NIJ Conference 2010: Summary of Plenary "VAWA: Celebrating 15 Years and Moving Forward Together"


  • Karen D. Carroll, Associate Director, Bronx Sexual Assault Response Team, New York
  • Bernard K. Melekian, Director, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.
  • Michael Paymar, Representative, Minnesota House of Representatives, St. Paul
  • Catherine Pierce, Deputy Director, Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.
  •  Lynn Rosenthal, White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, Office of the Vice President of the United States, Washington, D.C.
  •  Moderator: Kristina Rose, Acting Director, Office of the Director, National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.

Kristina Rose, Acting Director, National Institute of Justice, kicked off the discussion, explaining that in the 15 years since the signing of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), the paradigm has shifted: Violence against women is no longer tolerated, and offenders are held accountable. The need for a multidisciplinary approach and a partnership with the community is met with a coordinated community response — an intervention developed to deal with domestic violence. VAWA created the Office on Violence Against Women, which has awarded more than $4 billion in grants for victim services such as shelters, training and other community resources. VAWA has also provided a steady stream of research funding for NIJ, sponsoring more than 270 studies totaling nearly $80 million. Because of VAWA, the law enforcement community now knows that protection orders reduce recidivism, that sexual assault occurs in nearly half of domestic violence cases, and that nearly 3.4 million people are stalked each year. Critical questions and gaps in knowledge have been identified.

Lynn Rosenthal, White House Advisor on Violence Against Women, Office of the Vice President of the United States, explained that Vice President Biden was an early VAWA advocate and that his 1991 report [Senator Joseph Biden, U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Violence Against Women Victims of the System] significantly affected her understanding.

The real strength of VAWA is the way it has brought people together. At a VAWA planning session in Florida, the need for rural services was identified; more than 20 counties offered no services to victims of sexual and domestic violence. The people in the room looked at the map to figure out how to bring services to communities rather than competing for resources. VAWA brought out the best in people. States changed, jurisdictions changed, and protective orders across state lines became possible. VAWA has made possible funding for transitional housing and protections for people in state housing. VAWA-funded research has shown that responses must be culturally relevant.

Vice President Biden said when VAWA was signed: “Let us herald a new beginning. Let us keep the promise we made to our daughters and granddaughters — not to reduce violence against women, but to end it.”

Catherine Pierce, Deputy Director, Office on Violence Against Women, U.S. Department of Justice, said that 15 years ago when she went to conferences, trying to stir up interest in violence against women, she did not see large rooms filled with people as she does today.

The coordinated community response intervention has been a real success. It raises people’s awareness and brings them to the table. Law enforcement and judges joining ranks with advocates had a huge impact. They started putting themselves in women’s skins and began to understand.

The coordinated community response intervention taught us that a cookie cutter approach is inadequate. Response and arrest matter, but race also matters. The impact is not the same for people of color. Their access to justice is different. The process of arrest is different. Now women who would never have received them have access to services. For example, VAWA has made possible tremendous work in Native American communities.

Trauma is at the root of this work. Look at children exposed to violence and you are looking closely at trauma; rape victims are also part of this story.

Michael Paymar, Representative, Minnesota House of Representatives, explained that VAWA is an important resource to his state, providing for research, training and demonstration projects that allow a look at promising practices to see if they can work in Minnesota.

Mr. Paymar acknowledged his great friend, the late Sheila Wellstone, who was passionate about ending domestic violence and who worked tirelessly to re-authorize VAWA in 2000. She was determined that the next focus should be on the men who commit the violence.

Three observations on men:

  • About 25% of those who perpetrate domestic violence are the most dangerous; they have the greatest potential for horrible violence or for killing someone. More must be done to contain these offenders.
  • Minnesota has seen a rash of murder/suicides. More than risk assessment is needed; men who are not in the criminal justice system but who are at risk for this kind of violence need to be identified.
  • The focus must be on prevention. The hearts and minds of boys and young men need to be changed. As long as they are bombarded with cultural messages that give them a sense of entitlement and that objectify women, violence against women, including trafficking, will continue.

Karen Carroll, Associate Director, Bronx Sexual Assault Response Team, related her own domestic violence incident, which, she said, changed her life. It was on July 9, 1994. She opened her bedroom door and her husband, who had been removed from her home a few weeks earlier, stood there with two ropes and knife. He attacked her with the knife and raped her in her bedroom. The nightmare was not over. She chose to go to a hospital other than the one where she worked, but the triage nurse knew her. She was crying, the triage nurse was crying and neither could cope with the situation. The doctor came in. He did not look at Ms. Carroll. Instead, he picked up the rape kit box and began to read the directions. He clearly did not know what he was doing. As she told it, that was the best thing that could have happened. She knew evidence was needed, and she knew how to collect it properly, so she showed him how to do it. This worked for her. However, what if she had not been a nurse? What if she were a woman who did not know what to do or what to expect?

Soon afterward, the county secured a grant to train nurses and provide services for rape victims. Ms. Carroll joined the task force, becoming the coordinator. Her group of four trained nurses supplied services to 9 of 10 hospitals in the county. Now hundreds of people have been trained, so thousands of women will not have to go through a similar experience. Ms. Carroll explained that she travels around the country and internationally and recently trained a group from Italy. She also trains police officers about what goes on in the evidence gathering process. “That experience changed everything,” she said. “My worst nightmare was transformed into helping thousands.”

Bernard Melekian, Director, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice, thanked Ms. Carroll for her story. He explained what it was like 30 years ago: The call an officer did not want to get was a “415-family,” as it was called in California — a disturbance of the peace, involving family members. It was considered a “family matter,” and police intrusion was undesirable. The goal was to leave as quickly as possible. In cases where abuse had occurred, a cop’s further action depended on the willingness of the victim to press charges. She knew that sending her husband to jail meant an uncertain future for them both and for her livelihood.

The belief that this was a private matter and that it was going to involve possibly useless reporting made it common practice to ascertain whether the woman really wanted to follow through. They hoped the husband had ripped the phone out of the house because unless he inflicted great bodily harm, assaulting his wife was a misdemeanor, but ripping the phone out was a felony!

We have come to understand that rape and sexual assault are about power, not sex. The same is true with domestic assault. VAWA brought a cultural change with the recognition that domestic assault is not about the family or about a man’s right to control his household. It is in fact a crime.

What has changed? Attitudes: Young officers today recognize that this is a real problem and, importantly, victims no longer believe they brought the violence on themselves.

Our society has meetings and trainings and makes efforts to increase awareness. We know that domestic violence is not acceptable, but the message of the popular media is just the opposite — it appeals to the absolute worst in people. Violence against women will continue until this changes. We also need to understand that victimization is an attitude, a decision. You may have no control over what happens to you, but you can control what you do with it.

Date Created: July 16, 2010