Violence Against Women Act Must Be Reauthorized

Breaking the cycle of domestic and dating violence is critical to building healthy, safe communities in Delaware and around the country.
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Before I ever set foot in the United States Senate, I saw the Violence Against Women Act at work.

As a county executive in Delaware, my responsibilities included supervising the second-largest police force in the state. I saw firsthand how our law enforcement officers utilized the training and resources available to them under the Violence Against Women Act to save lives and root out domestic violence in our communities.

The right to live in peace, free from abuse, fear and violence is universal, yet threats to this basic right can be found across lines of race, class and even gender. If we are to protect this right and truly build a climate of security, these crimes cannot be tolerated.

That's why today, my Senate Judiciary Committee colleagues and I are taking up a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Originally passed in the 1990's, certain provisions of this law were written in such a way that they had to be reauthorized every five years, including this year. This reauthorization process isn't a signal that Congress is uncertain about the need for VAWA. On the contrary, it signifies a belief that protecting victims of domestic and dating violence is so important that we must revisit it every five years to make sure that we are getting it right.

The Violence Against Women Act has made a real difference in the nearly two decades it has been the law of the land, with the annual incidence of domestic violence falling by more than 50 percent. Yet we still have a long way to go. Just this year we saw a tragedy unfold in Delaware, where three children watched as their mother was beaten to death on a sidewalk by her ex-boyfriend.

Evil of this kind thrives in darkness, and the Violence Against Women Act serves as a brilliant spotlight, illuminating these crimes so those responsible can be held accountable. In previous generations, domestic violence was just as widespread as it is today, but it simply wasn't discussed in public. We've made considerable progress in bringing domestic violence out from the shadows and seen as a crime not only to be recognized, but to be addressed. As a parent myself, I believe we must keep up our efforts, and that through education and persistence, we can do even more for the next generation.

Breaking the cycle of domestic and dating violence is critical to building healthy, safe communities in Delaware and around the country. This kind of violence impacts entire families, as children who witness violence between their parents or caregivers are devastatingly likely to mirror that behavior in their own relationships. In fact, boys who witness abuse in their households are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they grow up. This is a difficult statistic to hear, but one that underscores the need for a comprehensive approach to preventing these crimes and prosecuting perpetrators.

Each time we revisit and reauthorize VAWA, we learn more about the crimes of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking, who is at risk, and most importantly, how we can help. This time around, the process has resulted in several critical enhancements to the legislation.

One way we are strengthening the bill this year is by bolstering the tools available to law enforcement. As the co-chairman of the Senate Law Enforcement Caucus, I am determined to ensure local agencies have the tools they need to support victims and prosecute abusers. This reauthorization will do that, while also taking a community-based approach that involves court personnel and victim-service providers in preventing domestic violence.

The legislation we consider this week will also, for the first time, recognize that perpetrators find their victims throughout our society, without regard for sexual orientation or gender identity. In order to make sure we reach every victim, VAWA will be the first grant program in our federal government to explicitly state that grant recipients cannot discriminate on the basis of a victim's status as part of the LGBT community.

Importantly, this bill also promotes accountability to make sure every dollar is well spent. It consolidates programs and reduces authorization levels to address our current fiscal and budgetary reality while protecting the programs that have been the most successful. For example, we were able to merge 13 existing grant programs into four streamlined, consolidated programs. This will prevent wasted time and effort and make the application and administrative processes more efficient.

Last November, the people of Delaware elected me to complete the six-year term of Vice President Joe Biden, who wrote and passed the first Violence Against Women Act in one of the most important and enduring legacies of his 36-year long Senate career. His efforts broke barriers and laid the groundwork, but it is up to all of us to keep pushing federal, state and local government to do more to save lives and serve victims.

Today in the Judiciary Committee, Senators from different states, different backgrounds and -- hopefully -- different political parties will come together to take a stand against domestic violence. Hopefully soon thereafter, the full Senate will do the same, and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.

Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a co-sponsor of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act.

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