners, opportunistic predators, and manipulative employers often exploit victims’/survivors’ lack of immigration status or dependent immigration status as a way to maintain power and control and to keep victims/survivors silent. Unfortunately, a recent survey of more than 700 advocates and attorneys revealed that immigrant survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault are often afraid to come forward and access help. When they do not seek help and do not report violence and abuse, we are all made less safe, because perpetrators are not held accountable. Immigrant victims/survivors are expressing heightened fears and concerns about immigration enforcement, with 78% of advocates and attorneys reporting that victims/survivors are describing fear of contacting the police; 75% reporting that victims/survivors are afraid of going to court; and 43% reporting that immigrant victims/survivors are choosing not to move forward with criminal charges or obtaining protective orders.
Immigrant victims/survivors must often also overcome many other barriers to accessing safety. Abusers may exploit their victims’/survivors’ lack of English proficiency; isolation from family and other supports; lack of access to financial resources; lack of understanding or familiarity with the American legal system; and religious and cultural customs, resulting in few immigrants seeking help unless the violence against them has reached catastrophic proportions. Because of these extensive barriers and isolation, immigrant victims/survivors face additional hurdles in obtaining help and are often challenged in gathering evidence in legal proceedings.
VAWA must recognize the immense challenges that immigrant victims/survivors face in accessing help and not create additional hurdles for immigrant victims/survivors to access critical protections. Further intertwining of local law enforcement with immigration enforcement leads to a community climate of fear and reduces reporting of domestic violence and sexual assault. Similarly, enhancing penalties for those re- entering the United States to escape abuse or violence following removal or with criminal convictions stemming from a history of victimization create insurmountable barriers for immigrant victims/survivors leaving violent situations. VAWA must not provide additional tools for abusers and perpetrators to use to continue to harass or endanger immigrant victims/survivors.
American Indian and Alaska Native Survivors
For generations, the federal government has dehumanized and victimized Native women. Further, by creating astonishing vulnerabilities through the enactment of certain federal policies and the establishment of harmful legal precedent, Native women have been exposed to a heightened risk of victimization by private individuals. A recent DOJ study found that more than 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native women experience violence in their lifetimes, with more than 1 in 2 experiencing sexual violence. The DOJ reports that murder rates of American Indian women on some reservations are ten times the national average. Of the American Indian and Alaska Native women experiencing violent victimization, 97% have been victimized by non-Indian perpetrators. Due to jurisdictional complexities and constraints, these non- Indian men are less likely to be prosecuted and brought to justice for their crimes. For decade after decade, jurisdictional complexities and constraints, geographic isolation, limited resources, and a lack of priority by federal prosecutors allowed these crimes to occur with impunity. The governments responsible to these women-- the women’s own tribal governments-- did all they could to help, but with federal law limiting their inherent jurisdiction, the tribal governments were legally constrained in their efforts to help victims/survivors in their own communities.
As you know, VAWA 2013 created a framework for Indian tribes to exercise criminal jurisdiction over certain non-Indian domestic violence offenders. In doing so, Congress reaffirmed tribes’ sovereign ability to protect Native women from unconscionable levels of violence and to bring the men who harm them to justice. Experiences to date confirm that this restoration of jurisdiction has been successful: many Non- Indian offenders who had been terrorizing their victims and communities for years are now held accountable for assaulting Native women, and impunity has ended for many non-Indian perpetrators. Unfortunately, Tribal governments continue to have limited authority under federal law to hold many other offenders accountable and have inadequate resources to provide services to Native victims/survivors. We look forward to working with you to build on the success of VAWA 2013 to further enhance safety for Native women.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Survivors
As part of VAWA’s current reauthorization process, the NTF seeks to safeguard VAWA’s current protections for LGBT victims/survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, while further expanding access to LGBT-specific services to ensure that LGBT survivors face fewer barriers in accessing services and finding safety.
LGBT communities experience domestic violence and sexual assault at similar to higher rates as non- LGBT communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, forty-four percent of lesbian women, 61% of bisexual women, 26% percent of gay men, and 37% of bisexual men experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime. In the U.S. Transgender Survey (2015), which had more than 27,000 respondents, nearly half (47%) of respondents were sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime and one in ten (10%) were sexually assaulted in the past year.
The explicit non-discrimination provisions for LGBT communities included in the reauthorization of VAWA in 2013 have been monumental for LGBT survivors of violence and LGBT communities across the country. These protections reflect the commitment of the domestic violence and sexual assault movement to better address the needs of LGBT survivors, and organizations are working to make their services inclusive of LGBT communities. However, LGBT victims/survivors continue to experience significant barriers when attempting to access care and support, including being denied equal treatment, harassed, or treated in a hostile manner by law enforcement and providers. Additionally, there is a significant need for LGBTQ-specific programs. In a survey of 590 LGBTQ victims/survivors, 69% indicated that given a choice, they would rather seek services for domestic violence from an LGBTQ- specific program than a mainstream program, and there were much higher levels of satisfaction with services from LGBTQ specific programs (LGBTQ Survivor Survey, National LGBTQ Institute on IPV, in press). We are excited to expand on the opportunities created by the LGBTQ community’s inclusion in VAWA 2013 and look forward to working with you to ensure that all survivors have access to necessary and life-saving services.
Criminal Justice Reform
Our nation’s approach to criminal justice is in need of improvement. Courts are one of many tools necessary to keep victims/survivors safe and hold offenders accountable; we look forward to working with you and other allies to move toward balancing the scales of justice. NTF is also concerned about the prevalence of domestic violence and sexual assault victimization among incarcerated women and, moreover, that so many survivors of violence, disproportionately women of color, are incarcerated for acting in defense of their own or their loved ones’ lives. We know that procedural fairness has an impact on victim satisfaction with the courts, and we know that how a victim is treated by the first responders, i.e., law enforcement officers, will influence how the victim will participate in the criminal justice process. We are also concerned that members of a number of communities, including the LGBT and immigrant communities and communities of color are not always comfortable seeking help from law enforcement. We hope to explore opportunities to strengthen the justice system’s response to members of these and other historically marginalized communities. We also look forward to sharing with you the promising work of some locales that have been exploring the avenue of restorative justice and the role of community in holding offenders accountable and rebuilding healthy families and restore communities.
We are looking forward to collaborating with you and your staff to craft a VAWA reauthorization bill that meets the needs identified by the field without any provisions that turn back the clock or have harmful unintended consequences. Our outreach to the field is ongoing and, as we gather more information and have an opportunity to identify both themes and solutions, we will develop concrete policy proposals to share. We also want to take this opportunity to acknowledge all the hard work of your staff who have proactively started the reauthorization process. We appreciate having such dedicated partners and look forward to continuing to work with them closely as we move forward. Thank you for your continued leadership and commitment to protecting victims/survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, seeing justice served, and preventing violence. Together, we can further align federal law with the needs of the field to keep our communities safe.
The National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence