Remarks as Prepared for Delivery
Good morning, everyone. I am so excited to be here with you today in St. Louis, the sacred and traditional homeland of the Osage people. And while I think it is essential to acknowledge the land we are on, it’s also essential to acknowledge that it’s meaningless if it’s not accompanied by action and by following the leadership of the Tribal advocates who are the mothers of this movement and who still guide the way.
Because being guided by the people who are on the ground, doing the work, building the coalitions – being guided by the collective voices of everyone in this audience – that’s what we’re here for. You might not know it, but all of us in the federal government, including Congress, want to hear from you. We want to make better grants; we want to write better policies; we want to be sure that what we’re doing isn’t just reducing but is ending domestic and sexual violence.
I’m going to do site visits while I’m here to sit with advocates and attorneys and law enforcement, to sit in the dining room at the shelter and learn about what is happening right now. What are survivors telling us they need?
I often think about survivors I met when I worked in shelter programs in the ’90s. One night, I was working a late shift and the police dropped off a survivor who had jumped through a plate glass window to escape her partner strangling her. She had nothing with her. She wasn’t even wearing shoes. And even though she was all scratched up and she told me how scared she was to be trapped and unable to escape, she didn’t particularly want to be at the shelter.
But shelter was what we had to offer. It was our standard response. You’re in danger, police intervene, you come to the shelter…Now, I had been hesitant when the police called to check on space because the only open room in the shelter had a broken doorknob.
But there were no other options in town, and it was late at night, so you make do. Anyone here ever worked nights at a shelter? Yep, you know!
So, I took her to the room to get settled and when I went to leave, the doorknob stuck. And at first we couldn’t get out. She was trapped again and even though some jiggling eventually got it open, that was terrifying.
Well, I show up the next morning, eager to check in with her, and she had left. She still didn’t have any shoes. She had walked out into the night barefoot rather than stay in that room, in that shelter.
A lot has changed since the ’90s but much is still the same, like how shelters need resources – not just to fix the doorknobs that break but to meet survivors where they are. To provide access to long-term housing and cash assistance and attorneys and childcare and transportation and meaningful language access.
And I think about what this survivor really needed, beyond shelter. What was she asking me for, that I didn’t provide?
The work of supporting survivors is constantly evolving, especially these past few years as the pandemic made it more difficult for survivors to escape violence and made it harder for advocates to reach and assist those survivors. I know you are exhausted. But you’re here! I’m so thankful that Ruth Glenn and the NCADV (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence) team were able to convene this amazing conference. Take this opportunity to celebrate what you’ve achieved together in the face of so many challenges.
Thanks to NCADV and to many of you, the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, was reauthorized last spring. We are actually a couple weeks shy of the 28th anniversary of the first VAWA being signed into law. VAWA’s policies and funding are not perfect but have helped communities across the country respond effectively when a survivor asks for help. My office, the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), implements VAWA. We provide half a billion dollars in funding for services, legal assistance, outreach, prevention, transitional housing, justice system responses – a little bit of all the many systems intended to help survivors.
We also provide leadership at the federal level. We advocate for survivors. We bring your stories into the halls of Congress and the Attorney General’s office. We are an office full of advocates and survivors ourselves, and we are behind the scenes fighting for you. All of you have been, and continue to be, a fundamental part of the progress we have made as a movement in the last thirty years. You have cobbled together what resources you could find and combined that with grit and ingenuity to open doors — literally and figuratively — to survivors who needed a safe place to go. And now you are reenergizing our work to ensure that every single survivor gets what they need, on their own terms.
And that is why I’m pleased to announce over $30 million in grant awards under five VAWA programs designed to ensure that VAWA dollars reach communities where survivors often face disproportionately high rates of victimization or encounter more barriers to safety and justice. Two of these programs, the Culturally Specific Services Program and the Sexual Assault Culturally Specific Services Program, are designed to ensure survivors can get services at places they trust to support them in ways that reflect and honor their cultural backgrounds and meet their linguistic needs. At organizations that are by and for the community. Our Underserved Program strengthens access to services for survivors from underserved communities, particularly LGBTQ, immigrant, and deaf/hard of hearing communities. And our Abuse in Later Life Program and Disabilities Program address, respectively, the unique needs of older adults and survivors with disabilities.
The harm caused by domestic and sexual violence is uniquely personal and our responses as people are always grounded in our communities. You need to be able to practice your faith without having to explain yourself, or cook familiar food for your kids without being criticized for how it smells. Where you don't have to code switch. Where you are safe to bring your whole self and all your identities. Where people just get it because they have been there, too. To get safety and justice – and to thrive – we all need people who speak our language in every sense of the word. That’s why OVW has and will continue to prioritize funding for culturally specific and population-specific services.
Just as victim services can’t be one-size-fits-all, neither can justice. All survivors deserve access to justice – however they define it. For some survivors, that’s never going to be the police, and when confronted with the choice between 911 or nothing, they choose nothing. Survivors deserve options, to be able to choose what they know will be the safest decision for them. The 2022 reauthorization of VAWA includes a new restorative practices program, and more flexibility under existing programs. OVW can now support survivors who seek restoration to their well-being through alternative pathways to accountability.
At the same time, there are many survivors who do want a law enforcement response, who want police to believe them and prosecutors to take action. They want to have their day in court or to ensure that the person who hurt them never harms another person.
For these survivors and for the law enforcement officers who risk their lives responding to domestic violence, the Department of Justice released updated guidance to improve law enforcement responses to sexual assault and domestic violence by identifying and preventing gender bias.
The guidance lays out a set of eight principles that – if integrated into policies, trainings and practices – help ensure that gender bias does not undermine investigations and re-traumatize survivors. We took feedback from a range of stakeholders – advocates, civil rights experts and law enforcement leaders – to inform the revisions to this guidance, which was initially released in 2015. It offers expanded case examples to illustrate why this guidance is needed and what it looks like in action. It addresses how biases beyond gender bias intersect when survivors seek safety and redress through the criminal justice system. It goes into greater depth about properly identifying the predominant aggressor in domestic violence cases, and it provides concrete descriptions of what trauma-informed approaches are.
Supporting police agencies’ implementation of this guidance is a priority for Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, and builds on the department’s efforts to increase meaningful access to justice and reduce violent crime. We hope you and your law enforcement and prosecution partners can and will use the updated guidance as a tool to make the justice system more navigable for survivors.
Everything we do at OVW — expanding culturally specific services, enhancing pathways to justice beyond what the criminal justice system offers, and improving the law enforcement response — we do because we are relentlessly focused on changing the world by supporting all of you who are on the front lines.
We know how critical it is to have adequate funding and resources to do this work. We know because our grantees are telling us about the impact of VAWA funds in their communities. We know because you’re using your voice, you’re telling us what you need. You are making sure that survivors are heard in every corner of this nation. Don’t ever stop. Thank you.