Expanding VAWA, Expanding Waste

In April of 2018 the Justice Department released a report on social service agencies funded under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Over 70% were found “generally non-complaint” with federal guidelines for use of the funds.1 $14.7 million had been spent by a mere 47 agencies on costs officially categorized as “unallowable” or “unsupported.” No fewer than four agencies had over $1 million of such spending each. One of these was the National Domestic Violence Hotline. The figure for Montana’s Dawson County Domestic Violence Program was over $5 million.

Such figures are typical. In 2012 Senator Chuck Grassley had informed his colleagues that the Inspector General had conducted a review of 22 agencies funded under VAWA between 1998 and 2010. Precisely one was fully compliant with federal regulations.2 Out of 13 agencies audited in 20193 only two were declared “generally compliant.” One was declared “to be in material noncompliance in all the areas we tested.”4 Another had “significant problems with the integrity and reliability of the documentation provided to support costs, as well as program accomplishments,” materials “that appeared to be created or altered in response to our requests” and “significant deficiencies related to the integrity and reliability of the payroll records.”5 The other nine were in need of significant improvement. Defects, however, tended to be summarized using the most complimentary tones the facts allowed for. This raises the question of whether auditors are committed to the strict oversight needed to avoid wasting taxpayers’ money or inclined to give as freer a rein.

Now, two years after VAWA lapsed, action is being taken—to pass a new version of the law radically expanding those eligible to obtain benefits under it. Nothing is being done to assure money dispersed under it will be properly used.

As I have shown elsewhere,6 the definitions of “violence” in HR1620 (the version of VAWA recently passed by the House of Representatives) are so loose as to allow not just ordinary human failings to be included within their scope but even some reasonable behaviors. That there are many social and economic costs to treating such behaviors as violent ought to be obvious. Families can be needlessly broken up. Aside from being a tragedy, this can encourage serial relationships that are more likely to be abusive.7 It also removes the ability of separated couples to pool financial resources, increasing the chances that people will turn to the welfare system. Arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating those who commit “crimes” under loose definitions has a high financial cost. Jail time can result in loss of pay, of jobs and of employment prospects.

HR1620 does not even stop at creating such situations expenditures. It mandates that women claiming abuse under its definitions will be eligible for a slew of benefits—even at the expense of those truly in need. Applications for public housing from women claiming to be victims will, for example, be given first priority. Those who voluntarily leave their jobs will be eligible for unemployment if claiming they did so in response to domestic violence. What evidence is needed before women receive such benefits? According to HR 1620, all that is needed to be eligible for unemployment is “a sworn statement and a form of identification” or “an attestation that such voluntary separation [from an employer] is attributable to such harassment, violence, assault, or stalking.”8 In other words absolutely no corroboration whatsoever is required. Any women who chooses to perjure herself will have her own perjured assertions accepted as the final word.

This the tip of the iceberg. All “dating partners” who have been subjected to loosely defined “violence” would be eligible for its benefits. In other words, women who maintain separate residence for abusive boyfriends could lay claim to public housing. No distinction is made between victims of unidirectional violence and women who have part of (or even the primary offender in) mutually abusive relationships. Women who were more abusers than abused can still claim benefits as victims. Each claims adds further racks up government spending.

What one thinks of providing the benefits envisaged by HR1620 to demonstrable victims of true violence in real need is not the issue. The real issues are: 1) The untrustworthy record of agencies funded under VAWA. 2) HR1620 enables women to obtain costly benefits because of mates’ trivial misbehavior. 3) HR1620 does not require meaningful proof that alleged behaviors took place.

Any renewal of VAWA must, in contrast:

1) Establish strict accountability policies for agencies granted funding. Regular oversight must replace occasional audits, and will be more affordable in the long run.

2) Strictly define “domestic violence” to assure it is limited to severe behaviors rather than commonplace, moderate misdeeds.

3) Establish strict standards of evidence to be met before women professing to be victims can obtain benefits. Long term benefits must require either “preponderance of evidence” or “clear and convincing evidence” proportionate to their costs or the severity of the behavior they need protection from.

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