Saturday, September 24, 2005

In 1994, the Justice Department, American Medical Association, Men’s Health Network and other interested organizations co-sponsored the National Conference on Family Violence: Health and Justice, to address that disturbing issue.

The resulting legislation was the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). While appearing to fight for a noble cause, the law does little to actually remedy domestic violence and does not address several original conference goals: It is not gender-inclusive, allocates funds under a flawed grant system, and ultimately promotes family breakup, not reconciliation. The legislation currently before both chambers of Congress purports to address the gender issue but offers ineffective or counterproductive language. For example, its gender bias can be seen in programs that will provide services for “disabled women and girls,” while providing no funding for programs to provide services for disabled boys or disabled men.

Research has shown that domestic violence is equally perpetrated by husbands and wives and affects all family members, something the legislation fails to address. No programs and services are allocated to other family members who may fall victim to domestic violence when the wife is abusive.

There are no programs that would teach women how to deal with family disputes without resorting to violence. The Texas VAWA grant application is quite clear on this: “Grant funds may not be used for the following: Services for programs that focus on children and/or men.”

VAWA comes with a $4 billion price tag and a convoluted grant system. Grants are controlled by domestic violence coalitions made up of the same organizations, or their sister organizations, that receive the grants and erect barriers to new, outside applicants.

The family counseling and family preservation programs of faith-based organizations, often those most trusted by communities, should be a major part of VAWA initiatives, with the goal of preserving families, not destroying them. Unfortunately, programs offered by those organizations rarely get past the ideologically driven gatekeepers who control access to the funding. While new and innovative programs might be designed to address VAWA related family problems, those programs almost certainly will not qualify for funding due to grant guidelines that require a “documented history of effective work” (in the Senate bill) or a partnership with an existing granted entity (in the House bill).

In essence, VAWA has created a $4 billion domestic violence industry, which seeks to break families apart rather than work to solve families’ problems.

Procedures of VAWA-funded organizations and incentives provided to local law enforcement destroy rather than preserve families. This is done by removing a parent (usually the father) from the home when there is a family dispute, and requiring that he pay for a therapy program even if he did not originate the dispute. This is the standard approach rather than working with the family to help them solve their disputes, save their marriage and provide their children a safe environment.

Further, current VAWA policies too often leave the children with the parent who initiated the violence, perhaps contributing to the fact that two-thirds of confirmed parent child abuse is committed by the mother, not the father.

The solution to the domestic violence epidemic is simply not found in VAWA. Before VAWA can be considered to be an effective tool to fight domestic violence, it must be extensively modified. Upon reauthorization, it must be made gender inclusive so funds are available for programs that provide services to female victims, male victims and elderly victims of domestic violence.

With $4 billion, VAWA supporters cannot cite poor funding as an excuse not to include both sexes and all ages. Faith-based and men’s organizations must be included and encouraged to apply for funds under a fair grant system.

Above all, lawmakers should take a new approach to solving the problem — stressing family preservation, not destruction. While recognizing in some cases families members should be estranged from one another, we need to work to make it the last resort, not the first.


Director of public policy

Men’s Health Network.

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