When Congress and the President failed to fund the government, leading to a partial shutdown beginning December 22, 2018, they also neglected to sign a bipartisan reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), resulting in its expiration. The law that expired included grant programs such as the Consolidated Youth Program (CYP), which provided advocacy, mental health services, mentorship, and preventive education and healthy relationship programming for youth. The program also helped schools create effective policies and procedures to address dating and sexual violence, supported training for school staff to recognize signs of abuse and identify resources available for students, and promoted programming for runaway and homeless youth. Although the government shutdown does not impact all programs and grants already awarded, it will delay future payment requests from current VAWA-funded programs until the law is reauthorized. Moreover, until VAWA is reauthorized, children will not benefit from the new provisions that promote children’s rights and protect them from harm. Therefore, it is imperative that Congress bring a VAWA Reauthorization Act that is independent of the federal appropriations bill.
Since the initial codification of VAWA in 1994, reporting of domestic violence and sexual assault has increased significantly, and the rate of non-fatal intimate partner violence has decreased by almost two-thirds. These and other successes do not mean that VAWA has completed its job – rather they go to show that VAWA is a necessary tool in combating these violent acts and must be reauthorized. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2018 maintains funding for the programs that have shown to be successful while also implementing funding for new initiatives, including some with an important focus on children.
Section 302, entitled “Creating Hope Through Outreach, Options, Services, and Education for Children and Youth,” clarifies that services targeting youth should also focus on youth in underserved communities. In its Fiscal Year 2019 Congressional Submission, the Office on Violence Against Women specifically highlighted its goal of reaching underserved communities, noting that these communities have traditionally faced barriers to accessing necessary victim services and protections, and experience a heightened vulnerability to victimization. It has long been known that underserved communities, those with diminished economic opportunities and low access to services, suffer from higher rates of violence. In the spirit of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, and knowing that a person’s youth only exacerbates these vulnerabilities, this VAWA Reauthorization puts into legislative action the principle that “every child, without any exception whatsoever,” is entitled to protection from violence.
Further, section 302 includes sex trafficking and bullying as elements of a comprehensive youth violence response program. Research has shown that almost thirty percent of youth have been bullied and nine percent of students (but note this number is over fifty-five percent for LGBTQ students) have been cyberbullied. Bullying leads to decreased academic achievement and school participation but, under the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, children are entitled to unhindered education, and an environment of understanding, tolerance, and friendship. Additionally, the International Labour Organization estimates that ten million children are subjected to trafficking across the globe and, in the United States, thirty percent of detected cases of human trafficking in 2016 were children. Keeping true the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, as well as the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, the Reauthorization advances children’s right to be protected from economic and social exploitation, and to be free from trafficking in any form. These essential components have been missing from response programming, but we now have the opportunity to implement them.
Currently, Title IV of VAWA includes the SMART Prevention program, through which the Office on Violence Against Women provides grants to reduce dating violence by providing education, training and skills development to young people and providing healing services to children who have been exposed to violence in their homes. Section 402 of the VAWA Reauthorization refocuses the SMART Prevention grants, directing organizations to prioritize youth violence prevention programming that includes outcome-based evaluation and has a significant focus on underserved populations. These grants take steps toward fulfilling the country’s duty under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure to the greatest extent possible the survival and development of its children.
Finally, section 501 of the proposed Reauthorization Act directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to focus some of its grants on training programs that will improve the capacity of early childhood programs to address their responses to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking among their constituent families. Through these programs, the country can uphold its responsibility under the Convention on the Rights of the Child to ensure that children have access to information, especially content aimed at promoting the child’s well-being and physical and mental health.
This piece of legislation is far from perfect – it is inclusive of sex trafficking but ignores labor trafficking, it focuses more on reactivity than proactivity – but the state of our country will be far worse without it. Urge your senators and representatives to protect child victims and potential victims of sexual violence by introducing a Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act independent of the federal appropriations bill.