Ramping up for a struggle over the Violence Against Women Act, Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray heard painful stories from survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault as she visited YWCA Clark County on Wednesday morning.
Murray said she hopes hearing those stories will help her better understand the issue as Congress hammers out an agreement on reauthorizing the act. The Democratic-led Senate passed one version of a reauthorization bill in April with a vote of 68-31, while the Republican-led House passed its version in May with a vote of 222-205.
The Democrats’ plan includes provisions to ensure gay and lesbian people are covered under the act; that American Indians are better able to prosecute non-Indian attackers who commit crimes on tribal land; and that a higher number of temporary visas are available to immigrants who want to stay in the U.S. to help law enforcement prosecute their attackers. The Republican plan is similar to that of Democrats’ but it does not include those additional provisions.
During a roundtable discussion, survivors of violence from the immigrant community told Murray stories about abusive partners. Brought to tears, two women said they reported the violence to police numerous times, but that just increased the likelihood that their partner would retaliate after serving a brief jail sentence.
Angie Montes told Murray her story about how her partner abused her, limited her communication with others, threatened her, destroyed her property, and stalked her once she escaped from the relationship. At first she tried to stay with him, hoping he would change, because the couple had three children and Montes knew what it was like to grow up without a father.
“I didn’t know how to break free,” Montes said, adding that her partner’s abuse had sent her to the hospital multiple times. “He was going to kill me.”
Then she found a shelter to help her get away from her partner and moved across town. She started going to school and got a job.
“He would show up at 2 o’clock in the morning, and he’d be beating on my windows,” Montes said. “He punched me in the face when I was walking outside the door. I filed a police report again. … He didn’t get arrested. They couldn’t find him.”
The abuse culminated with Montes’ partner breaking into her new home and confining her there for 48 hours, during which time he stabbed her with a knife and sexually assaulted her. A member of her family showed up to the house, freeing Montes, but her family did not approach law enforcement about the incident because they feared Montes’ attacker would retaliate. Montes went into hiding. Now several years have passed and she’s made a new life for herself in Cowlitz County.
Montes’ story and the stories of the other women at the roundtable represent the communities that would be helped under the new Violence Against Women Act, Murray said. Also present at the closed-door roundtable discussion were representatives from law enforcement, native tribes, and social service programs.
The Violence Against Women Act was first passed in 1994 and reauthorized in 2000 and 2005 with relative ease. It created a Department of Violence Against Women within the U.S. Department of Justice and set aside more money to prosecute violent crimes committed against women, and to pay for victim services.
The law made a statement that “this was an issue that was no longer between a husband and wife or partners,” Murray said on Wednesday. “This was an issue that we as a community were saying that we wanted to take very strong actions to protect victims and say this isn’t OK, that as a country we’re going to stand up and make sure that people who are abused have rights.”
Republicans say Democrats are using a debate over the reauthorization of the act to score political points. Some Republicans in Congress have said the Democrats’ additions to the act are adding controversy to a normally noncontroversial piece of legislation. They also questioned the legality of being able to prosecute crimes committed on tribal land.
Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress, backed by many anti-violence groups, say the additions are necessarily for protecting all victims of domestic violence and rape. On Wednesday representatives from Cowlitz Indian Tribe stressed the need for the language in the Democrats’ reauthorization proposal. Tribal leaders have the authority to go after Indian perpetrators of domestic and sexual violence, but they cannot prosecute non-Indian abusers who commit crimes on tribal land.
“The ability to prosecute is just almost impossible, and (perpetrators) know it,” Murray said.
Additionally, Murray said the Democrats’ proposal also prevents gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender victims of domestic or sexual violence from being discriminated against by the justice system.
“We have reauthorized (the Violence Against Women Act) on numerous occasions, and each time we do, we have done it by saying what’s worked well, and what do we need to improve it, and this time it’s no different,” Murray said. “We worked very hard this time to include about 30 million women in the Violence Against Women Act that have not been included specifically before.”
U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, voted yes on the House version of the legislation. She says the House version covers all victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, her spokesman Ryan Hart said on Tuesday.
“Rather than going in circles about which version is better, Jaime believes the Senate and House should work out a compromise version in conference ASAP so that VAWA can be extended and victims can be protected,” Hart said by email on Tuesday. “Jaime voted for the bill before the House that protects any and all victims of domestic (and sexual) violence, no exclusions.”
Hart said Herrera Beutler hopes the Senate will act soon so a compromise can be reached quickly. Murray said she hopes the House will act quickly to pass the Senate version of the bill.
“If we put a face on who is being left out today, it will help us put pressure on the speaker (of the House) to take up our bill,” Murray said.
Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics