The joy bursting from my inbox Thursday regarding the long-awaited renewal of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was tempered by a harsh reminder of why passage was essential.
Sandwiched between e-mails from a buoyant Carol Arthur, executive director of Domestic Abuse Project, and Cheryl Thomas, director of the Women’s Human Rights Program for The Advocates for Human Rights, was another from Ramsey County spokesman Dennis Gerhardstein.
His e-mail included the chilling criminal complaint against Jeffrey Dale Trevino, charged Thursday with second-degree murder in the death of his 30-year-old wife, Kira.
Our country has made significant progress in understanding and combating sexual and domestic violence, but we’re far from done. The VAWA remains a proclamation from our most powerful lawmakers that such violence is intolerable in the society we strive to be.
But it almost didn’t get passed this year.
This bill — last re-authorized during a Republican administration in 2005 — was held up in the Republican-led House because it had the audacity to be inclusive. The expanded bill provides provisions for immigrants, LGBTs and American Indian women. At least one in three American Indian women will be raped in her lifetime, according to the U.S. Justice Department, and with little recourse. Most perpetrators are non-Native which, until now, granted them immunity from prosecution by tribal courts.
The revised bill also protects victims of sex trafficking, who are often young girls. President Obama promised to immediately sign the measure, which is chock-full of Minnesota initiative.
U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken have long fought for the VAWA, as has fellow DFL-er Rep. Keith Ellison. Republican congressman Erik Paulsen is a supporter, as well.
The VAWA provides resources to states to improve training and coordination for police, the courts and prosecutors. It also pays for a range of victim-services programs, including transitional housing, legal assistance and — essential if we are to ever break the cycle of violence — prevention initiatives that engage men and youth.
How has it fared? Quite well. Between 1993 and 2007, the rate of intimate-partner homicides of women decreased 35 percent; the rate of intimate-partner homicides of men decreased 46 percent.
One new change is particularly heartening to Franken. Victims of sexual violence no longer will be required to pay for their own rape kits. Until now, varying policies and abundant confusion among counties nationwide left some victims stuck with the tab or required to seek reimbursement from their insurance companies for $1,000 or more.
No other crime victim faces this indignity. A burglary victim, for example, is not expected to pay for police fingerprinting. Besides, “kit” is far too cheery a word for what it is — the forensic medical exam a rape victim endures.
“An evidentiary exam is not a fun thing,” said Pamela Zeller, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Sexual Violence Center. Even with a highly skilled and empathetic emergency room nurse or doctor, the search for evidence can be grueling, as photos and swab samples of DNA are taken, a pelvic exam is done, and bite marks and bruises are examined.
“Then you go home, you try to move forward and, three or four months later, you get a bill and you have to pay for this?” Zeller said.
No longer, thank goodness.
But now a word about the work still undone. Despite Franken’s important effort, the fact is that law enforcement officials face a monumental backlog of untested rape kits, many never making it to crime labs. This leaves victims hanging for months or years. Many simply give up on their fight for justice.
Congress is looking at ways to change this reality, such as assuring that federal grants earmarked for rape kit testing are being used for that purpose, and finding ways to speed up kit processing.
“That is where we continue to have a long way to go as we work on reforms,” said Sarah Tofte, policy and advocacy director for the New York-based Joyful Heart Foundation, founded by actress Mariska Hargitay of “Law and Order: SVU” to support victims of sexual violence.
Tofte, who earned her law degree from the University of Minnesota, worked closely with Franken on the rape-kit provision and calls her native state “a model” for its championing of women’s safety. But this week, she’s proud of Congress in general.
“What a powerful message, when we weren’t able to get too much else done, that we got this done,” Tofte said. Passage of the VAWA, she said, “shows how much our leaders care about this issue.”