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July 25, 2014, 10:01 am

Advocates critique Violence Against Women Act

As lawmakers in Washington try to hammer out a budget agreement and avoid a fiscal crisis, another issue is also on the table during the lame duck session of Congress — the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act or VAWA.

In April, a version of VAWA was approved by the Senate by a vote of 68 to 31, despite some Republican opposition to certain provisions of the bill. But the battle over VAWA’s reauthorization has now moved to the House of Representatives and supporters of VAWA are concerned that, with a little more than two weeks left, the law may be allowed to expire.

The United States has made tremendous progress on violence against women and girls domestically since the passage of VAWA in 1994,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Barack Obama when the measure passed the Senate. “Since the passage of the Act, annual rates of domestic violence have dropped by more than 60 percent. The Violence Against Women Act, something that should be above politics, is mired in just that on the Hill. The Senate passed a strong bipartisan bill three months ago. The House should take up the Senate bill so we can get this important bill to the president's desk. Women should not have to wait a day longer.  As the vice president has said, Congress should act now to protect women.”

In Philadelphia, a recent report was released detailing the scope of violence against women in the city. Titled Violence Against Women in Philadelphia — A Report to the City, the study indicated that the Philadelphia Police Department handled 145,904 calls that were related to domestic violence in 2011. The number of arrests increased from 4,927 to 6,256 between 2009 and 2011.

“The Philadelphia Police Department should continue its positive and constructive relationship with the city’s domestic violence and rape crisis agencies,” the report said. “Philadelphia is one of the few, if not the sole city in which victim advocates are allowed to review every rape case. And the department involves local domestic violence agencies in efforts to improve all services to victims with the goal of reducing violence against women.”

Such violence was displayed on Nov. 28 with the murder of Rasheedah Blunt, a 27-year old mother. According to police, the victim was shot multiple times inside a second floor apartment in the 3500 block of Old York Road just before 11:30 p.m. Investigators are looking for her live-in boyfriend, Dominique Haynes, 33. Police were called to the location following a violent argument in which neighbors reported hearing several gunshots. They found Blunt in the bed dead from multiple gunshot wounds. Two children, a 3-year-old boy and the victim’s 6-year-old daughter were present in the residence but were not harmed.

In February, Tiffany Gillespie, 24, was six-months pregnant with her third child when she was allegedly shot to death by her boyfriend, Aaron Fitzpatrick. Investigators said that Fitzpatrick killed Gillespie following an argument in which he tried to convince her to get an abortion and she refused.

The Violence Against Women Act was originally drafted by then Sen. Joe Biden and signed into law by Pres. Bill Clinton in 1994. It was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005. The law provides grant programs that help local law enforcement in identifying and prosecuting domestic abuse offenders and sexual predators, as well as programs that assist the victims. The new version would restructure and consolidate grant programs and create new programs to raise awareness on college campuses. GOP lawmakers are concerned about provisions covering undocumented workers and members of the LGBT community.

State Sen. Leanna Washington, a survivor of domestic abuse, said that with recent budget cuts on the state level, the federal government can’t turn its back on victims of domestic violence.

“In Philadelphia victims of domestic violence have been turned away from agencies that could help them but don’t have enough beds to accommodate them. The state doesn’t have enough beds for these women and because of the budget cuts, funding for these agencies have either been scaled back or cut entirely,” she said. “We need this law and I’ve urged my friends in the Senate and Congress to support this. We typically see a rise in domestic violence in times of economic hardship and during the holidays. We’ve cut welfare benefits, what else are we going to cut? City Council just recently authorized $3 million to help provide additional beds for these victims but much more is needed. Some people might think, ‘Oh this doesn’t affect me’ but it does. Just because no one is saying anything doesn’t mean someone in your family isn’t being abused. Many of these victims suffer in silence.”