ST. ALBANS – The almost yearlong lack of a renewed Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), federal legislation funding domestic and sexual violence programs across the U.S., could, according to a local advocacy group, have side effects that trickle down to Franklin County.

According to Kris Lukens, the director of the local domestic and sexual violence organization Voices Against Violence/Laurie’s House, stagnated funding authorized in lieu of a VAWA renewal could threaten Voices’ ability to serve domestic violence survivors in Franklin and Grand Isle counties.

VAWA, one of the first comprehensive pieces of legislation looking to address domestic violence against women, was originally passed into law under President Bill Clinton in the early 1990s, with subsequent renewals approved every five years or so by the U.S. Congress.

The latest reauthorization of VAWA, passed in 2013 after lengthy debate in Congress, expired in February 2019, and while the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved reauthorizing the act last spring, a pair of competing reauthorization bills have effectively stalled VAWA’s reauthorization in the U.S. Senate.

In the interim, programming under VAWA has been level funded in Congressional appropriation bills and even had funding expanded, with provisions in a more recent December appropriations bill expanding federal allocations available to VAWA’s grant programs.

Voices Against Violence/Laurie’s House, which provides emergency and transitional housing services to victims of domestic violence as well as legal services and educational programming, affords much of its programming through grants authorized under VAWA, including linchpin programming like its transitional housing services and its legal advocate.

According to Lukens, those programs could not exist were it not for the funding streams authorized under VAWA. “We have been very fortunate to get a lot of different projects in there, all rolled together to create this system of care,” Lukens said. “The fact is that we could never get that kind of funding locally.”

As programming becomes grow more expensive, however, Lukens said there were fears that federal grants would not be able to keep pace, and a lack of new funding allocations meant there would be “no new programs to look at and see what might be a good fit,” according to Lukens.

Domestic violence remains a salient issue in Vermont.

According to the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, 8,500 individuals reached out to use the network’s services in 2018. Three quarters of those calls came from women, and more than half of the calls received by the network were instances of domestic violence.

Within Franklin County, according to Lukens, Voices has seen a higher need from its transitional housing services and worked with 600 individual survivors in 2019, a high for the St. Albans-based organization.

At the same time, according to Lukens, Voices has had to reduce the amount of transitional housing units provided to survivors leaving domestic violence situations, shrinking the domestic violence organization’s available housing units from six to five.

After the passage of a recent appropriations bill in Washington that expanded some VAWA funding, Lukens said in a follow-up email to the Messenger that there were still worries on the part of Voices around tightening restrictions for accessing those grant programs.

“I am noticing that some of the eligibility guidelines are changing [and] becoming more restrictive,” Lukens wrote. “It also seems that they will be funding less applications overall… so funding may increase a little but other restrictions will impact our ability to secure the funding moving forward.

“I am worried about this trend and we will have to see how it plays out moving forward.”

Much of the VAWA debate has broken down in Washington, D.C., over updates allowing authorities to ban those convicted of stalking or abusing a dating partner or subject to a restraining order from buying firearms, effectively closing what advocates have called the “boyfriend loophole.”

Under current federal law, those convicted of domestic violence could lose their rights to owning firearms if they either are or were married to their victim, lived with their victim or had a child with their victim. Current law does not extend those same restrictions to former dating partners or stalkers.

The latest VAWA draft also extends certain protections to the LGBTQ community and expands the jurisdictional authority of federally recognized tribal governments when prosecuting domestic violence incidents against members of their tribe.

Lukens, when speaking with the Messenger, said the provisions within the proposed VAWA expansion were important for protecting victims of domestic violence – particularly those who might not immediately access organizations like Voices Against Violence for support.

“It’s making the provisions of VAWA accessible to people who don’t reach out for our services,” Lukens said. “We do a lot of work with people who don’t knock on our door for services for a lot of reasons, so we want those protections in VAWA.”

In early 2018, the Messenger partnered with Vermont Public Radio (VPR) to update VPR’s database on gun violence in the Green Mountain State.

Dubbed the “Gunshots Project,” the resulting reporting found that, while it was difficult to conclude instances of domestic violence due to the information provided by state death certificates, domestic violence was a part of the story of gun violence in Vermont.

At the time of that report, there were several high profile cases of domestic homicide being argued in Vermont courts.{p class=”p1”}A 2018 report by Vermont’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission found almost half of all Vermont homicides between 1994 and 2017 were domestic violence-related. More than half of those were committed with firearms and more than half of the victims were women.

According to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nationally more than half of female homicides for which the circumstances were known involved a current or former male partner.

Vermont’s Congressional delegation has supported reauthorizing VAWA. Rep. Peter Welch, D – Vt., voted in favor of the reauthorization when the House approved it largely along party lines in early 2019, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D – Vt., has been a vocal proponent of the House bill’s counterpart in the U.S. Senate.

Late last year, Republican lawmakers introduced a second draft of VAWA without provisions added by the House of Representatives in its reauthorization bill.

Recommended for you