Federal Domestic Violence Law: Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)

The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 (VAWA) represented the first comprehensive piece of legislation in the U.S. to seek an end to violence against women. 

It was enacted as Title IV of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. The passage of VAWA followed an intense period of victim advocacy in the 1970s and 1980s. President Joe Biden, then a member of the U.S. Senate, was a key proponent of VAWA.

The Violence Against Women Act provided funds to support the investigation and prosecution of domestic violence and sexual violence. It also established a national domestic violence hotline. The law set forth federal law crimes for crossing state lines to commit intimate partner domestic violence or to violate a protection order. The law provides legal assistance for survivors of domestic violence who seek protection or restraining orders. Although the law, by its title, refers to violence against women, the law is gender-neutral in its application. It applies regardless of sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

VAWA created the federal Office on Violence Against Women (OVAW) within the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Both OVAW and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) administer grant programs and technical assistance programs throughout the states. Many programs provide funds to victim service organizations and local governments. These programs have addressed domestic violence, sexual violence, stalking, and dating violence. Grant funds have supported shelters, service providers, and education programs. The Office on Violence Against Women also produces fact sheets about specific services and programs.

Congress passed the VAWA reauthorization act in 2000, 2005, and 2013. The law now includes initiatives to add protections for gay, lesbian, and transgender persons and Native Americans. It also included protections based on immigrant status. The Violence Against Women Act also provides victims with protections from housing discrimination. It supports programs to assist victims with disabilities.

Efforts to re-authorize the law again in 2019 were not successful. The House and Senate struggled to find consensus. President Biden signed the latest VAWA reauthorization act into law as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2022. The latest version of the act expanded tribal court authority over non-Native offenders who commit domestic violence crimes on tribal lands. It also created a federal civil cause of action for persons whose intimate visual images are used without consent. It established a National Resource Center on Cybercrimes.

What Does VAWA Do?

The key provisions of the Violence Against Women Act include:

  • Establishing federal law crimes that prohibit (1) crossing state lines (or enter or leave Indian country) to physically injure an intimate partner and (2) crossing state lines to stalk or harass another within the maritime or territorial lands of the U.S. (which includes Indian country), and (3) to cross state lines (or enter or leave Indian country) and violate a qualifying protection order
  • Establishing Community-Coordinated Responses to the crimes of domestic violence and sexual assault
  • Providing support and funds to domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, and violence prevention and education programs, especially for underserved populations
  • Identifying dating violence and stalking as related crimes
  • Providing full funding of rape kits and rape prevention programs and services for victims of sexual abuse
  • Requiring the recognition and enforcement of domestic violence protection orders in all state, tribal, and territorial jurisdictions of the U.S. via the Full Faith and Credit clause of the U.S. Constitution
  • Providing protections for persons living in public housing who are victims of domestic violence
  • Providing resources to colleges and university campuses to educate students about dating violence and sexual assault
  • Implementing and funding special domestic violence and intimate partner violence crime units in local communities
  • Providing special domestic violence and sexual assault training for law enforcement officers, victim service workers, and prosecutors
  • Permitting tribal courts to try non-Indian spouses or intimate partners in domestic violence or dating violence cases
  • Providing victim advocacy and assistance to LGBTQ+ survivors of domestic violence
  • Enhancing prevention programs and services for victims with disabilities

Landmark Cases on VAWA

There are several cases about VAWA interstate provisions in the federal courts. For example, in United States v. Rita Gluzman (NY), the defendant traveled from New Jersey to New York. She intended to kill her estranged husband. She traveled with weapons she used in the murder. Her cousin also participated in the murder and testified against her.

Federal prosecutors from the U.S. Department of Justice charged Gluzman under federal law. There were legal obstacles to proceeding under state law. They charged her with crossing state lines to commit domestic violence in the murder. The Second Circuit upheld the VAWA prosecution. It found no violations of Gluzman's constitutional rights and affirmed Gluzman's conviction. She was sentenced to life in prison. This case also demonstrates the gender neutrality of the VAWA's criminal sections. Gluzman was a woman.

VAWA originally allowed victims of gender-motivated domestic abuse to file civil lawsuits. They could sue for violations of their civil rights and to seek damages in civil court. However, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned this section of VAWA. In United States v. Morrison (2000), the court held that Congress improperly placed these actions in the federal courts. The Court found that Congress exceeded its authority. The Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution did not reach individual domestic violence acts. The violent acts in question did not have a direct effect on interstate commerce. The Court also concluded that the VAWA civil rights actions did not fall under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. To invoke an equal protection violation, the victims had to show State action and could not.

VAWA Impact on Domestic Violence Arrest Policies

The movement toward pro-arrest policies in domestic violence was already underway when VAWA became law. VAWA funded new programs. VAWA grant programs led more states and local governments to incorporate pro-arrest policies. These changes altered the criminal justice response. It also led to increased penalties for domestic violence abusers and sex offenders.

Two grant programs set up under VAWA focus on law enforcement and arrest policies. The STOP (Special Training Officers and Prosecutors) grant program includes goals of increasing the apprehension and prosecution of domestic violence and sexual assault offenders. The Arrest Program (Grants to Encourage Arrest Policies in Domestic Violence Cases) likewise provided funds to support the enactment of pro-arrest or mandatory arrest policies in law enforcement.

Proponents of pro-arrest policies claim that VAWA support helped increase arrests nationwide. Arrests bring accountability for domestic violence and violations of protection orders. They state that domestic violence and sexual assault incidents have decreased over time. Opponents of pro-arrest policies claim that increased arrests had a chilling effect on reporting by victims. They claim this led to the charging of disproportionate numbers of men and women in minority communities with crimes.

VAWA Grants Need a Coordinated Community Response (CCR)

A key element under VAWA is the Coordinated Community Response (CCR) to victims of crime. CCR requires VAWA grant programs to build a community-based task force of stakeholders. This coalition works together to end domestic violence and sexual abuse. VAWA calls for a comprehensive approach that brings all parties to the table. A Coordinated Community Response will include representatives of law enforcement, victim services, and prosecutors. It will also include health care workers, non-profit service providers, and rape crisis centers. Coordinated Community Response teams may include other criminal justice workers, religious leaders, and domestic violence survivors. This coordinated response seeks to improve outcomes for victims.

Federal Domestic Violence Law: Related Resources

Questions About Federal Domestic Violence Law? Talk to an Attorney

If you or someone you know has experienced domestic violence or sexual violence, whether across state lines or not, you should learn more about your rights and the laws that protect you. You may contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE. You can find helpful information at the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence. You can also obtain legal assistance. Speak to an experienced family law attorney today.

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