- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Clinical psychologist Phil McGraw, known popularly as “Dr. Phil,” urged a Senate committee Wednesday not to be “penny-wise and pound-foolish” in its renewing of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

The law funds safe places for women and children to go to so they don’t end up on the street or lose their children to foster care, the daytime talk-show host told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

It also funds essential services, such as counseling, financial guidance and hotlines, said Mr. McGraw, who said his TV show receives thousands of calls related to violence in the home. “We need this act,” he said.

His remarks were sparked, in part, by those of Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican. Reviews of VAWA grantees have uncovered vast problems with record-keeping and unallowable expenditures, said Mr. Grassley. “Simply put, in today’s economic environment, we cannot tolerate this level of malfeasance in federal grant programs.”

The Iowa senator added that he supported reauthorization of the $551 million VAWA program, but with a “legitimate, rigorous evaluation” of the program and new anti-fraud measures, including those against bogus marriages. Julie Poner later told a complicated story about her marriage, divorce and child-custody battle with her Czech-born husband, which resulted in him getting a green card to stay in America.

Government Accountability Office official Eileen Larence testified about the dearth of data related to VAWA and domestic-violence issues. But she cautioned Congress that “challenges exist for collecting this data,” such as people’s confidentiality and safety, staffing costs and definitions of abuse.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, noted that VAWA was enacted in 1994 with bipartisan support as the “centerpiece” of the federal government’s response to “domestic violence, sexual assault and other violent crimes against women.”

Since 1994, Mr. Leahy said, “The rate of domestic violence has declined, more victims have felt confident to come forward to report these crimes and to seek help, and states have come forward to enact complementary laws to combat these crimes.”

The recent recession, however, has drained funding from shelters and local programs financially, even as it compounded the stress in many troubled families, said Mr. Leahy, citing a 2010 survey that found more than 70,600 adults and children being served in one day by local domestic-violence programs. Such numbers “illustrate the importance of maintaining and strengthening” VAWA, he said.

Hearing witnesses agreed. Before VAWA, “there were gaping holes in our country’s response to sexual violence,” said Michael Shaw, an official with Waypoint Services for Women, Children and Families in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Jane Van Buren, executive director of Women Helping Battered Women in Burlington, Vt., told stories of two women who put their lives back together, thanks to housing, counseling, financial help and social support. “VAWA program funds make all of this possible,” said Ms. Van Buren.

However, VAWA has vocal critics. In a Townhall.com column this week, conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly called the program “feminist pork” and a tool that invites gender bias, discrimination and false accusations. “For starters, the law’s title should be changed to ‘Partner Violence Reduction Act,’ ” Mrs. Schlafly wrote.