The floor of the U.S. Senate isn't a place that usually sees a lot of drama. But last month there was the closest thing to a high drama moment when a bipartisan group of eight women senators (that's half of us) stood together to show a united front and deliver a series of speeches in support of reauthorizing the landmark Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). As the only two women members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Feinstein and I headed up the group and since then we have gained a number of cosponsors for the bill, now totaling 61 senators. It is now time to pass the bill.
This common-sense legislation first passed in 1994. The original VAWA legislation was authored by then-Senator Joe Biden. There was a senator from Minnesota who had an important role, too. His name was Paul Wellstone.
Paul and his wife Sheila worked for years to help push the issue of domestic violence out of the secret shadows of the home and into the light of public attention.
Paul and Sheila are gone now, having died in a plane crash almost 10 years ago. But I'm committed to carrying on their legacy by fighting to ensure that VAWA continues to protect our families, our children and our communities.
When the legislation passed in 1994, it started a sea change in public attitudes about violence against women. Once considered largely a private family matter, domestic violence is now treated by law enforcement and the justice system as the serious crime that it is.
As chief prosecutor for Minnesota's largest county from 1998 to 2006, my office handled hundreds of cases involving domestic violence and sexual assault, where we put a lot of focus on the victims' needs and particularly the children's needs. In fact, we had a poster on the wall in our office that showed a picture of a woman with a bandage across her nose who was holding a baby, under the message "Beat your wife, and your kid goes to jail."
That poster was a sad reminder that kids who grow up in violent homes are 76 times more likely to commit acts of domestic violence themselves. It doesn't take a bruise or a broken bone for a child to be a victim of domestic violence. Kids who witness domestic violence are victims, too.
With Paul and Sheila Wellstone's help and with the good work of my predecessor and successor, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, our office established one of the nation's leading domestic violence service centers, where victims have a safe space to begin the difficult process of recovery. The center offers a full range of services to help victims and their families, like a day care center, access to the police, legal resources, and a place where restraining orders are signed -- all so that victims don't have to go through an obstacle course of procedural hurdles. The way we see it, we need a system that encourages victims to come forward. Not a system that discourages them from seeking help, or one that intimidates victims into staying in the shadows.
But the work must continue.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States. Approximately one in four women have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner at some point in their lifetime, and 45 percent of the women killed in the United States are killed by an intimate partner. These statistics mean that sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking are still a problem in America.
It is these numbers that have always led members of Congress to the conclusion that domestic violence is not a partisan issue. Both when the bill originally passed and through two previous reauthorizations, the bill has always garnered bipartisan support. That is why so many of us were taken aback this year when, despite the chief authors being both a Democrat (Sen. Patrick Leahy), and a Republican (Sen. Mike Crapo), the bill passed out of the Judiciary Committee with only Democratic votes.
Many provisions in the reauthorizing legislation make important changes to the current law, such as consolidating duplicative programs and streamlining others; providing greater flexibility for how communities utilize resources; and adding new training requirements for people providing legal assistance to victims.
The legislation also fills some gaps in the current system.
It includes a bipartisan amendment I introduced to address high-tech stalking. These are cases where stalkers use the Internet, video surveillance or bugging to stalk their victims, often without the victim's knowledge. By providing better tools for cracking down on these stalkers, my amendment will help make our law enforcement agencies as sophisticated as those who break the law.
We must pass this bill. Those that have worked in law enforcement understand this as well as anyone. Just a few months ago, I attended the funeral of a young police officer from Lake City, Minnesota. The officer died after responding to a domestic violence call from a 17-year-old girl who was being abused by her ex-boyfriend. When the officer arrived at the scene, he was shot in the head. He literally gave his life to save another. And I will never forget what I saw at his funeral: his three children, walking down that church aisle, two young boys and a little girl in a blue dress covered with stars.
Significant progress has been made since VAWA was first enacted in 1994, but tragedies like this are a reminder of the serious challenges our country still faces in stopping domestic violence and should be a rallying cry for members of both parties to come together and pass this legislation.
It's what's right for cities and towns across our nation, it's what's right for our families and children, and it's time to get it done.
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