Last week, five of Michigan’s 14-member congressional delegation voted against reauthorizing the landmark law designed to help survivors of sexual and domestic violence.
“Early on during the pandemic, I was the only one coming into the office and I had a survivor show up at the door,” Angelita Velases Gunn told The ’Gander. Gunn is executive director of AWARE, which provides shelters and services to survivors of domestic violence in Southeast Michigan. “Honestly, all the safety precautions were thrown out the window because I saw a woman in front of me in tears.”
Last week, the US House of Representatives voted 244 to 172 to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), with only 29 Republicans joining Democrats in support. Nine of Michigan’s 14-member congressional delegation voted in favor, while Reps. Jack Bergman, Bill Huizenga, Lisa McClain, John Moolenaar, and Tim Walberg voted against VAWA.
The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.
Among other things, the latest version of VAWA increases resources for programs and shelters designed to help survivors of sexual and domestic violence. Over the past year, advocacy groups have been forced to adapt to the pandemic with reduced capacity for emergency housing by switching their programs from in person to online platforms.
Although the changes help to slow the spread of COVID-19, they also pose an additional challenge to survivors looking for help.
“Even in the pandemic, intimate partner violence and sexual assault are still happening. Survivors are more isolated than ever, and what we’re seeing is an increase in intensity of assaults as well,” Aimee Nimeh told The ’Gander. Nimeh is CEO and president of HAVEN, a domestic violence services provider in Pontiac. “About half of our money comes from government funding … A big chunk of that comes from the Violence Against Women Act, and so it’s really critical that we’re able to maintain our funding.”
Safely assisting survivors is more challenging and more expensive in a pandemic. Due to COVID-19 precautions, victims are frequently isolated with their abusers, and dangerous behavior is less likely to be recognized by people outside of the home. Additionally, without available space in shelters, survivors have fewer safe options to get away.
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In one recent case that garnered national attention, for example, a prosecutor in St. Joseph County was forced to send the police to a victim’s home during court proceedings. The court noticed that the woman and her abuser were attending the virtual hearing from the same house, just in different rooms. The defendant was handcuffed and taken away during the Zoom call.
“I think when it happens within the context of a relationship, sometimes people minimize [domestic violence] and it can’t be minimized,” Nimeh said. “It is very real and it’s very dangerous.”
However, a year into the crisis, advocates for survivors of domestic and sexual violence are optimistic after VAWA’s reauthorization passed the House.
“The [VAWA] is absolutely important, it’s how we operate,” Velases Gunn said. “It’s how we provide services.”
The Increased Need for Protection
In Michigan, calls to domestic violence hotlines have jumped since the beginning of the pandemic. Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, which represents 73 domestic abuse shelters in the state, recorded 1,000 calls in January 2021—a serious increase from the 2019-2020 fiscal year, when the coalition received a combined total of 1,250 calls.
Advocates have voiced concern that the true number of people in need far exceeds the number of calls for help.
First signed into law in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act provided funding to investigate and prosecute violent crimes against women. Every five years the law is up for reauthorization and small amendments. Since its first implementation, the law has been expanded to cover same-sex couples, undocumented immigrants, and has touched on gun regulations, which caught flak from the National Rifle Association for provisions that would limit gun ownership. Recent amendments have also closed the “boyfriend loophole,” which protects people who aren’t married.
“The Violence Against Women Act is a bill that needs to move, and should move,” Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) told The Trace.
Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield) introduced another amendment based on conversations with his constituents. The amendment would simplify the prosecutorial process and make sure that a survivor works with only one prosecutor.
“This is a process that’s harrowing enough on its own,” Levin said in a statement. “To have to relive what happened over and over in order to get a new attorney up to speed—to not feel like you have a relationship with that person—it’s just unthinkable to me.”
Although the reauthorization process allows lawmakers and advocates to improve the law, it also makes it subject to disruptions. A total of 173 Republican lawmakers in the House voted against reauthorizing the law. Additionally, the government shutdown of 2018 and early 2019 disrupted its reauthorization process, allowing the law to expire.
“The reauthorization provides us as a field an opportunity to look at policy-related fixes or remedies,” Velases Gunn explained, noting that financial safeguards are among this latest reauthorization’s provisions.
“For example, to be able to safely move, break their lease without ramifications on their credit. Those protections would also be extended to people who are victims of dating violence,” Velases Gunn said.
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Actually leaving an abusive relationship can be the most dangerous action a survivor can take. According to the results of one study from the Department of Justice: “Her attempt to leave was the precipitating factor in 45 percent of the murders of a woman by a man.”
Both Nimeh and Velases Gunn say that while their work is difficult and emotionally charged, seeing individuals take strides and improve their situations keeps them going.
“We see people when they’re going through some of the worst things in their lives, but we also get to see people come out of the other side of that,” Nimeh said. “We get to see the healing and that can be really uplifting.”
If you or someone you know is facing domestic or sexual violence, you can find help at Haven, AWARE, or the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence.