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Congress inches toward reauthorizing Violence Against Women Act

With the testimony of four women in the books, Congress is one small step closer to reinstating the Violence Against Women Act. 

On March 7, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee held its first subcommittee hearing this session on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

The previous edition, adopted in 2013, lapsed in December as part of the protracted government shutdown and was not included in a February spending bill. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) introduced a reauthorization bill in 2018, but it did not receive a floor vote before the 115th Congress adjourned.

The new version, formally introduced on March 7 after the hearing, includes several new provisions, including greater housing protection for victims funding to create additional culturally appropriate, trauma-informed screening protocols for potential victims of all ages and genders.

“Domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault do not discriminate based on your age, sex, income, race, or religion,” House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-New York) said. “This reauthorization bill expands the existing protections of VAWA, modernizes and updates its programs, and responds to the needs identified by the survivors and advocates who devote their lives to ending intimate partner violence.  We must do all that we can to ensure VAWA works for every woman, man, or child who may need its protections and that fewer families and individuals experience the trauma of domestic violence and assault.”

Under the terms of VAWA’s 2013 reauthorization, tribes may exercise special criminal jurisdiction over non-Natives who violate a protective order or commit an act of domestic or dating violence against a tribal citizen within the tribe’s jurisdictional area.           

The expanded tribal provisions currently do not extend to crimes committed by a stranger, child abuse cases that do not involve a violated protective order, offenses committed on non-tribal land or to potentially related crimes outside VAWA’s scope, such as robbery, identity theft, drug possession or child abuse. 

Although the law lapsed, the tribal provisions are still in place. Language is on the table to increase the tribal provisions in the reauthorization bill to include additional resources for tribal law enforcement, such as access to federal crime databases and the creation of a tribal sex offender and protective order database. It would also extend full civil jurisdiction to all Alaska tribes to issue and enforce protection orders. The Osage Nation currently keeps its own Sex Offender Registry list on the Osage Nation website.

The proposed reauthorization bill would also extend tribal jurisdiction over assaults on law enforcement officers in the line of duty, sex trafficking, stalking and sexual assault cases involving a non-Native in Indian Country.

Many Indigenous domestic violence advocates have asked that the tribal prosecution jurisdiction provisions be further expanded to include child abuse.

A former MacArthur fellow, Sarah Deer is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and a professor at the University of Kansas. Known internationally for her advocacy efforts on behalf of Native domestic violence and sexual assault victims, Deer testified before the subcommittee on the need for greater tribal sovereignty in order to better address domestic violence in Indian Country.

“Although children are frequent witnesses to domestic violence or are victims themselves, VAWA 2013 currently only authorizes tribal criminal jurisdiction over domestic or dating violence committed against a romantic or intimate partner,” Deer said. “Since it is impossible for children to have an intimate partner, this means that all crimes committed against Native children remain outside the jurisdiction of the tribal government. Thus… tribal governments are unable to prosecute non-Indians for many of the crimes against children that are co-occurring with domestic violence unless the children are named in a protective order set forth in VAWA 2013.”

In addition to the review by the House’s Judiciary Committee, the measure has been referred to seven additional committees, including Ways and Means, Education, Labor, Veterans’ Affairs and Financial Services for additional consideration. No timeline has been given for hearings before any of those committees.