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State lawmakers must act to fight domestic violence

By:  Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
Newport Daily News

In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, landmark legislation that vastly improved the way our nation responded to incidences of domestic violence.
 
As Rhode Island’s attorney general, I saw first-hand how VAWA bolstered our own state’s ability to protect and assist victims of domestic violence, and I am committed to protecting this important program.
 
The law expired last year and needs to be reauthorized.
 
The Senate voted 68-31 last week to do just that. The House of Representatives now must act quickly to do the same.
 
In Rhode Island and across the country, the act is making a difference — supporting essential tools for preventing and responding to domestic violence. As a result of the law, Rhode Island now has 23 transitional housing units where survivors of domestic violence are kept safe from their abusers, and taught how to get their lives back on track as they escape abuse.
 
The Senate reauthorization of VAWA makes several important updates to the law, including expanded support for transitional housing units, increased protections for victims, new tools to identify and manage high risk offenders and prevent domestic violence homicides, and new measures to ensure accountability in the use of VAWA funds. Through a provision I authored, it includes new measures to address teen dating violence.
 
Last year, I was chairman of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Rhode Island to learn more about strategies for protecting teens from dating violence — a serious and growing problem in many of our communities.
 
Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control report that one in 10 teenagers was hit or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the past year. At the hearing, Rhode Islanders shared with me their own painful experiences, and I vowed to make sure the reauthorization addressed teen dating violence.
 
Every expert witness at the hearing testified that prevention programs are the most effective way to reduce instances of teen violence.
 
That’s why I worked to include a new grant program for domestic violence education. The legislation focuses on children exposed to violence in the home, and on students in middle school. The SMART Prevention Act, as it is called, also will support programs to train youth mentors.
 
Ann Burke, one of the witnesses at my hearing, shared with the panel the heartbreaking story of her daughter Lindsay Ann Burke. Lindsay was a joyful, gifted young woman with a bright future.
 
She graduated from Rhode Island College with a degree in elementary and secondary education, and was looking forward to giving back to her community as a teacher.
 
Before she got that chance, Lindsay was murdered by her boyfriend, a long-term perpetrator of abuse.
 
Stories like Ann and Lindsay’s should never have to be told. Since Lindsay’s death, her mother has shown incredible strength by working tirelessly to promote domestic violence awareness and prevention programs for adolescents.
 
Congress now has the chance to renew VAWA and strengthen it through the addition of new programs like those in the SMART Prevention Act. The Senate took the first step by approving reauthorization last week.
 
Now, it’s time for the House to act.