The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 9, 2017

What could happen if the Violence Against Women Act is defunded?

February 9, 2017

Since 1994, programs supported through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) legislation have infused federal dollars into state and local efforts to prevent, investigate, and prosecute domestic violence and sexual assault and help survivors rebuild their lives. 

The funding doesn’t just assist victims. It also assists law enforcement and prosecutors by providing training and enhancing resources for investigation and prosecution of these violent crimes. If these funds become unavailable to states and local communities, it could stifle efforts to address these crimes.

The Hill recently reported that members of the Trump administration were using the Heritage Foundation’s budget recommendations to guide their funding plans. Heritage calls for eliminating the VAWA grant programs that help protect victims and hold those who commit these crimes accountable.

This recommendation is based on the premise that not enough evidence shows the programs supported through VAWA are effective and that supporting programs to prevent and respond to these crimes is a distraction at the federal level. But it ignores the fact that simply asking if VAWA works denies the breadth and depth of the grant programs supported by the act.

Here’s what we know about what does work and what might be lost if VAWA grant programs are defunded.

Since VAWA’s initial passing, rates of violence against women have plummeted

Between 1994 and 2011, the rate of serious intimate partner violence against women declined 72 percent, from 5.9 to 1.6 victimizations per 1,000 women. The annual rate of rape and sexual assault perpetrated against girls and women older than age 11 declined nearly 60 percent from 1995 to 2010.

While these declines are likely the product of multiple causes, evidence tells us that declines in rape and sexual assault are linked to VAWA. A study examining rape and aggravated assault data from over 10,000 jurisdictions over a seven-year period found that VAWA funding, specifically those funds most likely to support local law enforcement, was associated with reductions in these violent crimes, even after controlling for general decreasing crime rates and other justice-related funding.

Because of VAWA funding, most sexual assault survivors no longer have to pay for forensic evidence collection and exams

The first few days after a sexual assault are a crucial time for the survivor and the investigation. If a person seeks medical attention within four days of an assault, they may also undergo a sexual assault medical forensic exam (SAMFE). This exam collects and preserves important evidence—like DNA—that could identify a suspect and provide invaluable corroborating evidence to support the victim’s account of the crime.

Before VAWA, victims could be billed by the health care provider that conducted their exam. No victim of any other crime is expected to pay for the collection and preservation of evidence.

VAWA has supported programs in every state to end this practice. Our research shows that these programs have nearly reversed the billing of victims for collecting forensic evidence from their own bodies.

VAWA funding pays for trained sexual assault nurse examiners

Sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs) are specially trained medical personnel who conduct the SAMFE, providing care and treatment for victims of sexual assault and rigorously collecting evidence for use during investigation and prosecution. VAWA resources support many state and local SANE programs. 

Exams conducted by SANEs are associated with increases in successful prosecution, even when compared with exams conducted by traditional emergency room personnel. The SANE training equips providers with the skills to create a more thorough record of all medical forensic evidence and to preserve crucial, fragile DNA evidence. Studies show that SANE programs improve the quality of health care delivered to survivors, the quality of forensic evidence, and the chances of obtaining a conviction.

Eliminating VAWA would almost certainly reduce the number of SANEs available to treat sexual assault survivors, limiting important victim services and the availability of quality evidence to convict those who commit these crimes.

What’s next?

It’s true that we need more research to accurately assess the overall impact of VAWA dollars. But policymakers must be careful not to confuse an absence of evidence with the absence of an effect. Studies show the positive evidence-based effects that VAWA resources have had on both survivor experiences with the justice system and the system’s chances of bringing those who perpetrate violent crime to justice.

If policymakers eliminate VAWA funding, we may lose some of these gains, and the public once again may be at greater risk of such crimes.

Members of the The National Organization for Women (NOW), the National Task Force to End Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Against Women and other groups
hold a rally in support of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) on Capitol Hill June 26, 2012 in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

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