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Leigh Goodmark
Photo courtesy of the University of Baltimore
Leigh Goodmark

Feminists say anti-violence law victimizes women

Politics | Critics say Violence Against Women Act leaves women vulnerable to abuse

In 1993 the Los Angeles Times described how paramedics found a woman named Laura with a collapsed lung, broken ribs, and heavy bleeding from the brain. She refused to say how it happened. Her husband said she fell down the stairs, only there was no blood on the stairs.

She called the police another time and said her husband, 6-foot-7 and drunk, was “pushing her around.” The police found her bleeding from her arm and leg, but arrested no one. A few days later, Laura died in hospital.

Stories like that helped convince Congress to pass the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994. Last week Congress again reauthorized the law, providing $3.3 billion over five years in new spending for transitional housing, law enforcement training, hotlines, and other measures. The new bill makes these services available to men, homosexuals, illegal immigrants, and prison inmates, and includes money for public awareness campaigns.

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The bill passed the Democrat-controlled Senate in February but stalled in the House as a divided GOP argued over whether the bill was necessary (most states have their own programs) or even constitutional (it allows Native American tribal courts the ability to try non-Indian Americans in abuse cases involving female members on tribal land). 

“Despite its pleasant sounding name,” said Alison Howard of Concerned Women for America, “VAWA is in large part a rigid series of ineffective law enforcement programs that continue to waste approximately $400 million each year.”

The bill passed anyway, in part because, given stories like Laura’s, a vote against the Violence Against Women Act seems a lot like a vote for domestic abuse.

But even some feminists are starting to worry about the unintended—and potentially far more significant—consequences of VAWA that have so far received less attention.

Here’s the background: VAWA encourages states to implement policies that require officers to arrest abuse suspects if they have probable cause and allows prosecutors to move forward, all without the cooperation of victims.

The point was to ensure abusers would face prosecution despite a police culture that often looks the other way in domestic cases. But even some liberal critics now say the law makes women who are afraid of losing the household bread-winner reluctant to call the police at all, leaving them in even more danger. A 2007 study found that states with such laws saw increases in their rates of “intimate partner homicides” and attributed it to victims’ unwillingness to report abuse.

Leigh Goodmark, a law professor and director of the family law clinic at the University of Baltimore, told TIME Magazine that VAWA forces women victims who don’t want to separate from their partners to choose either automatic arrest or continued abuse. She recommended alternatives such as more counseling for victims and batterers and protection orders that still allow contact. 

“As a movement, we’ve been ambivalent about these women,” she said.

Some social conservatives, meanwhile, argue that VAWA and other domestic violence legislation are ideologically driven, presuming that patriarchy and sexism are the cause of domestic violence. That presupposition undermines various civil rights, including access to due process and equal treatment under the law.

For example, Stephen Baskerville, author of Taken Into Custody: The War Against Fathers, Marriage, and the Family, said mandatory arrest laws encourage women involved in divorce and custody disputes to level false allegations of abuse.

The police will come “to take her husband away, and [she need only] say, ‘I’m in fear,’” he said. The husband, meanwhile, faces possible prison time or weeks of classes on how to treat women. “Why do we need special laws [for domestic violence]?” he asked. “So we can bypass the due process laws.”

Ed Bartlett, president of SAVE, Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, said he would support VAWA with changes, such as restoring “the presumption of innocence to the accused.” He also believes that VAWA needs to better define domestic violence, claiming, “because of expansive and vague definitions, minor incidents of partner conflict are being criminalized.”

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