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Connecticut nonprofits brace for impact of VAWA expiration

January 4, 2019

The government shutdown, which disrupted reauthorization of the landmark Violence Against Women Act, has put at risk the future of millions of dollars in grants that help more than 40,000 victims in Connecticut each year.

The state receives $3.6 million annually from VAWA to support programs that shelter victims of domestic and sexual violence, provide resources to navigate the court system and support survivors in recovery. Advocates and scholars say many programs funded by the legislation won’t be immediately impacted, but future appropriations are at stake.

“It’s enormously disappointing that legislation like this, which has always been bipartisan, was allowed to expire,” said Mary Lee Kiernan, president and CEO of Greenwich YWCA, a nonprofit that helps survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. “We want to keep up the momentum we’ve experienced recently with better public recognition of harassment and violence against women that we’ve seen with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.”

The work that VAWA funds is lifesaving, said Debra Greenwood, president and CEO of the Center for Family justice, a Bridgeport nonprofit serving victims of domestic violence, sexual violence and child abuse.

“The work we do makes our community whole,” she said. “By not reauthorizing the bill, you’re telling victims — especially females — we are not important or valued.”

The act, which expired on Dec. 22, is required to be reauthorized every five years. Congress failed to do so because of the ongoing federal government shutdown. This is the first time its authorization has lapsed.

Before the shutdown, Congress passed budget agreements that will cover VAWA funding through Feb. 8 and officials have said other grants that were awarded before the shutdown will not be affected. But once VAWA’s current funding is gone, future programs will not receive money until the act is reauthorized.

“We’re not at the point when the money will stop,” U.S. Congressman Jim Himes said Thursday. “But it’s very concerning that for first time the authorization was allowed to expire. It shows what the last Republican Congress’ priorities were. It is going to be priority of this new Congress.”

What’s at stake

VAWA pays for dozens of programs that provide services including transitional housing, court training, research, stalker reduction databases, assistance for rural victims, legal aid and protections against abuse in public housing. It pays for elder abuse programs, rape crisis centers, 24-hour hotlines, prevention education and more.

“It funds critical services here in Connecticut,” said Lucy Nolan, policy coordinator at the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence. “Right now it seems it’s reauthorization is on the House Democrats’ agendas. We’re knocking on wood they will finish the shutdown soon.”

Greenwood said more than half of her agency’s budget comes from VAWA funding and cuts would greatly impact its programs.

“I cannot even imagine what our community would do without the free and confidential services of an agency like ours,” she said. “I cannot imagine how municipalities, police departments, social service agencies and hospitals deal with victims of sexual and domestic violence without the support of organizations like ours.”

An uncertain future will impact nonprofits’ planning, said Kiernan.

“We will plan for the future, but we will plan on a reduction in services,” she said. “We are going to start to work on our budget in March. We may have to be prudent and budget down in certain areas.”

The YWCA’s child advocate position, which facilitates counseling for children in abusive homes, and police coordinator position, which works with law enforcement to assess risk to victims, are both paid with VAWA funding.

Melissa Gallaher-Smith, development manager for The Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education in Stamford, said the funding the nonprofit receives through VAWA isn’t a significant portion of its budget, but cuts to its federal funding could cause a decrease in services.

The uncertainty about VAWA’s future may deter victims from seeking help, said David Richards, a professor at the University of Connecticut and co-author of the book “Violence Against Women and the Law.”

“It’s hard enough for victims to gather together what they need to report a crime and seek service,” he said. “Now, they’re doing so in an era of uncertainty.”

VAWA’s legacy

VAWA, enacted in 1994, created funding for the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, established mandatory restitution rules and eased the way for civil lawsuits in cases prosecutors do not pursue.

It conceived a system of coordinated community responses to domestic abuse, sexual violence and stalking. It identified specific groups at risk and provided them with protections for the first time.

“It put a focus on sexual assault survivors and making sure women’s voices are heard,” said Nolan.

By paying for campaigns to prevent sexual violence, outreach programs and post-conviction services, VAWA made the country take the issue more seriously, Nolan said.

“It really changed the public conversation around this topic,” Kiernan said.

Over the years, aspects of proposed changes and additions to VAWA have become partisan.

“The last time VAWA was up for reauthorization, there was a tussle between Democrats and Republicans about protections for some groups,” said Richards. “Democrats wanted to add LGBTQ protections, for tribal women and for undocumented immigrants.”

Republicans also opposed adding a provision for closing the “boyfriend loophole,” which allows unmarried and childless abusers to skirt certain penalties, said Richards.

“It makes me wonder about the priorities of certain politicians,” Richards said. “If you look back on the record of the reauthorization of this act, all who voted against it were Republican men. No woman voted against it.”

Stronger legislation

Advocates would like to see stronger protections added to VAWA in the future.

“I think that as we learn more about what happens with sexual violence, we need to revisit VAWA and make it a stronger bill,” said Nolan.

“We want to see protections for victims who may get evicted from a housing situation because of their abuser’s behavior,” said Kiernan.

The nonprofit leader said the organization would like to see a federal law that would allow for an abuser’s gun to be taken away, which is already law in Connecticut.

Greenwood said it’s time to become vigilant about upholding VAWA.

“We need to be clear that we need support from both sides of aisle for reauthorization,” she said. “We need to see vigilance (from legislators). We need their support, the community’s support and everyone who has a voice to say we must reauthorize VAWA.”

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