Mr. President, I rise to speak in favor of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act, which I am proud to co-sponsor. As Attorney General of Rhode Island, I saw first-hand the good work that the Violence Against Women Act has done to protect victims of domestic violence, to provide crucial services to those who have been harmed, and to hold batterers accountable for their crimes. It is vital that we reauthorize this important law.
In Rhode Island and across the country, the Violence Against Women Act continues to support essential tools for preventing and responding to domestic violence. The Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports, for example, that we now have 23 transitional housing units in our state, helping victims of violence become safe self-sufficient as they escape a batterer. VAWA’s law enforcement and legal assistance programs have also proven essential, especially in light of difficult state and local budgets. VAWA supports seven Law Enforcement Advocates in Rhode Island, who work in local police departments to provide immediate assistance to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. These and other VAWA programs have improved the criminal justice response to violence against women and ensured victims and their families the services they need.
The Violence Against Women Reauthorization builds on that record of success. It makes important updates to strengthen the law, while remaining cognizant of the challenging budget circumstances we face. The bill includes an increased focus on sexual assault prevention, enforcement, and services. It provides new measures to prevent homicides through programs to manage high-risk offenders. It also consolidates programs to reduce administrative costs and add efficiency. And it incorporates new accountability provisions to ensure that VAWA funds are used effectively and efficiently.
Senators Leahy and Crapo led a fair and open process in crafting this bill. They have carefully studied these issues, consulted with a great number of experts and stakeholders, and as a result have achieved a bill with 60 co-sponsors in this body.
I would particularly like to thank Senators Leahy and Crapo for including in this bill a measure I authored to help prevent teen dating violence. Far too many teens suffer abuse at the hands of a dating partner. The Centers for Disease Control report that one in ten teenagers was hit or physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the past year. The Saving Money and Reducing Tragedies through Prevention, or SMART Prevention Act, which I introduced last year and is included in this bill, will support innovative and effective programs to prevent this dangerous abuse.
At a subcommittee field hearing I chaired last year on strategies for protecting teens from dating violence, each of the expert witnesses testified that prevention programs can help address this serious problem. Ann Burke, a leading national advocate, explained that school-based teen dating violence prevention programs have proven effective in changing behaviors. For example, in two years following the passage of Rhode Island’s Lindsay Ann Burke Act, named in memory of Ann’s daughter, a victim of dating violence, the number of teenagers physically abused by a dating partner in our state decreased from 14 percent to 10.8 percent.
Prevention programs are most effective when part of a community approach. Kate Reilly, the Executive Director of the Start Strong Rhode Island Project, testified that effective prevention programming should “meet kids where they live and play.” That requires involving parents, coaches, mentors and community leaders – men and women – as well as innovative uses of technology and social media.
One group of children needs particular attention: those who have witnessed abuse in their home. Deborah DeBare, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, explained at our hearing that “growing up in a violent home may … lead to higher risks of repeating the cycle of abuse as teens and young adults.” By supporting robust services for children exposed to domestic violence, we can help to lift the emotional burden on children who witness their parents’ violence, and break the intergenerational cycle of violence.
The VAWA Reauthorization Act’s SMART Prevention provisions build on Ann and Kate and Deb’s insights. The bill supports education programs warning young people about dating violence, as well as programs to train those with influence on youth. To save costs, the new program is consolidated with existing grant programs, including a program directed at children who have witnessed violence and abuse. Coordinating and focusing prevention resources will save money, and abuse that is prevented reduces the strain on our overburdened health, education, and criminal justice systems.
I again congratulate Senators Leahy and Crapo for their strong bipartisan leadership in helping us extend our longstanding bipartisan commitment to preventing domestic violence. And I urge all of my colleagues to support reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, so that we can keep working toward a country that is free of this scourge.