Thank you, Amy for that kind introduction, and thank you for inviting me to speak at the 2014 District of Columbia Women’s Bar Association Foundation Grant Awards Ceremony. Thank you to the lawyers and friends of the Women’s Bar Association Foundation for your generosity, your leadership, and your commitment to the residents of the District of Columbia. Without your support we would not be here this evening. I would like to take a moment to thank and recognize the staff of the Women’s Bar Association Foundation for their time spent planning this event. I know firsthand how important each of you are to making this evening a success.
Now, the reason we are all here tonight: congratulations to this year’s grant recipients.
Each of the 2014 grant recipients are doing amazing work – day in and day out they are changing the lives of the most vulnerable residents in the District of Columbia. And they are strengthening our nation’s legal community.
This year’s grantees are providing legal representation to victimized Filipino teachers seeking immigration assistance, they are serving low-income women fleeing domestic violence, they are representing victims of domestic violence in protection order petitions, custody, divorce and child support matters, and they are helping remedy dangerous housing conditions for women and their children. They epitomize the mission of the Women’s Bar Association Foundation – they are serving the legal and related needs of women and girls in the DC metropolitan area.
So to each of the grantees – congratulations. I know your work is not easy and you face myriad challenges, but you also give our community hope. You are often the lone voice for victims and survivors who are unable to speak for themselves, and all of you have the unique opportunity to ensure their voices are heard in the very system that is designed to administer justice for all.
You are the heroes in our community.
I have spent much of my career on the front lines providing direct services to victims. I know what it is like to work with a victim of domestic violence struggling to reach out for help when she feels crippled by the violence in her home. Or when a child experiences such severe abuse that they believe running away and homelessness is a safer option than staying in a deadly home for one more day.
And now, in my role as the Principal Deputy Director of OVW, I am fortunate to lead an office that provides federal leadership in developing the nation’s capacity to reduce violence against women and administer justice for and strengthen services to victims.
This year is special for OVW and for those of us working to end violence against women. In September, we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act. For OVW, this milestone is an opportunity to reflect on all of the accomplishments we have achieved since 1994.
Many of you are aware that as a direct result of VAWA, we have witnessed a paradigm shift in how the issue of violence against women is addressed in the United States, and there have been countless lives positively affected by VAWA.
VAWA has led to significant improvements in the criminal and civil justice systems, encouraging victims to file complaints, improving evidence collection and increasing access to protection orders. Victims now can reach out for help, call the police, find 24-hour emergency services and take steps to leave abusive relationships.
Over the last 20 years ago, the Office of Violence Against Women, has awarded over $5 billion in grants to states, territorial, local and tribal governments, municipalities, and victim service providers, including nearly $379 million in fiscal year 2013, to develop more effective responses to domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking through activities that include direct services, crisis intervention, transitional housing, legal assistance to victims, court improvement, and training for law enforcement and courts.
On average, VAWA grant funds train over 500,000 law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, victim advocates, and other personnel, and provide services to more than 700,000 victims every year.
VAWA recognizes that access to legal services enhances safety for victims and their dependent children. Often, legal services are essential for victims to obtain critical services, including protection orders that will enable victims to stay safe and continue to provide care for their children. Without this crucial assistance, victims may not be able to overcome legal and economic obstacles to achieving safety for themselves and their children.
As one of OVW’s most competitive programs, the Legal Assistance to Victims Program is the primary vehicle for delivering legal assistance to victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. OVW made its first LAV awards in 1998 and over the past 16 years has made more than 1200 awards totaling over $460 million to support civil legal services for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking.
Now these are all strong numbers and they represent real progress, but we know that it is not enough.
We know that when nearly one in five women and one in 71 men experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes, it’s not enough.
We know that when a quarter of all women have experienced severe physical violence at the hands of a partner sometime in their lifetime, it is not enough.
And when three women each day lose their lives to intimate partner violence, it’s not enough.
We can do better. We must do better. We must do better because today, even 20 years later, domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking and dating violence are still much too prevalent.
We have found that the increased availability of legal services appears to play a particularly significant role in reducing domestic violence. An especially crucial role of legal services is assisting women in civil court to obtain orders of protection. Obtaining a protection order has been shown in multiple studies to reduce future assault and improve quality of life. Even when orders were violated, there was a substantial reduction in subsequent abuse.
Victims of domestic violence often need highly trained attorneys willing to take on lengthy and complex litigation beyond the protection order hearing. We know that resources for this purpose are painfully inadequate and is often one of the most unmet requests from victims of domestic violence. OVW’s Legal Assistance for Victims Program is generally the only federal funding source available to support legal assistance for victims of domestic violence. That is why the work of organizations like the DC Women’s Bar Association Foundation is so critical.
Although much of the original focus of VAWA was on domestic violence, the issue of sexual assault deserves the same degree of attention.
A fundamental obstacle to addressing sexual assault is our nation’s reluctance to talk about it. It is troubling that when we do talk about sexual assault, usually in high profile cases reported through the media, we continue to witness a lack of understanding of the crime, including victim blaming or theorizing that rape can be prevented by dressing in a certain way, staying away from certain areas, or by not drinking.
It is imperative that we work with all responders to ensure that they understand the dynamics of sexual assault and take these crimes seriously.
We know that we must do more to change the national conversation about rape and sexual assault. At OVW, we are focusing efforts on addressing sexual assault so that it receives the resources and attention it desperately needs.
We need to talk about why between two-thirds and three quarters of all rapes are never reported to the criminal justice system, and among those that are reported, attrition at various levels dramatically reduces the number of actual prosecutions.
We know that victims and survivors of sexual assault and rape require civil legal services to provide them with the critical support to address the profound emotional, physical, economic, and social harm caused by rape.
We are dealing with pervasive and seemingly intractable problems – women who are routinely beaten by their husbands and boyfriends; young boys and girls who are raped by a parent or relative; teenage girls who receive harassing and threatening texts and messages from boyfriends hundreds of times a day; older women who are dependent upon their sons or daughters who siphon off their savings leaving them with little money for food or medicine – and systems that don't seem to have the right tools or knowledge to adequately address these problems.
Ending sexual violence is a priority for the Department of Justice. But this will require creating a culture where victims feel safe reporting the crime, where they will be treated with respect by all of those with whom they come into contact – including medical professionals, law enforcement, and court officials – and where judges and juries will eschew outdated myths about rape and hold offenders accountable for their crimes.
During in my tenure at OVW, I have felt privileged to witness the leadership and unwavering commitment of the Department of Justice and the Obama Administration on this issue. We are working to ensure that survivors everywhere know that they have a place – and a voice – in this Administration; and to build a future where sexual assault, domestic violence, dating violence and stalking are eradicated.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude to each of you on behalf of the Office on Violence Against Women and advocates, victims and survivors nationwide for the work that you do each and every day. None of us can solve these problems alone - and we need partners like you to make change possible.
I look forward to working with you to push the boundaries and find innovative ways to end violence against women and protect our nation’s children, our future, from violence. As professionals, spouses, parents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, friends and co-workers, we must build strong and safe communities, and we at the Department of Justice are thrilled to support you, in creating neighborhoods and communities that stops violence before it starts, that offers safety and respect for victims and holds offenders accountable. Thank you for being our partners.