Violence against women surges during COVID-19 crisis as Senate Republicans block anti-domestic violence law

Kaanita Iyer

WASHINGTON, D.C. —  An increase in domestic violence cases during the COVID-19 pandemic has renewed the push to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

President-elect Joe Biden has expressed commitment to renew the act that expired last year but he faces a tough challenge if Republicans keep control of the Senate after Georgia’s runoff elections next month. But an increase in domestic violence calls and arrests across the country may put pressure on Senate GOP to restart stalled reauthorization efforts. 

“These issues didn’t just start with COVID but COVID has made them even starker,” said Kiersten Stewart, director of public policy and advocacy for Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit organization focused on ending domestic and sexual violence that has worked with lawmakers on VAWA over the years. “We absolutely hope that it will nudge Congress to take it up with urgency in the new session.” 

U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said it is time for Republicans in the Senate to focus on the needs of women. 

“The pandemic has brought into stark relief inequalities and issues that we knew existed before, and that is certainly true with domestic violence,” she said.

Comprehensive data on the impact of COVID on domestic violence is not readily available as a large number of incidents may be going unreported, experts fear. However, limited data has shown an uptick in cases as families are stuck at home with their attackers. 

Domestic violence surges under COVID-19 lockdowns

The National Domestic Violence Hotline reported a 9% increase in calls between March 16 — when many states issued lockdown orders — and May 16, compared to the same period in 2019. Similarly, the San Antonio Police Department received 18% more calls related to family violence this March compared to March of last year, while there was a 10% increase in domestic violence reports in the same month to the New York City Police Department compared to March 2019. The Portland Police Bureau also recorded a 22% increase in arrests related to domestic violence in the weeks following stay-at-home orders. 

“When you hear about the impacts of COVID, people don’t talk too much about the domestic violence front,” said U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Pennsylvania. “It’s a huge problem and it’s really increased the urgency that everybody in Congress should have to pass this.” 

Although Congress has continued to fund programs under VAWA, these programs may not be able to meet the demand that the pandemic has brought and advocates remain uncertain about how to move forward without the full protection of the Violence Against Women Act, said Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 

“With or without VAWA, we are working to provide services,” said Glenn. “We just want to have the legislation and the support of legislation to make sure that no one is missed.” 

VAWA initially expired in late 2018 due to the government shutdown. It was briefly renewed by the bill that reopened the government, it expired again in February 2019. While the House passed a reauthorization bill in April 2019 with some updated provisions — which Fitzpatrick was the sole Republican co-sponsor of — GOP Senators have since stalled a vote. 

Emerald Christopher-Byrd, assistant professor of women and gender studies at the University of Delaware, said she finds the partisan nature of this legislation “daunting and very disappointing.” 

“It seems unconscionable that something as severe as violence, in particular violence against women, how that would not be something that is at the forefront of everyone’s mind — not just liberals, not just conservative, right or left,” said Christopher-Byrd, who has served as an administrator focused on disciplinary cases involving physical and sexual violence at Delaware and Georgetown universities. 

The bill, introduced by then-Sen. Biden, was first signed into law in 1994, to address domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking through legislation. At the time, these crimes were considered to be family matters, which law enforcement authorities tended to not get involved in.  

After the measure became law, the overall rate of intimate partner violence declined by 64% from 1994 to 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. In more recent years as the law’s support has been certain, there has been a 42% increase in these cases between 2016 and 2018, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ victory has given hope to victims and advocates who say their prior work on this issue is promising. 

While Biden spearheaded VAWA — which he has called “the legislative accomplishment of which I am most proud” —  Harris’ time as San Fransico’s district attorney and California’s attorney general included tough measures on abusers and traffickers. 

“This administration actually cares about the issue and that’s going to be one of the largest major changes,” said Stewart of Futures Without Violence. “We’re really optimistic that they’ll actually put political weight behind these issues, that they’re actually committed to ending violence against women and children.” 

Senate Republicans block measure to protect women

VAWA has been updated and reauthorized three times — in 2000, 2005 and 2015. Updates over the years have had bipartisan backing and included new programs to protect elderly and disabled women, mandatory funds for rape prevention and education, new protections for victims of trafficking, undocumented immigrants and Native American women, and expanded language to be inclusive to the LGBTQ community. 

However, the most recent version of the bill passed by the House last year intended to close the “boyfriend loophole,” which proved to be a large point of contention for many Republicans. 

Previous versions of the act barred those convicted of domestic violence or abuse from purchasing and owning a gun if they were married to, lived with or had a child with the victim. But the 2019 amendment hoped to extend this provision to include dating partners and stalkers. 

While it had support from all Democrats who voted but one, only 33 Republicans voted to move the legislation forward and the GOP has been accused of giving into the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has opposed the change. 

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, a survivor of domestic violence, introduced her own reauthorization bill in November 2019 that did not address the loophole and also rolled back existing protections for the LGBTQ community. Ernst’s team did not respond to requests for comment. 

Clark, the second-highest-ranking woman in Congress who has taken on several women’s issues in her career, said tackling gun violence is a critical piece to addressing domestic violence. 

“This is an issue that is long overdue,” Clark said. “And the excuses from the GOP about why they cannot reauthorize this critical piece of legislation have run out a long time ago. It is time to act in a comprehensive manner to help make sure that everyone is safe from domestic violence.” 

Fitzpatrick said that although his Republican colleagues have signaled that they would be willing to reauthorize the 2013 version of the bill without any amendments, it would be “irresponsible” to not “implement the best practices and make the bill better.” 

While he did not answer whether closing the boyfriend loophole was a non-negotiable, Fitzpatrick said he hopes lawmakers don’t need to take that out because it is an important provision. The risk of homicide increases by 500% if a gun is present in a domestic violence situation, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“The data is very, very clear,” Fitzpatrick said. “So what I would prefer to do is sit down with my colleagues who are concerned about that provision and walk them through it as to why it’s important.”

Fitzpatrick said he will be working with U.S. Rep. Karen Bass of California — the other co-sponsor of the 2019 bill — when Congress reconvenes in January to develop a strategy to get the legislation through the Senate. 

“Sometimes we’re the only voice” that domestic violence victims and organizations have, Fitzpatrick said. “I think Congress needs to speak out strongly against it, not just through words, but through legislative action.” 

“I know it’s a huge priority for President-Elect Biden,” he added.


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