VAWA Reauthorization Presents an Opportunity for Bold Transformation
By Mary P. Koss & Jacquelyn W. White | May 20, 2021
Mary P. Koss is a professor of public health at the University of Arizona. Jacquelyn W. White is an emerita professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
After an eight-year delay, the Violence Against Women Act is on the verge of reauthorization. While some proponents urge passage of the proposed legislation in its current state, we have an unprecedented opportunity to do better.
As the bill awaits a vote in the U.S. Senate, we encourage agencies, coalitions, and communities to think “big” and more strategically about victim needs and the opportunity of our role as influencers of the legislation. Inclusive and equitable initiatives are crucial to ensuring that VAWA builds better response to supporting victims and ending violence against all women.
Following the Money: What VAWA Prioritizes
At its roots, VAWA is the fruit of a grassroots movement that built on the voices of victims and those who serve them. But over the years, the allocation of VAWA funds has undermined grassroots wisdom.
Given VAWA’s origin in an omnibus crime bill, it is perhaps not surprising how funds historically have been distributed. For example, the Services, Training, Officers, and Prosecutors or STOP formula grants direct 55% of VAWA funds for criminal legal responses (25% for law enforcement, 25% for prosecution, 5% for courts) and 30% toward victim service programs. Only 15% can be used for other service categories, and the remaining 10% goes toward administrative costs. Some community services are based on and funded through non-federal sources, although VAWA money creates more predictable budgets.
In consequence, criminal legal initiatives have become prioritized over historical activities such as support, counseling, and advocacy. Over the years, providers have increased time communicating with police and prosecutors and decreased client advocacy with community entities (social, medical, mental health).
Listening to Victims and Advocates
Those who seek services—a distinct minority of all victims—often say that their available options offer few concrete responses to basic needs, present accessibility challenges, and disempower their pursuit of justice as they define it, offering only a single re-traumatizing choice.
Those who seek services—a distinct minority of all victims—often say that their available options offer few concrete responses to basic needs, present accessibility challenges, and disempower their pursuit of justice as they define it, offering only a single re-traumatizing choice. Victims avoid seeking assistance for fear of being shamed and blamed. They worry about income, the family home, employment, social relationships, removal of their children by protection services, and immigration consequences.
Even providers whose mission is victim-centered may exert subtle coercion towards other ends, including leaving the abuser and reporting to law enforcement. Not only do these actions mismatch victims’ self-perceived needs, but formal sources (such as the criminal legal system, medical professionals, and clergy) tend to be rated negatively by survivors. On outcome surveys, victims report leaving interventions feeling depressed, anxious, blamed, violated, and reluctant to seek further help. This results in increased social withdrawal and self-blame as well as decreased self-perceived empowerment to change their lives, contributing to both ongoing and intergenerational transmission of violence.
Options Beyond the Criminal Legal System
Historically, VAWA-funded programs have pursued a justice process focused on incarceration as its endpoint. However, two problems occur. For the reasons noted above, many victims do not report. For those who do, criminal legal system outcomes—if and how the case is treated, whether prosecution and conviction occur—can be unsatisfactory.
National experts and advocates concur, citing more concerns about legal response than anything else, suggesting that legal interventions increase victim trauma and inadequately impact re-offending. Along with continued attempts to integrate victim priorities into the adversarial system, they recognize the urgency of choices, including restorative and community-based, non-adversarial, non-carceral options to acts of violence against women.
This goal is realizable with adequate attention to power dynamics, re-abuse, rights, and enforced accountability that is proportional to the harm done. To many victims, justice means validation, a chance to speak about the impact, and have input into accountability. Justice is expected to be fair, respectful, and deliver empowerment.
Who Gets Help? Reaching the Un- and Under-Served
The number of persons victimized by domestic violence and sexual assault and the small percentage that report to law enforcement are well-established by data from U.S Department of Justice and CDC reports. Many have viewed non-reporting as the outcome of mismatched needs and services, as well as what victims know from the experiences of others regarding the gain/loss equation of doing so. Little is known about the services victims might have used but could not find, what justice options they desire, accessibility barriers, and community supports that exist but were not mobilized.
The 2013 VAWA reauthorization prioritized improved responsiveness to those who hesitate to seek services from fear linked to their sexual orientation, gender identity, race/ethnicity, and religion. However, biennial evaluation of VAWA grantees document that their primary clients are white, urban, English-speaking, non-elderly, women without disabilities.
Biennial evaluation of VAWA grantees document that their primary clients are white, urban, English-speaking, non-elderly, women without disabilities.
Simply put, there are not enough resources to go around. Too many victims are not coming forward, especially those from marginalized communities. A disgraceful gap exists between need and capacity, even among the fraction of victims that contact disparate systems for help.
Innovation, Efficiency, and Coordination
We live in a rapidly changing world, even since the last VAWA re-authorization in 2013. Today, people in the highest-aged risk groups prefer to receive information differently than traditional printed brochures and scheduled visits to far-away offices staffed by unfamiliar people. Internet and mobile app service delivery has the potential to enlarge options, shape messages to specific groups, provide linguistic flexibility, and reach rural areas where VAWA funding has not been attainable.
Another option would be to design briefer and less complex services that can be delivered by respected community messengers and bolstered by focused training, such as certificate programs. Task-shifting to a community-based workforce results in more workers, greater inclusivity, increased linguistic options, and service providers who are geographically dispersed, both in large cities and in rural areas. This approach is cost-effective. For example, Promotoras in Hispanic populations are community-based, focally trained on specific interventions, with empirically demonstrated effectiveness.
VAWA’s original conception of Coordinated Community Response teams is an adaptable model that can avoid a retrenchment of a “do less, with less” mentality. CCRs must include additional community partners that focus beyond serving as feeders into the criminal justice system or supporters of those who are pursuing criminal processes. Shared power by partners can result in enhanced co-learning, increased capacity building, cyclical and iterative systems development. Such partnerships would focus on the local relevance of the work they do, acknowledging that one size does not fit all.
A Better VAWA
Reaching a more equitable spectrum of people and locations is an achievable goal. We can do it by identifying the scope of victim needs, developing innovative service delivery mechanisms that map onto those needs, and focusing on approaches that are more efficient for each dollar expended.
A consensus regarding training, intervention, prevention, and policy issues is emerging among experts. The existing VAWA legislation contains relevant language that can be strengthened to enhance this momentum. We recommend:
- Fostering diverse victim input to align needs with services, including those to prevent perpetration and strengthen families.
- Reducing the centering of criminal legal responses through a focus on expanded choice of justice options.
- Increasing workforce size, diversity, and reach through task shifting and community presence.
- Utilizing more technology in service to cost-effectively serve more people.
- Aligning funding with needs and gaps as opposed to traditional imbalances among sectors.
- Evaluating programs to empirically document efficacy.
Achieving these priorities will require strong partnerships rooted in local communities. We advocate for bringing victims and service providers back to the table as full partners in seeking solutions. By leveraging this coordination, we can fulfill the promise of truly reducing violence against women in our communities.