Obama Signs Expanded VAWA Back into Law
Initially passed in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) created the first U.S. federal legislation acknowledging domestic violence and sexual assault as crimes, and provided federal resources to encourage community-coordinated responses to combating violence. VAWA was reauthorized by Congress in 2000, and again in December 2005. The latest 2012 renewal met with resistance, but 500 days after VAWA had expired, the House voted to reauthorize the bill and President Obama signed it into law on March 7, 2013.
Changes in VAWA Renewal
VAWA 2013 reauthorized and improved upon lifesaving services for all victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking, and expanded the law’s scope to include Native American women, immigrants, LGBT victims, college students and youth, and public housing residents.
Safe housing for survivors. Landmark VAWA housing protections that were passed in 2005 have helped prevent discrimination against evictions of survivors of domestic violence in public and assisted housing. The law, however, didn’t cover all federally subsidized housing programs. The latest reauthorization expands these protections to individuals in all federally subsidized housing programs, explicitly protects victims of sexual assault, and creates emergency housing transfer options.
Native American women. Native American victims of domestic violence often cannot seek justice because their courts are not allowed to prosecute non-Native offenders--even for crimes committed on tribal land. The latest reauthorization of VAWA includes a solution that would give tribal courts the authority they need to hold offenders in their communities accountable.
LGBT survivors. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender survivors of violence experience the same rates of violence as straight individuals. But LGBT survivors sometimes face discrimination when seeking help and protection. VAWA now prohibits such discrimination to ensure that all victims of violence have access to the same services and protection to overcome trauma and find safety.
Protections for immigrant survivors. VAWA maintains important protections for immigrant survivors of abuse, while also making key improvements to existing provisions by strengthening the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act and the provisions concerning self-petitions and U visas.
Justice on campuses. VAWA now recognizes college students as among the most vulnerable to dating violence. Provisions in VAWA add additional protections for students by requiring schools to implement a recording process for incidences of dating violence, as well as report the findings. In addition, schools would be required to create plans to prevent this violence and educate victims on their rights and resources.
Maintaining VAWA grant programs. VAWA now bolsters grant programs for victims of domestic violence and provides a formal process for the Office on Violence Against Women to receive coalition and other key domestic violence and sexual assault community input.
Current Domestic Violence and Housing Rules
In October 2010, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan announced final rules providing detailed guidance to housing authorities and Section 8 property owners on how to implement VAWA. Now that the latest reauthorization expands VAWA’s protections to all federally subsidized housing programs, one may expect the final rule’s guidance to apply.
Some of the topics addressed in the rule include the documentation needed to prove domestic violence, the ability of domestic violence survivors to flee subsidized housing and move with Section 8 vouchers, and housing providers’ obligations to protect survivors’ confidentiality.
Documentation. The final rule clarifies VAWA’s requirements for documenting an incident of domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking. Under the act, if an individual seeks to assert VAWA’s protections, a housing authority, owner, or manager may request in writing that the individual provide documentation that she’s a victim of domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking. VAWA specifies three types of proof that can satisfy the documentation requirement: a HUD-approved form; a police or court record; or a signed statement from a victim service provider, an attorney, or a medical professional [42 U.S.C. §§1437d(u), 1437f(ee)]. A victim can use the HUD-approved form to self-certify that she’s a victim of domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking.
Confidentiality. The final rule expands upon housing providers’ confidentiality obligations regarding documentation of domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking. VAWA states that documentation of domestic violence shall not be entered into a shared database or provided to any related entity [242 U.S.C. §§1437d(u), 1437f(ee)]. The final rule augments these confidentiality protections by prohibiting employees of a housing authority, owner, or management agent from having access to information regarding domestic violence unless they are specifically and explicitly authorized to access this information because it’s necessary to their work [24 C.F.R. §5.2007].
Lease bifurcation. Criminal activity directly relating to domestic violence, dating violence, or stalking isn’t grounds for terminating the victim’s tenancy. But the law does allow you to “bifurcate” a lease in order to evict, remove, or terminate the assistance of the offender while, at the same time, permitting the victim who’s a lawful occupant to remain in the unit. Also, you aren’t allowed to deny admission based on an individual’s status as a victim of domestic violence or in cases of criminal activity related to domestic violence [24 C.F.R. §982.553].
Portability. A housing authority may not refuse to issue a voucher to an assisted family due to the family’s failure to seek the housing authority’s approval prior to moving if the family moved to protect the health or safety of a victim of domestic violence [24 C.F.R. §982.314]. HUD also revised this regulation to state that PHA policies that prohibit moves during the initial lease term and that prohibit more than one move during a one-year period don’t apply if the family needs to move due to domestic violence.
Actual and imminent threat. The final rule provides guidance regarding what constitutes an “actual and imminent threat” for purposes of VAWA. The act states that a housing provider’s authority to evict or terminate assistance isn’t limited if the housing provider can demonstrate an “actual and imminent threat” to other tenants or employees at the property if the victim’s assistance or tenancy isn’t terminated. In other words, to use “imminent threat” of harm to other residents as a reason for evicting the victim, the evidence must be real and objective—not hypothetical, presumed, or speculative.
The final rule also states that an actual and imminent threat consists of a physical danger that’s real, would occur within an immediate time frame, and could result in death or serious bodily harm. Further, the final rule states that the factors to be considered in determining the existence of an actual and imminent threat include the duration of the risk, the nature and severity of the potential harm, the likelihood that the potential harm will occur, and the length of time before the potential harm would occur [24 C.F.R. §5.2005].
Additionally, the final rule states that eviction or termination of a victim’s assistance under the actual and imminent threat provision should occur “only when there are no other actions that could be taken to reduce or eliminate the threat, including, but not limited to, transferring the victim to a different unit, barring the perpetrator from the property, contacting law enforcement to increase police presence, or develop other plans to keep the property safe, or seeking other legal remedies to prevent the perpetrator from acting on a threat” [24 C.F.R. §5.2005].