This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 edition of The Missouri Times Magazine.
As legislation that could be deemed a millennial, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is a historic federal law that changed the nation’s landscape to address domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking. In 1994, VAWA was the first comprehensive, multi-faceted federal legislation passed to acknowledge domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes, to provide federal resources to expand services for victims, and to fundamentally change the way systems respond to victims. This was achieved during a time when many states, territories, and tribes did not have sufficient laws or services to address violence against women, and, consequently, the federal legislation had to be carefully crafted to support the nationwide development of interventions and responses.
During a series of committee hearings conducted between 1990 and 1994, Congress heard testimony from a variety of experts, including victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking and their advocates: state attorneys general, federal and state law enforcement officials, prosecutors, business and labor representatives, physicians, and legal scholars. After several years of revising the legislation and lobbying for its passage by advocates from throughout the country, which included the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence’s CEO Colleen Coble, VAWA passed in 1994 with strong bipartisan support. Its original co-sponsors included leaders from the Missouri federal delegation such as then-Congressman Jim Talent and Congressman Dick Gephardt (the U.S. House Majority Leader at the time). This collective advocacy also led to the formation of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) which is the membership organization for state domestic violence coalitions. Coble is a founding board member of NNEDV and a longtime Public Policy Committee Chair.
Highlights of the original VAWA include requiring a coordinated community response that brought together, for the first time, the criminal justice system, the social services system, domestic violence shelters/programs, and rape crisis centers. VAWA allowed federal prosecution of interstate domestic violence and sexual assault crimes and legal relief for battered immigrants.
VAWA funded and established the 24-hour, toll-free National Domestic Violence Hotline. It also created new grant programs to provide direct services to victims, enhance the criminal justice system response, and provide training and assistance to systems such as child welfare and health care. Since its enactment, VAWA programs, administered by the U.S. Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Health and Human Services (HHS), have dramatically improved federal, tribal, state, and local responses to domestic and sexual violence, stalking, and dating violence.
VAWA provided a national response to violence against women through the establishment of “full faith and credit” for Orders of Protection. This allowed an individual who was granted a protection order in Missouri to have it enforced in all other states. This was a critical step for victims’ safety across state lines as they relocated for safety, employment, or to stay with family members.
VAWA is required to be reauthorized every five years. During its history, VAWA has been improved and strengthened through the reauthorization process to respond to current trends and needs. It is currently due for reauthorization, and once again, it contains enhancements to continue its pivotal role supporting the coordinated efforts to end rape and abuse not only in Missouri but in every state, tribe, and territory.
Jennifer Carter Dochler, MSW, has worked in the movement to end rape and abuse since 1997. Her experience in Texas and Missouri includes advocating with victims of domestic and sexual violence, research, policy, community organizing and education, and program development. Jennifer joined the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence staff in 2003 as a Program Development Specialist, later served as the Education & Outreach Coordinator, and became the Public Policy Director in 2016. Jennifer is also adjunct faculty at the University of Missouri School of Social Work.