WASHINGTON – More than a year after inadvertently severing the federal lifeline to domestic-violence programs in Buffalo and across the nation, Congress is inching toward fixing what it broke.
But while the Senate is on the verge of passing the Violence Against Women Act, which is scheduled for a vote today, that fix could still falter in the House, where the bill remains hung up on a proposal to allow tribal courts to render justice on white men who abuse their partners on Indian land.
The debate over the bill resonates in both metro Buffalo, where there were 5,156 reported incidents of domestic violence in 2011 alone, and on the reservations of the Seneca Nation of Indians, where – as on all Indian reservations – white abusers of Native American women can routinely escape justice through a legal loophole.
In addition to opposing the provision involving Native Americans, House Republicans last year objected to the Democratic-controlled Senate’s call for extending the bill’s protections to lesbians and illegal immigrants. As a result, the two legislative chambers never settled on a final compromise on the Violence Against Women Act.
All of which is appalling to women such as Jerri Lynn Sparks, of Churchville, near Rochester, who found herself running for her life, bloodied and beaten, after her husband attacked her last July.
“This is what happens when a political party forgets to represent the people,” said Sparks, a former top aide to former Rep. Eric J.J. Massa, D-Corning.
There are signs, though, that House Republicans will be much more amenable to compromise on the issue this year, after an election in which allegations of a GOP “war on women” cost the party dearly at the ballot box.
The Violence Against Women Act “just naturally moved up the priority list for a lot of members,” said Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning. “This is the sort of issue where we have to set politics aside.”
In fact, the Violence Against Women Act has enjoyed widespread bipartisan support since its original passage in 1994.
The law authorizes federal grants to social service agencies for providing housing and counseling to victims of domestic violence, as well as money for training to police departments so that officers will be schooled in handling “domestics.”
“A lot of the resources available to help women to escape an abusive relationship are made possible by the Violence Against Women Act,” Sparks said.
In addition, she said the federal law provides for a consistent focus on domestic violence across state lines – which may not exist without the assist from Washington – while boosting public awareness of the programs that exist to aid battered women.
Together, those efforts have achieved a 50 percent reduction in incidents of domestic violence nationwide in the last two decades, said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.
“That number speaks for itself,” Schumer said. “Can you imagine? A 50 percent reduction is huge. With that kind of return on investment, no one can argue that we shouldn’t pass this bill.”
The bill would authorize $659 million in funding for programs to combat domestic violence, down by 17 percent from the previous level of funding.
People at the agencies that receive that money aren’t thrilled with the reduction, but they say it’s far better than seeing their funding dry up completely, which is what they fear will happen if Congress doesn’t reauthorize the Violence Against Women’s Act.
While some funding for domestic-violence programs has continued under other legislation since the act expired, they say that won’t continue indefinitely unless the law is reauthorized.
“What I don’t think people understand is that the support this law provides to the police, the prosecutors and the courts to handle domestic violence, sexual assaults and stalking,” said Mary Ann C. Deibel-Braun, victims services coordinator for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Buffalo.
Deibel-Braun said she was astonished that the bill got hung up last year over provisions to extend its protections to Native Americans, lesbians and illegal immigrants.
“To say that some women should be protected under the law, but not all, is very offensive,” she said.
The bill that the Senate is on the verge of passing is similar to one that it approved last year, but for one difference: While it still clarifies that the law applies to lesbians and immigrants, a controversial provision granting more visas to abused immigrants has been removed.
Congressional sources expect that change to make the bill more palatable to the Republican-controlled House, where one key obstacle remains: the provision to allow tribal courts to bring cases against white men who abuse women on Indian territory.
To Lesley Farrell, social services commissioner for the Seneca Nation of Indians, such a provision makes good sense.
“There are no current consequences for non-Native perpetrators of attacks on Native American women,” Farrell said. “I don’t have the exact statistics, but it happens on all Indian territories.”
Still, some lawmakers harbor grave doubts about giving tribal courts jurisdiction over non-Indians.
“It raises such significant constitutional problems that its passage might actually not accomplish anything at all for Native American women while failing to protect the constitutional rights of other American citizens,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said on the Senate floor last week.
Hearing such concerns on both sides of Capitol Hill, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., is trying to hammer out a compromise with Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican and one of three Native Americans in the House. One possible solution would allow non-Indians to petition to have their cases moved to federal court if they feel they are not getting a fair trial in a tribal court.
But even if a deal isn’t struck on the controversial provision regarding Native American women, Democrats said, it’s essential for the House to move forward on the bill.
“A full reauthorization of this law is necessary to ensure authorities have all the resources they need to fight domestic violence,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on the Senate floor. “So I hope the Senate’s bipartisan action this week will send a strong message to House Republican leaders that further partisan delay is unacceptable.”