Congress on Thursday passed a more ambitious version of the Violence Against Women Act, sending the measure to President Barack Obama, who said he would sign the bill "as soon as it hits my desk."
Democrats, with a minority of Republicans, were key to the 286-138 House vote that renewed the 1994 law that has set the standard for how to protect women, and some men, from domestic abuse and prosecute abusers.
It is more ambitious because it extends domestic violence protections to gays, lesbians and transsexuals. GOP leaders, who had tried to limit the bill before last November's election, gave the go-ahead for the House to accept a more ambitious Senate version written mainly by Democrats.
The federal law ensures, among other things, that police respond to crisis calls, victims of sexual violence not be burdened with rape-exam costs or the expenses of securing an order of protection, and a victim's protection order will be recognized and enforced in all states and tribal and territorial jurisdictions of the United States.
VAWA "is a cost-effective mechanism to assist a broad array of survivors," said Kerry Hyatt Blomquist, legal director of the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, noting it interrupts the intergenerational cycle of family violence, helps the nonviolent parent flee and ensures the children grow up in a safe, stable environment.
"Violence against women is expensive — just medical care, lost work productivity and lost wages constitute over $5.8 billion per year," she said in a news release. "It is estimated that just during its first six years, VAWA saved about $14.8 billion in prevented net social costs."
Mary Beth Schultz, executive director of The Caring Place in Valparaiso, echoed other victim advocates in Northwest Indiana.
"It's a bipartisan issue," Schultz said. "We save lives. It (the act) is not something you cut and the problem will go away."
The Caring Place, which has a capacity of 25, has been consistently full all year, Schultz said. Haven House in Hammond and St. Jude House in Crown Point report similar strains on services.
“Without VAWA support, many Indiana providers will be at risk of closing their doors,” said Anita Carpenter, CEO of the Indiana Coalition Against Sexual Assault, in a news release. “With funds that train over 500,000 law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges and other anti-violence professionals each year, the Violence Against Women Act is vital to our sustainability.”
No one has been turned away at Northwest Indiana domestic violence shelters, but all were overtaxed last summer with cramped quarters, said Lisa Wein, director of Haven House, a 21-bed facility.
“When one program is filled, we see if there is room available somewhere else,” Wein said.
That was not the case statewide. From July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012, 964 individuals were denied services because shelters did not have enough room for them, according to figures from the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Another 4,032 were denied shelter because their needs did not meet the standards of shelter program services, the group reported.
In August, when the weather was hot and families were stressed over costs and preparations for school, Haven House, The Caring Place, St. Jude House and The Rainbow Shelter in Gary were “all very busy,” Wein said.
“It was a higher census than what we've seen in three to four years,” Wein said.
While many of Haven House's grants come from the state, the money originates from the federal government, Wein said.
Mary Govert, executive director of St. Jude House, said failure to renew the act would have meant a loss of $22,462 for the 30-bed facility, money that directly affects its ability to provide services. While 2.2 percent of her budget might not seem like a lot, it would mean the shelter would have to work that much harder raising funds to replace it, she said.
She said the victims' children are part of the cycle of violence, and questioned whether they are destined to become violent themselves or become victims of violence later in life.
St. Jude House is attempting to teach those children what a healthy relationship looks like.
A new two-year appropriation cycle starts July 1. Wein said she and her staff “don't have a sense of what the funding is going to be.”
If they were not able to deliver services, she said, there are no other options. Other agencies are wary of becoming involved with abusers who might be armed and stalking their victims.