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Crippling blow

Stalled Violence Against Women Act hurts Montana

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With all the fevered talk of debt ceilings, fiscal cliffs and tax cuts, one piece of legislation that has enjoyed bipartisan congressional support for 18 years, and has helped untold numbers of vulnerable Americans, has been left by Congress to teeter on the edge of its own cliff.

Congress first authorized the Violence Against Women Act, or VAWA, in 1994. Its goal is to help communities design local programs to help beaten and abused women get on with their lives safely and productively. VAWA expired in September 2011 and was not reauthorized. The House and Senate each passed their own versions of the reauthorization bill in 2012, but have not been able to compromise on a final measure. Its fate is in limbo, as are the programs it has funded nationwide for nearly 20 years.

VAWA's impact has been felt in the Bitterroot Valley, where it funds more than half of locally designed programs to help battered women and their children get back on their feet. For more than 13 years, Stacy Umhey has been the director of Hamilton's Supporters of an Abuse-Free Environment, known locally as SAFE.

"There isn't a single program at SAFE that won't get gutted if VAWA isn't reauthorized," she says.

Those programs are impressive, considering SAFE's humble origins. Launched in 1988 by the local Soroptimist club, SAFE began as a hotline and a network of private Bitterroot Valley homes that opened their doors to beaten, abused and frightened women with nowhere to go. In the nearly quarter century since then, the Soroptimists's idea has blossomed into a fully fledged program consisting of an emergency shelter, transitional housing, children's programs, counseling, legal assistance and an organized network of supporters, including local law enforcement, judges, teachers, medical personnel, lawyers and the community at large.

The SAFE program is housed at a campus east of Hamilton, across Fairgrounds Road from Hamilton High School. SAFE assists women seeking Temporary Orders of Protection from their abusers by offering emergency shelter, available 24/7, and transitional housing for up to two years, as well as programs to the children of women in transitional housing. SAFE shares a portion of its VAWA grant with Ravalli County to fund two full-time positions—a domestic violence investigator who works for the county attorney, and a victim's advocate.

"That's all the stuff we didn't do before 2000," Umhey says.

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SAFE first began applying for the VAWA grant funds in 2000, and since then the federal program has funded 55 percent of the shelter's programs.

The VAWA funding, previously a popular and non-controversial program with Congress, is now just another political football in the ever more tiresome game of congressional dysfunction.

"It's being held up by issues of ideology and politics," Umhey says.

The sticking point between the two versions of the bill is the protection provided to three groups of women: undocumented workers, American Indians and lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders, which was added to the Senate bill.

The Senate bill passed in April with bipartisan support on a vote of 68-31. Both of Montana's senators, Democrats Max Baucus and Jon Tester, supported the measure. The House version, passed in May, stripped the protections for the three groups, and passed on mostly party lines with a vote of 222-205. Former Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican, voted for the stripped-down version.

The bill is now stalled, and the key to its passage may lie with still another group of women: those elected to the House and Senate. Just before Christmas, all 12 Democratic female senators sent a letter to the 25 Republican women in the House, urging them to support the Senate version of the bill in the remaining days of the 112th Congress.

In part, the letter reads: "All women should be protected and introducing into this legislation the notion that some women subject to violence deserve to be protected while others do not is something we believe we can all agree is unacceptable.  We should not pick and choose which victims of abuse to help and which to ignore."

Congress did not act on the bill before it adjourned for the holidays. Whether the House Republican women will join with their Democratic counterparts in the Senate remains to be seen.

Since mid-November 2012, as Congress was still wrangling over differing versions of the bill, violence against women—the deed, not the legislation—made headlines twice when two western Montana women were murdered, allegedly by their partners. Jessie Hawkins was murdered in a Hamilton motel room last Nov. 13, and Tina Schowengerdt was murdered Dec. 8 at her Deer Lodge home.

"From my seat it's so clear on its face that we need these services," says Umhey. "This is so unique. VAWA has never been a controversial piece of legislation."

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