McEntee: A stronger, better Violence Against Women Act
Sarah's friend came over to her apartment with some drinks to hang out for a while. Later, she and the guy went upstairs.
"He kept trying to force it on me," says Sarah (not her real name). "He kept doing things. I froze because I didn't exactly know what to do."
Sarah was raped that night in January. Like so many victims, she was ashamed and blamed herself. The next day, she contacted the Rape Recovery Center in Salt Lake City. She didn't want to report the crime, but she had to so the center's volunteers could administer a Code R rape examination.
Sarah didn't know it then, but the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was working for her.
The Rape Recovery Center gets funding from VAWA, now up for reauthorization by Congress. Enacted in 1994, VAWA has provided funding in every state for victims of domestic and sexual violence and stalking.
Overall, Utah service providers received $6.8 million in 2011 for legal protection and services to men, women and children. VAWA's 2011 budget was $438 million.
This year, however, the U.S. Senate adopted a version of the bill that now expands protection and advocacy to Native American women; a small increase in the number of visas for undocumented victims; and protection and advocacy for LGBT victims of physical and sexual violence.
This is where the rift between the Senate and the House began.
Last month, the Senate passed VAWA, with the added beneficiaries, by a 68-31 vote. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee voted against it, but several other Republicans stood with the majority.
The House bill contains a last-minute House managers' amendment protecting undocumented immigrants and Indian women, said Alyson Heyrend, Rep. Jim Matheson's spokeswoman. House leaders believe LGBT people already are protected under the existing VAWA, she said. Matheson and Reps. Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz voted for the bill.
Still, those who work for the victimized remain skeptical.
"Domestic violence is a crime; it's a public safety issue," Anne Burkholder, CEO of the YWCA Salt Lake City, said Tuesday during a news conference held by the VAWA Saves Lives Coalition. "The Violations Against Women Act saves lives."
Those three additions, she said, acknowledge that "the crimes we're talking about affect people from all groups, and that we are obliged to help all of them. The Violence Against Women Act not only enhances the safety of victims, but it has also made improvements in the social justice system."
Added Angela Alexander, a domestic violence victim who founded the Mended Wounds Association, "When it comes to the safety and well-being of fellow citizens and their families, is this something we want to nickel and dime?"
For Sarah, the answer is clear. She's completed a 40-hour course at the Rape Recovery Center and now volunteers there, and she is a victim's advocate at the Unified Police Department.
At 21, she's also changed her college major to social work.
"It was a life-changing experience that made me find myself," Sarah says. "I wasn't willing to tell anyone, just rely on myself. I'd have no clue without the Rape Recovery Center. My heart just aches for the others."
As should all of our hearts. And, if the House ends up passing its bill without the new provisions, President Barack Obama should make good on his threat and veto it.
Peg McEntee is a news columnist. Reach her at email@example.com, Facebook.com/pegmcentee and Twitter, @Peg McEntee.