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Spivack: Hearing Reveals Gaps in Domestic Abuse System

Earlier this month, Catherine Becker, 48, allegedly drugged her estranged husband and tied him to a bed. As he awoke,  police said, she took a 10-inch knife to his penis, severed the appendage and tossed it into a garbage disposal.

Bail has been set at $1 million as Becker awaits arraignment on multiple felony charges.

Given the timing and the particularly gruesome nature of the attack, one would have expected that a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Violence Against Women Act would have featured heart-rending discussions about how similar incidents of gender-motivated violence could be avoided in the future.

But the Becker case was not deemed worthy of mention.

Just hours after the gavel fell on the Senate hearing, reports emerged that actor Daniel Baldwin had filed for divorce after alleged death threats by his wife. After watching a documentary on violent women, police said, Joanne Baldwin came into the bedroom and announced to her startled husband: “Now I know how to do it. I understand why they did it. You have been warned.”

Many studies suggest female-on-male violence has become equal to, or even more prevalent than, the male-initiated variety. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 10 percent of high school girls had hit, slapped or physically hurt their boyfriends in the previous year. In comparison, only 9 percent of boys had been physically aggressive to their female partners.

But a reluctance to acknowledge the existence of female aggression — and its consequences for male victims — is not the only problem that plagues our nation’s approach to curbing domestic violence.

One of the featured witnesses at the Judiciary hearing was Julie Poner, an Indiana woman who had been falsely accused of domestic violence by her immigrant husband so that he could gain priority for a green card and eventual citizenship.

Going on to explain that her experience was not unique, she emphasized, “Over the years, I’ve talked with countless men and women who have similar stories to tell — American citizens who have lost access to their children, their homes, their jobs and, [in] some cases, their freedom because of false allegations of abuse.”

Much of the problem arises because the Citizenship and Immigration Services deems a person accused of domestic violence to be a “prohibited source.” So the CIS, in Kafka-esque manner, refuses to accept any documentation that might reveal the immigrant to be a criminal, welfare cheat or perjurer.

Poner’s testimony elicited a hasty promise from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) that the problem would be addressed in the upcoming revision of the law.

But the show was far from over.

The appearance of the next witness, Eileen Larence of the Government Accountability Office, provided an opening for committee ranking member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Citing a probe by the Department of Justice inspector general that unearthed shoddy accounting practices at 21 of 22 VAWA grantees, Grassley commented tartly: “Simply put, in today’s economic environment, we cannot tolerate this level of malfeasance in federal grant programs.”

So what’s the solution?

Stop Abusive and Violent Environments, a victim-advocacy organization for which I serve as a board member, has recently proposed a number of reforms to the Violence Against Women Act.

The common-sense changes include tightening up definitions so that true victims get priority, removing harmful mandatory arrest practices, restoring the presumption of innocence to the accused, improving accountability and making sure educational programs provide sound factual information.

To make the law gender-inclusive, we are proposing the law be renamed the Partner Violence Reduction Act. Our changes retain 95 percent of the existing Violence Against Women Act provisions that have done incalculable good, while incorporating the lessons learned since VAWA’s original enactment in 1994.

For persons who have been harmed by a partner or by a false accusation of abuse, the Partner Violence Reduction Act offers the prospect of healing and hope.

Natasha Spivack is treasurer of the Maryland-based group Stop Abusive and Violent Environments.

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