How a Shadowy Group Held Up the VAWA

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In a townhall.com article published in July 2011, 88-year old conservative icon Phyllis Schlafly wrote that the Violence Against Women Act was “implemented to punish men” and ignored a “mountain of evidence” that women initiate physical violence nearly as often as men do. Schlafly demanded protections for men in the law’s reauthorization, and ways to control “waste and fraud,” which she insinuated were rampant in programs for victims of domestic abuse. She recommended that the bill be titled the “Partner Violence Reduction Act.”

On the day that Schlafly’s column ran, a nonprofit called Stop Abusive and Violence Environments (SAVE) began advocating for a new VAWA bill and released model legislation called the “Partner Violence Reduction Act,” which sought to make it “gender inclusive” and “curb immigration fraud,” among other things.

SAVE distributed its model bill to every member of Congress, according to its website. Everett Bartlett, SAVE’s president, told me that his organization has been active on Capitol Hill since it was founded in 2009. “VAWA authorization was part of our reason for establishment,” he said.

Since it was conceived in 1994 as a national response to violence and sexual assault, the Violence Against Women Act was never divisive. For 18 years, federal funding was distributed to transitional housing, abuse shelters, and hotlines. VAWA increased rates of prosecution, conviction, and sentencing, and trained police to respond appropriately to domestic and sexual violence. The Department of Justice estimated that VAWA has reduced intimate partner violence by 64 percent from 1993 to 2010.

Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley seemed to follow Schlafly’s lead early on. In 2012, Grassley and other Senate Republicans objected to a bipartisan VAWA reauthorization bill introduced by Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Mike Crapo (R-Iowa) that provided protections for Native American women, LGBT people, and undocumented immigrant victims.

Grassley filed an amendment that required abused immigrants to produce medical certificates detailing the nature of their abuse, and prohibited them from applying for visas until the criminal activity they alleged was under investigation by law enforcement or prosecution had commenced.

The changes Grassley proposed would have left victims legally bound to their alleged abusers even after their abusers were notified of the charges against them. “That’s the moment when the risk of an explosive assault is at its highest,” said National Organization for Women President Terry O’Neill.

Yet the Leahy-Crapo bill prevailed with 61 cosponsors. The House passed a weaker version of the bill, and VAWA became a casualty of election-year politics as the two versions were never reconciled.

This year when the Leahy-Crapo bill was again before the Senate, Grassley tried a second time. In February he introduced an amendment that removed the word “women” from VAWA’s largest grant program, broadening the scope to include male victims of violence, the Huffington Post reported. His proposal also placed new restrictions on visas for immigrant victims of domestic violence.

Grassley’s proposal failed by a vote of 34–65, and the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 78–22.

House Republicans responded with their Schlafly-influenced version of the legislation, until Speaker John Boehner capitulated and allowed a face-saving vote on the Republican bill, which failed, and on the Senate bill, which passed 286–138, with 87 Republicans joining all the Democrats.

Bartlett confirmed that he and his team worked with many legislators, including Grassley. Beyond Schlafly, who is this group that blocked VAWA for almost two years?

Robert O’Hara, a “men’s rights activist” living in Washington, D.C., is identified as legislative director on SAVE’s IRS filings. He does double duty as the news director at A Voice For Men, a website with a mission to “disseminate information that will expose misandry in all levels of our culture.” An advertisement on the website banner reads: “Did she stab you in the back with lies? Register-Her.com. Because the truth is a real bitch.”

Ronald K. Henry, a member of SAVE, has been described as a “child advocacy lawyer” by The Washington Times, and has written on the “systemic problem with overburden obligations for child support guidelines,” as well as paternity fraud “perpetrated by cheating wives and gold diggers.”

Former SAVE board member Natasha Spivack owns a marriage services company called Encounters International. Spivack resigned in 2012 after the Huffington Post reported on her anti-VAWA advocacy in connection to her work at a mail-order bride operation. In 2011, Spivack published an opinion piece in Roll Call Roll Call that argued there was a hidden epidemic of female-initiated violence against men, and cited one example of an immigrant falsely claiming abuse in order to expedite a visa under VAWA law. Spivack did not disclose her for-profit work with immigrant women in the article.

“Frankly, the people who oppose this legislation are absolutely on the fringe of American life and society,” said NOW’s Terry O’Neill.

That fringe has become the Republican center.

See also “Hate Group’s Target: Women.”

Alison Fairbrother is the director of the Public Trust Project, a nonpartisan not-for-profit group.