Violence Against Women Act Nearing Expiration

The last reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2005 called for a national baseline study of domestic abuse victims in Indian County. It excluded Alaska Natives, which was likely an oversight.

The current reauthorization, which has passed both the House and Senate, would include them in future studies. U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski said that could lead to more money for domestic violence services in the state.

“It helps us in our ability to obtain additional grant dollars. Those federal funds that would be available to help on issues that relate to domestic violence, whether it is the shelters, whether it is levels of support for victims of domestic violence,” she said Tuesday afternoon.

There are a few sticking points between the House and Senate versions. The Senate extends protections to immigrants and gays and lesbians. It also grants tribal courts in the Lower 48 the ability to issue restraining orders against non-natives.

Senior Assistant Attorney General for Alaska Mary Lundquist said that last provision is already in effect in Alaska, even though, in her eyes, the tribal courts are on shaky footing.

“Whether they have the authority to do it or not, I don’t think has been litigated,” she said. “But it is done. And the policy of the state of Alaska is that when a protective order is issued, the state enforces them and asks later.”

Both Senators Murkowski and Mark Begich voted for VAWA. Representative Don Young voted for the House version.

Leaders of the House and Senate could appoint a conference committee to reconcile the differences, and then have both chambers pass that fixed version. Or one chamber could pass the other version, though that’s unlikely. Many thought the tension over politically sensitive groups would die after the election.

But it hasn’t, and Peggy Brown remains nervous the Violence Against Women Act will sunset for the first time.

“If we lost VAWA here in Alaska? It would devastate, I mean devastate, our work here. Prevention work, public awareness – you name it,” she said in a Tuesday phone interview.

Brown leads the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. Her group provides victims with emergency shelters, hotlines, clothing, food.

It also uses a federal grant to help victims pursue civil trials. The network uses the money on training. Veteran attorneys mentor newer ones … so domestic violence victims don’t get stuck with a lawyer who doesn’t know the ropes of family court.

“And we’ve been doing that for about 15 years. We’re one of the states that has received that grant every year for 15 years,” she said.

Brown said nearly all of her $3 million dollar budget comes from Violence Against Women Act. The state chips in some money and resources.

But she worries, if the bill lapses, there is no way the state could cover the federal contribution, and that means less services for the people who need it most.