Do programs help or hurt the abused?

The 112th Congress adjourned last week without reauthorizing the Violence against Women Act.

It is important to note that the current law is still in force, the money allocated still will be provided, but the “enhancements” in the law sought will not happen. Is this a crisis? We think not.

There were two fatal flaws in the Senate bill. First, it is a revenue measure, intentional or not, which must originate in the House. Greed sunk that part. Second, it removes constitutional protections by making non-natives subject to tribal jurisdiction and laws, laws that don’t even need to be published! This was confirmed by no less than one of our Supreme Court justices when I inquired of her.

Here is the most important question to ask: Are programs funded through the Violence against Women Act working?

Most VAWA funds are directed to beefing up the criminal justice system’s response to domestic violence. But according to Angela Moore Parmley, PhD of the U. S. Department of Justice, “We have no evidence to date that VAWA has led to a decrease in the overall levels of violence against women.”

A look at specific VAWA-funded programs reveals the reasons behind Dr. Parmley’s concern:

Research reveals “Increases in the willingness of prosecutors’ offices to take cases of protection order violation were associated with increases in the homicide of white married intimates, black unmarried intimates, and white unmarried females.” Thus for most groups, prosecuting restraining order violations actually increased homicide rates.

According to a Harvard University study of mandatory arrest, “Intimate partner homicides increased by about 60 percent in states with mandatory arrest laws.” Mandatory arrest discourages victims from calling for help, placing them at greater risk of a mortal outcome.

VAWA also supports the enforcement of protection orders. As far as their impact, opinion is divided whether such orders are simply ineffective, or whether they actually escalate and worsen the abuse.

Finally, many domestic violence groups have incorrectly attributed the cause of the decline in partner violence. Writing in The Hill’s Congress blog, Sharon Stapel recently wrote, “VAWA has dramatically reduced intimate partner violence: the Department of Justice estimates the reduction at 64 percent from 1993 to 2010.”

The second part of her claim is correct, the first is not. FBI statistics indicate the number of intimate partner homicides began to fall in the late 1970s, long before passage of VAWA.

As an editorial recently pointed out, “the downward trend in domestic violence is just part of a larger, society-wide drop in all violent crime. Indeed, incidents of violent crime generally dropped from about 80 per 100,000 people in 1993 to about 21 in 2010. That’s a decrease of almost 74 percent.”

The reason why criminal justice measures are ineffective or harmful is simple: they don’t address the actual causes of domestic violence, particularly substance abuse, psychological disorders, and marital instability. Abuse-reduction efforts should emphasize substance abuse treatment, counseling, and the like, with aggressive arrest and prosecution being essential but back-up strategies. In short, we need more counseling and less incarceration.

So, before the Senate or House introduce any new VAWA reauthorization bills, we need to answer the question: Are VAWA programs harmful, helpful, or merely ineffective? Marching forward without resolving this pivotal concern could turn out to be a grave mistake for future victims of domestic violence.

Mark Mahnkey, of Lynnwood, is the Director, Public Policy, of the Washington Civil Rights Council. He can be reached at

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