The White House acknowledged October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month on Wednesday by announcing several new initiatives that aim to protect and empower victims of abuse and sexual assault.
Many women's rights advocates were heartened by the administration's recent steps.
"They're really doing a lot on the subject," said Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "I do think the White House is committed to moving forward and improving the situation."
The initiatives were developed through a government-wide effort, with input from the departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD), among others. "Every agency is responsible for looking at their policy and legislation and measuring it against whether it improves the lives of women and girls," said Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett in a press conference call Wednesday. "Various federal governments have taken a solid approach to how we have tried to manage [the] challenge" of domestic violence, Jarrett said.
Jarrett, who also chairs the White House Council on Women and Girls, lauded the accomplishments of the Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994, which provided $1.6 billion to support the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women – but stated that there is "still a lot of work to be done."
"Domestic violence is not just a women's issue, it's an American issue," Jarrett said. "Each October, it's a time for us to reflect on our commitment to ending one of the most tragic and senseless crimes."
Statistics noted in the White House report are grim. One in four women will be the victim of domestic violence over the course of their lifetimes and one in six will be sexually assaulted. Currently, more than 20 million women in the United States have been the victims of rape – a number that may not be an accurate reflection of reality, as fewer than one in six rapes are reported to the police. Roughly 15.5 million children are exposed to domestic violence every year.
To address these troubling statistics, the White House has launched several initiatives to strengthen the legal system and increase sexual assault arrests and prosecutions, protect children and break the cycle of violence, and help victims gain housing and financial independence.
"There has never been this kind of national focus on sexual assault," said Lynn Rosenthal, domestic violence policy expert and the first-ever White House adviser on violence against women.
Rosenthal detailed the White House's specific plans to protect victims, including a set of regulations released by HUD to provide guidance to housing authorities and landlords, allowing them to "evict perpetrators of abuse, keep their properties safe and make sure victims do not lose their housing due to crimes committed against them," according to the report. Although the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), reauthorized in 2005, included provisions for housing authorities, the rules governing these provisions were never finalized, Rosenthal said. "Housing authorities have not had the guidance they needed until today."
The Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women is launching a national campaign against sexual assault, holding regional forums throughout the country to stimulate public dialogue, while the National Institute of Justice will investigate the root causes of backlogs in rape kit processing. The project will team researchers with law enforcement agencies, crime labs and prosecutors in up to five jurisdictions to create new systems for testing DNA evidence. Over time, NIJ aims to create practices that will eliminate delays in rape kit examination countrywide. DOJ has also released resources and guidance for advocates, attorneys and law enforcement to strengthen protective orders.
"One of the major [excuses] we got was that there's not enough money" to process rape kits, Smeal said. "Police departments find another reason to spend it... now [that] money has been appropriated, they say there's not enough scientists and labs to process them."
A 2009 study of 1,146 Navy personnel found that repeat offenders committed 95 percent of attempted and completed rapes. "Because of the high rate of recidivism ... it's very, very important that [police] process the kits," Smeal said. "If they need more labs and more trained people, there's a shortage of jobs – make them."
"When a women is killed, there were almost always warning signs along the way," Rosenthal said. The DOJ resources are "critically important because risk of homicide increases when victims are trying to leave a violent relationship."
As a senator in 2008, Vice President Biden introduced a bill that would enlist and train 100,000 lawyers to represent domestic violence victims. Recalling Biden's statement to the Senate, Rosenthal said, "There is no more noble calling than to help victims of abuse get to safety and obtain custody of their children."
Other federal departments have gotten involved in the effort by creating a focus on employment for abuse survivors. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) has developed a financial literacy curriculum specifically for victims of domestic violence, while the Department of Labor Women's Bureau has released "A Woman's Guide to Green Jobs" in coordination with the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
"These are just a few of the steps that we're taking," said President Obama during a Domestic Violence Awareness Event on Wednesday. "But the bottom line is this: Nobody in America should live in fear because they are unsafe in their own home – no adult, no child.... As a society, we need to ensure that if a victim of abuse reaches out for help, we are there to lend a hand."
Obama's 2011 budget includes a proposal for $130 million in funds to help abuse victims find shelter, counseling and legal assistance. $100 million of the increase would come from the Crime Victims' Fund, which is supported by criminal fines, penalties and forfeited jail bonds rather than taxpayer money.