Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The new VAWA

In other end-of-2005 gender news, the Violence Against Women Act has been re-authorized, with new language that pleases men's rights advocates. Here it is:

In this part, and in any other Act of Congress, unless the context unequivocally requires otherwise, a provision authorizing or requiring the Department of Justice to make grants, or to carry out other activities, for assistance to victims of domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, sexual assault, or trafficking in persons, shall be construed to cover grants that provide assistance to female victims, male victims, or both.

(a) Study Required- The Comptroller General shall conduct a study to establish the extent to which men, women, youth, and children are victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking and the availability to all victims of shelter, counseling, legal representation, and other services commonly provided to victims of domestic violence.
(b) Activities Under Study- In conducting the study, the following shall apply:
(1) CRIME STATISTICS- The Comptroller General shall not rely only on crime statistics, but may also use existing research available, including public health studies and academic studies.
(2) SURVEY- The Comptroller General shall survey the Department of Justice, as well as any recipients of Federal funding for any purpose or an appropriate sampling of recipients, to determine--
(A) what services are provided to victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking;
(B) whether those services are made available to youth, child, female, and male victims; and
(C) the number, age, and gender of victims receiving each available service.
(c) Report- Not later than 1 year after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Comptroller General shall submit to Congress a report on the activities carried out under this section.

I think this is a good start -- though gender-neutral family violence/sexual violence legislation should have had a gender-neutral name. The very existence of legislation called the Violence Against Women Act perpetuates the idea that violence against women is a problem deserving special consideration and special attention (an idea embraced by some VAWA backers for feminist reasons, by others for chivalrous ones).

But there are other problems as well. I will quote something I wrote in a paper on domestic violence commissioned by the Independent Women's Forum and published in September 2005. (In the eyes of some of you, the fact that I wrote a paper for the IWF will no doubt boost my anti-feminist rep. There are things on which I disagree with the IWF, and over which I have criticized them. However, I was able to write a position paper that said exactly what I wanted to say, with no attempt to influence or modify my views. If I got a similar offer from the National Organization for Women, I'd have done it for them, but that's not very likely.)

So, here's what I wrote that relates to VAWA:

The battered women’s advocates greatest triumph came in 1994 with the passage of the Violence Against Women Act. Co-sponsored by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the bill had broad bipartisan support when it was passed, and most of its backers undoubtedly saw it as a practical measure and a moral imperative rather than an ideological crusade. VAWA and its successor, the Violence Against Women Act of 2000, contained many positive practical measures in the area of victim services and criminal justice – for instance, making restraining orders issued in one state enforceable in another, or making it possible to bring federal charges against abusers who cross state lines to stalk or assault their victims. It also encouraged some solid research on domestic violence, sexual assault, victim services, and related issues.

However, VAWA has also helped enshrine the dogmatic and one-sided approach to domestic violence described in this report: the unrealistic assumption that in every domestic violence situation there is a clear-cut and usually gender-based distinction between abuser and victim, the almost exclusive reliance on criminal justice measures, the substitution of dogmatic feminist “reeducation” for interventions that address the specific problems of individuals and families. Another troubling aspect of VAWA is that it creates a symbiotic relationship between the federal government and the battered women’s advocacy movement, which is dominated or at least heavily influenced by radical feminist ideology. (Such a nexus also exists on the state level.) The state coalitions against domestic violence, which formally require their member organizations to embrace the feminist analysis of abuse as sexist coercion, play a vital role in the allocation of VAWA grants and in overseeing the implementation of VAWA-based programs and policies. At a 1998 symposium on VAWA at the New York Bar Association, Andrea Williams, a staff attorney with the National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund, proudly declared that "VAWA is the advocates’ bill."

The evolving understanding of domestic violence, based on 30 years of research and policy experiments, should incorporate aspects of the feminist analysis but also embrace a broader and more nuanced view of the realities of family violence. This new vision is already being advanced by a growing number of women and men, from researchers to shelter workers, law enforcement representatives, and mental health or social work professionals who are moving beyond simplistic slogans and gender polarization. The orthodoxy of the battered women’s movement is on its way to becoming outmoded – yet at the moment, much of it is entrenched in American public policy.

Here are some of the steps that could move us forward from this point.

  1. Arrest and prosecution: Appropriately, our society now views domestic violence as a crime, not a private matter. However, if in the past battering was often treated as a family squabble, current law often treats every family squabble as battering. Instead of a blanket one-size-fits all approach, there needs to be more differentiation between serious and potentially dangerous cases, and one in which one spouse grabs the other’s arm during an argument. More studies are needed on the enforcement and the consequences of mandatory or presumptive arrest policies. Anti-dual-arrest clauses, which often serve as vehicles for gender bias, should be repealed and it should be left to the discretion of the police officers (as it already is in stranger assault cases) to decide whether there is one primary aggressor, or both parties are at fault. Unless the victim is in danger or has suffered serious injury, her or his wishes not to prosecute should be respected.

  1. Restraining orders/orders of protection: Restraining orders seem to be of some use in protecting people from non-violent harassment. However, their issuance and enforcement has troubling implications for civil liberties, and more steps need to be taken to ensure that restraining orders are not used a weapon in divorce/child custody cases. One solution would be an expedited evidentiary hearing soon after a restraining order is issued. Furthermore, domestic violence victims need to be educated about the fact that a restraining order is unlikely to stop a truly dangerous batterer. In extreme cases, criminologist Lawrence Sherman has suggested the equivalent of the “witness protection program” – state-subsidized relocation and resettlement under a new name – for victims who fear for their lives once the abuser is released from jail. Another possibility that should be considered is civil detention for some abusers after they have served a jail or prison sentence (akin to the current practice of civil detention for dangerous sex offenders), if a review determines that they pose a danger to their victims. However, if such a remedy is introduced, it should be used very cautiously and sparingly because of obvious potential civil rights problems.

  1. Batterer treatment and victim counseling. A major review and overhaul of state guidelines for batterer treatment programs is in order. Political orthodoxy should not be allowed to dictate appropriate methods of counseling, nor can a single counseling model be appropriate for everyone. Thus, for some batterers, violent behavior may well be an outgrowth of the patriarchal belief that a husband should not allow his wife to “get out of line” – but many others do not fit that profile. Court-certified abusers’ programs should rely on a variety of approaches including anger management, substance abuse and mental health treatments, couples counseling, and individual counseling that avoids the confrontational ideological approach of the strict feminist model. Advocacy groups should not have a central role in determining and enforcing the standards for batterers’ programs; instead, in trying to find the best approach, states should draw on a diverse community of scholars, mental health professionals, social workers, family counselors, and activists.

  1. The relationship between the government and advocacy groups. The close relationship between the federal government (and state governments) and state domestic violence coalitions and other politically militant advocacy groups raises troubling questions about the state subsidizing radical ideologies. The advocacy groups should obviously have a say in shaping domestic violence policy, but not an exclusive one. The next version of the Violence Against Women Act should direct each state to create a domestic violence board on which no more than a quarter or a third of the seats can be filled by members of battered women’s advocacy groups. The rest should be filled by scholars, mental health professionals, community activists, etc. These boards should take over the present functions of state domestic violence coalitions in adding their input to domestic violence programs.

Trudy Schuett, a leading advocate of an inclusive approach to domestic violence, is also highly critical of the reworked VAWA. Says she:

In a lot of ways it reminds me, though, of people selling a house who glue newspaper over holes in walls, then add paint to match over the whole mess, in hopes nobody will notice the real problem.
Trudy's post is extremely critical of people working in the battered women's movement and in the shelter system. I'm sure there are many fine and dedicated people working in the shelters, people who have nothing but sincere concern with helping victims. But from my own fairly extensive research and interviews, I believe that there are far too many people working in the system who are inclined to demonize men, deny the reality of male victimization and female aggression, and place ideology over the needs of actual people. It's an ideology to which many adhere with a quasi-religious zeal, and in this case, the state happens to be entangled with this particular religion. Other voices are urgently needed in the field.

Trudy quotes this statement from the website of the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence:

As long as we as a culture accept the principle and privilege of male dominance, men will continue to be abusive. As long as we as a culture accept and tolerate violence against women, men will continue to be abusive.

All men benefit from the violence of batterers. There is no man who has not enjoyed the male privilege resulting from male domination reinforced by the use of physical violence . . . All women suffer as a consequence of men's violence. Battering by individual men keeps all women in line.

I agree with Trudy: this is hateful stuff. Is this the kind of ideology that should be federally subsidized? Are these the kinds of people who should play a leading role in shaping domestic violence policy?

By the way, Trudy Schuett's post contains another remarkable piece of information. She assails "the premise that 3 equals 120," and explains:

The 120 figure represents the length in days of a domestic violence shelter program offered to unemployed women without male children over the age of 12. This is a residential program featuring round the clock security, access to counseling and group activities, divorce assistance, and some rudimentary job training assistance.

The 3 represents the program they offer to everybody else – three days in a fleabag motel, and maybe some meal vouchers. Some off-site counseling may or may not be provided. And that’s it.

“Everybody else” includes the overwhelming majority of those likely to seek assistance – women with jobs, women with boys, and men.

I don't know if the "no male children over 12" policy is universal at shelters, though I know it's fairly common. So it's not only that men are discriminated against; so are women who, in a regrettable lapse from sisterhood, have had a male child. (Since shelters for the homeless routinely accommodate families without regard to gender, I assume this is not a logistical problem of mixed quarters.) Why is this rampant gender bias being subsidized with our tax dollars?