During the first days of the new year, Americans were inundated with news stories about the “fiscal cliff” and gun control, while other items, including Congress’ failure to re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act, were downplayed.
According to Pam Moore, director of the Institute for Native Justice, VAWA has a broad effect on the quality of life not only for victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault and other crimes, but for communities as a whole.
“VAWA affects the quality of life and safety for more than 200,00 victims of domestic and sexual violence each year, many of whom are family friends and neighbors,” said Moore. “Local efforts affected if VAWA is not continued include the work of Help-In-Crisis, the Cherokee Nation, Northeastern State University and the District Attorney’s Office.”
Moore said these entities work together to address, respond and resolve crimes of domestic and sexual violence, and that HIC alone provides emergency shelter to more than 500 families each year.
“They accomplish this with a mix of federal, state and private funding, joined with amazing, hard-working staff and volunteers,” said Moore. “HIC is considered the model project at the national level; the Tahlequah community can be proud of its local programming. However, if VAWA is discontinued or not reauthorized, then all communities relying on VAWA will face an increase of assault, since women and children will not be able to access safety prior to assault. Shelters are part of preventing domestic and sexual crimes.”
Moore said that by failing to pass VAWA, Congress missed the opportunity to enact improvements – including safe housing, campus programs for addressing domestic and sexual violence, sexual assault provisions with enhanced services and essential programs for populations such as American Indian women, and services for communities where women and children currently have no safe space.
“Current programs and services will not close because VAWA wasn’t re-authorized, but they are certainly threatened because of the budget crises at the local, state and national levels are always looming,” said Moore. “While the ‘fiscal cliff’ delayed harmful, across-the-board cuts to federal programs until early March, [they are still a possibility in the future.]”
Sandra Dearborn, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program coordinator at HIC, said reauthorizing VAWA is crucial for the agency to continue providing services.
“Our victims’ compensation packets are funded by VAWA,” said Dearborn. “The perpetrators help to pay for it, and it’s non-taxable funding that’s paid directly to agencies, which, in turn, give it to victims. There are 19 million rape victims in the U.S., and each one of them is a victim of crime.”
Joni Greenhaw, who works in the Cherokee Nation attorney general’s domestic violence services division, said the tribe depends on a grant from VAWA to provide services not just to Cherokees, but to all citizens within the tribe’s jurisdiction.
“We were the recipients of a three-year victims’ services grant in 2010, which has allowed us to provide four programs that provide services to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and dating violence,” said Greenhaw. “Our grant was for $450,000, and the formal expiration date is in October. We will be asking for an extension of funding, and are reapplying for new funding under VAWA to be submitted in April. If Congress doesn’t reauthorize the act, it could affect future funding.”
Programs offered by the Cherokee Nation include victim advocacy, transitional housing, batterers intervention, and civil and legal assistance.
“The advocacy program provides safety planning, referrals to counseling, and transport to shelters,” said Greenhaw. “The transitional housing program provides housing, help with rent or mortgage payments, utilities, food, child care and also relocation. We’ve done a couple of out-of-state relocations, and have also moved victims from one county to another.”
The batterers intervention program helps families remain intact.
“In a high percentage of cases, the victim rarely leaves [the batterer],” said Greenhaw. “They just want [batterers] to change, and this program offers behavior modeling to help with that.”
Greenhaw said the Cherokee Nation is inexorably intertwined with communities in the 14 counties, and serves all victims.
“The VAWA funding is crucial,” said Greenhaw. “If we had to go to tribal dollars, the programs would be scaled back, and we would only be able to serve Cherokees. They don’t want to pass VAWA, because it gives the tribes the jurisdiction to prosecute non-Indians for crimes committed on Indian land. Right now, we have to refer them to either federal or county systems. A lot of times, they don’t pick it up unless it’s a felony, and often, the crimes go unpunished.”
Brett Fitzgerald, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern State University, supports VAWA.
“We’ve made a lot of headway; why would we put the brakes on now?” said Fitzgerald. “The issue, for me, is we finally have law enforcement working to enforce those laws. It’s a public health issue. In 2009, in the 27th prosecutorial district, we saw a 14.2 percent increase in prosecution of domestic violence cases. The district attorneys and law enforcement increased action, and I believe Help-In-Crisis had a lot to do with that. How much will it cost us in the long run when we have children witnessing this violence?”
Moore, who is also a former executive director for HIC, said all victims of violence require services.
“After working with victims for more than 30 years, the one thing I have learned is that no one gets out without some kind of help, except the ones who do not survive,” said Moore. “I can attest to the importance of shelter and basic victims’ services for women and children surviving these types of ‘family’ crimes. VAWA offers essential safety, legal remedies and community-led response that cannot otherwise be funded at the local and state level. VAWA is essential to building healthy families and communities.”
Asa Lewis, a graduate student at NSU in the Higher Education Leadership Program, said reinstating the law is very important to her. Lewis is an employee at NSU’s Center for Tribal Studies, and works closely with American Indian students. She is also a member of the Kiowa tribe.
“VAWA offers violence protection to millions of women and [the opportunity] to prosecute those who commit crimes against women, especially in Indian Country,” said Lewis. “You know, I do not have children of my own, but I do have seven nieces who are like my children. I have a mother, a sister, and countless friends. What if something were to happen to them and justice wasn’t served because the resources that were once there are now gone? How are they supposed to feel safe? How am I supposed to feel safe? How are we, as women, supposed to lay our trust in the system when we see things such as VAWA not being reauthorized by our own elected officials? What kind of message does that send, especially to native women?”
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