Phil McGraw, host of the talk show "Dr. Phil," made his debut on Capitol Hill Wednesday, testifying at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to review the 1994 Violence Against Women Act .
"Every 15 seconds a woman is abused in this country," McGraw, a psychologist, told lawkmakers. "This means that 228 women will be victimized during the first hour of this hearing."
McGraw was invited to testify by committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), after launching a campaign on his show last year called "End the Silence on Domestic Violence," which aims to reduce violence against women by educating viewers to recognize the signs of abuse.
The bill in question, commonly known as VAWA, provides federal funds for investigating and prosecuting domestic violence, including support for emergency family shelters and domestic abuse hotlines, among other provisions. VAWA has been reauthorized twice since 1994 and is scheduled for reauthorization again this year. It is expected to pass easily.
"The decline in domestic violence that we've seen over the past decade is evidence that this act is working," McGraw said. "It saves lives."
Throughout his testimony, McGraw stressed the dangerous, long-term effects of domestic violence on children, as well as on society as a whole. "More than 10 million children will see their mothers, sisters or aunts beaten or intimidated this year," he said. This "changes who these children are. It causes them to fear intimacy and blame themselves ... and it erodes their personality, their mental health, and their mental fitness. They suffer from a host of long-term issues, including alcoholism, drug addiction, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, to name a few. And those cost a lot of money to deal with down the road."
McGraw also utilized graphic, poster-sized photos to drive home the possible consequences if VAWA funds are cut for victim safehouses. One photo showed a woman whose ex-husband set her on fire after she left him; another woman lost her left eye when her boyfriend found where she was hiding and attacked her. "It's in the first two or three weeks that separation assault takes place," McGraw said, "and if you don't have a safe, secure place [to go], then you can't leave [an abusive partner] yet. Going to your mom's or your sister's house is the first place they'll find you."
Every member of the committee said they planned to support the reauthorization of the bill, and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) he wanted to address a few issues of accountability in reports by grantee organizations in the face of historic deficits and cutbacks in state and federal budgets.
In addition to McGraw, two women's shelter directors, Michael Shaw, co-director of Waypoint Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Services in Cedar Rapids, Ia., and Jane Van Buren, executive director of Women Helping Battered Women in Burlington, Vt, provided testimony.
Another witness, Julie Poner of Indianapolis, told senators she had been falsely accused of domestic abuse by her ex-husband, a Czech citizen, during the course of his immigration process. She appealed to senators to include provisions in the reauthorized bill that would require deeper investigation of abuse allegations related to people going through the immigration process. The fifth witness at the hearing, Eileen Larence, is director of homeland security and justice at the Government Accountability Office.
In addition to violent domestic abuse, the subject of cyberstalking came up twice during the hearing, in the form of questions from Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, both Minnesota Democrats.
"I can't even tell you how many times [viewers] have written us about [cyberstalking]," McGraw told Franken. "Some people get 300-400 text messages a day, and then, when [victims] go to the authorities, the police don't really know what to do. They say 'Turn your phone off, lady.'"
Franken thanked him, adding,"Dr. Phil, you can call me Senator Al."
The senators all seemed aware of McGraw's popular psychology-based talk show, and near the end of the hearing Klobuchar brought up a bill she has proposed that addresses sexual assault recordkeeping on military bases. "I'm just trying to interest you, Dr. Phil, in this issue," she admitted before she began. After hearing about the issues, McGraw told Klobuchar she had gotten his interest.