Pandemic spike in domestic abuse raises stakes for Violence Against Women Act rewrite | #tinder | #pof | #match | #sextrafficking

WASHINGTON — As women’s shelters in Texas have faced a wave of domestic violence calls during the pandemic, lawmakers in D.C. are pushing to bolster the Violence Against Women Act for the first time in nearly a decade.

The House this month passed a sweeping rewrite of the landmark law — aimed at preventing domestic abuse, sexual violence and stalking — by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat who will now try to shepherd the bill through the evenly divided Senate, where Republicans are expected to put up stiff resistance to key provisions of it.

Senate Republicans in the past have opposed closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole” that allows those with a history of dating violence to legally purchase firearms, in some cases. Texas Republicans have argued state law already prevents abusers from buying guns, but women’s advocates in the state say Texas laws don’t do enough and closing the federal loophole is among the most important parts of the House’s rewrite of the law. Republicans also opposed new measures to strengthen protections for transgender individuals.

The bill also sends millions to local shelters, offers employment and housing assistance to victims of abuse and, for the first time, it would grant tribal courts the authority to prosecute non-Native Americans for sexual violence, stalking and sex trafficking on tribal lands.

The bill passed the House with bipartisan support — though significantly less than past reauthorizations have enjoyed. Twenty nine Republicans voted in favor, including two Texans: U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul, a Houston-area Republican who cosponsored the bill, and John Carter of Central Texas.

President Joe Biden, who as a senator wrote the original Violence Against Women Act, has voiced support for the House bill and said passing a reauthorization of the law, which lapsed last year, is a top priority. In a statement on the House bill, Biden urged Congress to “follow past precedent and bring a strong bipartisan coalition together for swift passage.”

Jackson Lee said she sees it as her job to preserve as many of those provisions as she can while the Senate works on its version of a reauthorization bill.

“It’s a significant, singular moment in history,” Jackson Lee said, pointing to a spike in domestic violence during the pandemic. “Are we going to lose this moment in history to save lives? Are we going to play at the edges or are we going to be bold?”

The reauthorization push comes as police departments report increases in domestic violence calls over the last year. Advocates in Texas say they’ve been overwhelmed for the last year as people in abusive relationships were often stuck at home amid rising stress and the economic hardship of the pandemic.

‘Those dollars save lives’

The Houston Area Women’s Center fielded nearly 46,000 calls about domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking in 2020 — 6,000 more than the year before. The center housed more than 550 women, children and men in hotels in 2020, three times as many as in 2019.

Family Violence Prevention Services, Inc., in San Antonio said it has similarly seen a “very very high demand.” Marta Prada Peláez, the organization’s president and CEO, said it’s not just the pandemic, that demand has been on an “upward trend year after year.”

Both shelters said the demand hasn’t started to decrease and they don’t anticipate it to any time soon. The Houston center received nearly 4,500 domestic violence calls in January and February.

“We will be seeing the impact of this economic and social disruption for months if not years to come,” said Emilee Dawn Whitehurst, president and CEO of the Houston Area Women’s Shelter. “We know those dollars save lives and it’s high time Congress reauthorizes the act.”

But women’s advocates in the state say it’s more than just money for the shelters that is much needed. Whitehurst and Prada Peláez both said closing the boyfriend loophole is the most important addition to the House’s rewrite.

Under federal law, those convicted of assault against family members are barred from buying guns — but the law only applies to abusers who were married to their partners, lived with them or had children with them. That law does not apply to romantic partners who are not living with the victim.

“I really think we ought to think very long and hard before we concede that point,” Whitehurst said. “You just have to listen to one phone call from somebody who is being stalked and who is concerned that that person has access to a gun to know the stakes are very high.”

“We’re not talking about the Second Amendment. You can keep your guns,” Prada Peláez said. “All the hunters, go hunt as much as you possibly can. We just don’t want women to be hunted.”

The gun provisions are among the main reasons the House version faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where 10 Republicans would need to join Democrats to pass it.

Another partisan fight?

The National Rifle Association has lobbied hard against past efforts to close the loophole. Texas Republicans, including U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, meanwhile, have pointed to Texas law, which prohibits convicted abusers from buying guns within five years after the end of their punishment.

A bill that passed the House in 2019 never reached the floor of the GOP-led Senate, while Republicans in the chamber, including Cornyn, pushed their own version that did not address the boyfriend loophole. Cornyn’s office has noted that version would have reauthorized the act for ten years, five years longer than the Democratic version, and increased funding over the Democrat version, among other things.

Cornyn last year accused Democrats in the Senate of giving up on bipartisan negotiations to score political points ahead of the election.

“Democrats got up, and left the negotiating table, and headed straight for the TV cameras, and held a press conference condemning Republicans for not falling into line on their partisan bill,” Cornyn said in a speech on the Senate floor a year ago.

“We went through the same exercise back in 2012 and 2013,” he said. “Our Democratic colleagues used this issue to attack Republicans up for reelection for not supporting their partisan bill at that time after they’d chose not to negotiate in good faith for a bipartisan bill. So I think that’s what’s happening again.”

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