Congress Must Address Some of the Law's Most Significant Flaws

Congressional Democrats seek to reauthorize the expired Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) as a top priority for this Congress. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) called it his first priority and legislation has already been introduced in both the House and Senate.

The liberal Center for American Progress lamented the three-year lapse in VAWA's authorization: "The expired law leaves victims, domestic violence shelters, and law enforcement across the country wondering why a law that had previously sailed through Congress for two previous reauthorizations has become the latest representation of partisan gridlock."

Yet the public should really be wondering why VAWA advocates, while forcefully pushing for reauthorization and expansion, are so reluctant to embrace commonsense improvements to the law and turn a blind eye to existing bloat and inefficiency.

Rather than rubber-stamping the politically-attractive law, those in Congress who really want to serve victims should take a hard look at the problems with how VAWA has operated in the past and consider how it can be better crafted.

For starters, the programs operated under VAWA have never undergone scientifically rigorous evaluations to ensure that they are achieving their intended results.

Furthermore, because VAWA was initially established on the premise that violence is caused by institutionalized sexism and patriarchal beliefs, the law has allocated financial and legal resources primarily to female victims, while ignoring the complex nature of violence and its causes. Consequently, very little of VAWA's funds are used to address proven causes of violence, such as substance abuse, emotional and psychological disorders and marital instability. The National Research Council reported that many of VAWA's programs are "driven by ideology and stake holder interests rather than by plausible theories and scientific evidence of fact."

Although there is little credible evidence that VAWA programs are reducing the effects and occurrence of domestic and sexual violence, there is evidence that several of the policies instituted under VAWA may actually be harming the very victims they were designed to protect. For example, although approximately $25 million in VAWA funds go to support mandatory arrest policies, a recent Harvard study found that such policies actually lead to more intense levels of violence. According to the study, "Intimate partner homicides increased by about 60 percent in states with mandatory arrest laws." Another study found that women in states with mandatory arrest laws were less likely to report violence and request police assistance.

VAWA's effectiveness becomes even more dubious in light of the absence of adequate safeguards to ensure that funds are being spent on assisting victims. The Government Accountability Office and the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General have exposed several instances of waste, fraud and abuse and have repeatedly highlighted the failure of the Office of Violence Against Women to monitor its grants proficiently.

The need to reauthorize VAWA provides an opportunity for Congress to address some of the law's most significant flaws.

First of all, Congress should authorize funding to thoroughly study VAWA programs to determine whether these programs are working as intended and how they could be reworked to better serve vulnerable populations. Millions of dollars should not be spent on programs if there is no evidence that they are effective — or worse, that they may even be harming those they were designed to protect.

Second, Congress should incorporate strong auditing and accountability measures into the law to reduce the possibility for waste, fraud, and abuse.

Third, Congress should refocus the law to include all victims rather than singling out specific groups for special protection based on gender, sexual orientation, or other group status.

Finally, Congress should consider returning flexibility to states and localities to tailor programs to meet the needs of particular communities, which may encourage amore comprehensive approach to treating the complex causes of intimate partner violence.

While supporters of VAWA have good intentions, good intentions alone do not protect victims. If proponents of VAWA truly seek to assist victims and diminish violence, they should stop branding those with substantive concerns about VAWA as anti-women or pro-abuse, and instead welcome an openconversation about positive reforms.