Celebrating the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act: A Conversation with Rep. Jackie Speier

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) participates in a Democratic Women’s Caucus roundtable on Dec. 9, 2021. Two of Speier’s bipartisan bills were included in the VAWA reauthorization: a bill closing the law enforcement consent loophole, and another requiring climate surveys for college and university students to assess efforts to address sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence, stalking and dating violence. (Leigh Vogel / Getty Images for Caring Across Generations)

Last week, President Biden signed the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act of 2022, bipartisan congressional legislation included in the fiscal year appropriations package. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), first passed in 1994 and championed by then-Senator Biden, provides critical support for women across the United States experiencing violence. This year’s VAWA reauthorization ensures funding for all VAWA grant programs until 2027 and includes several additional measures to protect women.

These changes include two bills introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who over a long career in public service has been a fearless fighter for women’s equality. One measure closes the law enforcement consent loophole by eliminating the defense of consent in law enforcement custodial settings and the other requires greater efforts from colleges and universities to address sexual violence on campuses. Another crucial measure supported by Speier, known as Kayden’s Law, will help protect at-risk children in custody battles.

Speier, first elected to Congress in 2008, has announced that she will not seek reelection in November. She sat down with Ms. contributor Michelle Onello to discuss the improved VAWA and its critical importance for women, as well as her plans after she retires from Congress. 

Michelle Onello: Thank you so much for joining me. The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was first passed in 1994 and had not been reauthorized in almost a decade. What do you feel have been the greatest accomplishments of VAWA and why was reauthorization so important for women?

Rep. Jackie Speier: First of all, I should say—and President Biden said this at the signing ceremony last week—why do we have to reauthorize it? It gets reauthorized every five years, but it should be permanent.  

The importance of VAWA is that it underscores, first that we need services for persons who are victims of violence, and we also need to recognize that these acts are criminal. By reauthorizing VAWA, we are reminding ourselves every five years that we haven’t fixed this problem yet, since the number of people that are victims of violence is not abating.

There are a number of elements in the new VAWA reauthorization that hopefully will help. One is that tribal courts now have the authority to try persons who are non-tribal. It also increases support to the LGBTQ community, and creates a federal civil cause of action for individuals whose intimate visual images are disclosed without their consent. 

I am carrying the revenge porn legislation that’s called the Stopping Harmful Image Exploitation and Limiting Distribution Act of 2021 (the SHIELD Act) which would criminalize this behavior. The VAWA provision, of course, doesn’t make it criminal and we feel strongly that unless you assess it as a crime, then the conduct will continue. 

By reauthorizing VAWA, we are reminding ourselves every five years that we haven’t fixed this problem yet, since the number of people that are victims of violence is not abating.

Onello: You also had two bills that were included in the reauthorization. One important bill, the Closing the Law Enforcement Consent Loophole Act, closed the law enforcement consent loophole. Can you explain a little bit about this bill and your inspiration for introducing it?

Speier: Yes. I introduced this in 2018 after a reported case in New York, where a teenager was picked up by the local police. It was in an unmarked vehicle and they took turns raping her. Their argument was that there was consent, but there cannot be consent when you have someone with authority that can impose themselves on you, and control you. So, this creates strict liability for federal law enforcement officers so consent is not a defense. It also incentivizes states to have similar laws on the books.

Studies reveal widespread police sexual abuse of women under their control. “There cannot be consent when you have someone with authority that can impose themselves on you, and control you,” Speier told Ms. (nereocystis / Flickr)

Onello: The other bill, the Hold Accountable and Lend Transparency (HALT) on Campus Sexual Violence Act seeks to eradicate sexual violence on college and university campuses. Can you tell us what extra efforts colleges and universities will now have to make to address sexual violence, and how this will help to improve the campus climate for students?

Speier: This is an ongoing issue. One in four college coeds is either sexually assaulted or an attempted sexual assault is made upon her during her college years, and that figure is 7 percent for undergraduate men. We’ve been working on this legislation for a number of years. The situation was exacerbated by former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who basically took Title IX and turned it on its head. Right now, these rules provide that universities don’t have any responsibility if sexual assault happens off campus and allow individuals, including family members of the abuser, to cross-examine the victim. 

The inclusion of the HALT on Campus Sexual Violence Act is so important because it requires every two years that there’s a climate survey done on college campuses throughout the United States, and it will be a uniform climate survey.

It’s much like what we’ve done in the military where we’ve been able to assess the sexual assault incidences and whether they’re going up or down based on a survey that is undertaken every two years. This particular survey will be standardized and will give the administration, parents and college-bound students the opportunity to assess the potential risks of violence on a college campus by looking at this climate survey data and whether it’s going up or down, and what kinds of steps the institution is taking to protect these survivors. 

When I took my daughter on a college campus tour, all the parents would be in a room, typically with their kids, and the first question that was always asked, the very first question, was around sexual assaults on college campuses. And the argument that an emergency blue light box somehow is going to be the solution— well, it’s not the solution.

The report card will be transparent for families and the students. It also is a measurement of accountability for the universities. You know, they can’t hide behind non-disclosure agreements.

When I took my daughter on a campus tour, all the parents would be in a room, and the first question that was always asked was around sexual assaults on college campuses. The argument that an emergency blue light box somehow is going to be the solution—well, it’s not the solution. The report card will be transparent for families and the students.

Onello: So this provides a benchmark which can be used to hold the institution’s feet to the fire. 

Speier: That’s right. 

Onello: The VAWA reauthorization also included Kayden’s Law, the Keeping Children Safe from Family Violence Act, which will incentivize states to implement family court reforms to prioritize child safety over parental rights.

Can you speak a little bit about how this will help to protect at-risk children in custody battles?

Speier: Well, the best way to describe this is to talk about Kayden Mancuso, who was a 7-year-old girl on an unsupervised visit with her father against her mother’s objections, because the mother knew that he had violent tendencies. The child was bludgeoned to death with a 35-pound dumbbell. 

I can give you a much more recent case out of Sacramento, where a man who had a restraining order against him, and also had a recent DUI where he had attacked the officer and a medical professional, was released from jail after he was charged. He was given an opportunity for a supervised visit with a chaperone at a church where he was staying. While he was visiting with his three girls, aged 13, 9 and 7, he took an AK-47 out, killed them, killed the chaperone, and then killed himself. 

So, we must appreciate the fact that when marriages break up, and when there is tension and disagreement and hostility, the most important thing is to protect the children. The vengeance and the revenge that one parent may want to mete out to the other parents is regrettably common. 

Kathy Sherlock, whose 7-year-old daughter Kayden was killed by her ex-partner, and the namesake of Kayden’s Law in Pennsylvania which was also added to the federal Violence Against Women Act, gets a hug from President Joe Biden at the White House on March 16. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Onello: One thing that’s striking is that both of your bills had Republican co-sponsors, and the reauthorization was a bipartisan effort. Do you think that there are any lessons learned from this successful example of bipartisanship, and how might this success be replicated in the current political climate?

Speier: Well, the good news is that VAWA has always been bipartisan in nature. The bad news is that the reauthorization was postponed for almost seven years because of polarization, and the polarization in this case occurred because we were trying to close what’s called the boyfriend loophole. This is a situation in which a domestic abuser is not prohibited from having a gun because they were not married to the victim, nor did they have a child or live with them.

This loophole allowing dating partners to have a gun while married abusers can’t is incredibly deadly because women are as likely to be killed by dating partners as spouses. But we couldn’t get that in. For years, we haven’t had reauthorization because of an unwillingness to buck the National Rifle Association.

So, the good news is it’s reauthorized. The good news is that the actual authorization funding has gone up in many of the programs and we were able to to add the language around the Indian tribunal jurisdiction, and the measures that that I was able to get into it, and other improvements as well.

Onello: And is there anything in particular that you think pushed it over the edge that made it possible to have the reauthorization now? 

Speier: Yes, his name is Joe Biden. The president was the author of this legislation back in 1994. He knows this issue. When he spoke about it at the ceremony, you could appreciate the depth of his understanding of both of the problem and the solution, and I think it was a high priority for him. And so, that’s why we have it reauthorized today. 

Onello: As I watched your announcement that you would not be seeking reelection, you spoke about the next chapter in your book of life. What plans do you have for this next chapter?

Speier: Well, I’ve already written my memoir, so it’s kind of hard to write another one. I think my next chapter is still unwritten. But I do know that I don’t want to lose my voice, so I’m not going to be silenced. I’m going home. I’m still going to be engaged. And these issues are in my DNA. I will continue to speak out about them. 

We just made two visits to the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California, in the last month, because of what was called the “rape club,” where the warden, the chaplain, and two other officers, were raping inmates. Two pled guilty and two are going to be tried. But what it underscored to me is that our work is really never done. So, while I won’t have the same megaphone, I don’t intend to be silenced. We’re going to work on that through this year. There are seven federal prisons that are for women, and while it was particularly egregious at Dublin, I’m not convinced that we don’t have this problem everywhere else.

Onello: And obviously, you still have many more months to accomplish things before the midterm elections. 

Speier: To the very last minute. 

Onello: Exactly—I’m sure you have a lot of other things on your agenda. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. It’s been an honor speaking to you.  

Speier: Well, thank you and thanks to Ms. magazine for being with us for 50 years.

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Michelle Onello is an international human rights lawyer and senior legal advisor at the Global Justice Center, a nonprofit organization that uses international law to advocate for gender equality and reproductive rights.