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Ashcroft Constrains Violence against Women Office

March 11, 2003

By Rebecca Vesely, Women's Enews

Two senior Democratic senators and a coalition of domestic violence advocates are protesting U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's interpretation of a 2002 reauthorization law that they say was intended to elevate the Office on Violence Against Women to a more prominent position.

A provision in the 2002 Justice Department reauthorization bill, passed in October and signed by President George W. Bush, made the Office on Violence Against Women a permanent, separate and independent office within the Justice Department. The Democratic senators and advocates say that this means that the office director would be appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate and would report directly to Ashcroft. The office currently resides within the Office of Justice Programs and reports to an assistant attorney general.

But the Justice Department maintains that the provision's language leaves the decision about where to place the office up to Ashcroft, who has decided not to make its chief directly responsible to him.

"The Department of Justice is going out of its way to downgrade the importance of violence against women," says Kiersten Stewart, public policy director of the Family Violence Prevention Fund. "This is an important issue that affects between one in three and one in four women. The highest ranking law enforcement office in the country is saying that this is not an important issue."

Ashcroft's Move Diminishes Importance of Office

The office, known as VWO, is charged with overseeing the Violence Against Women Act, enacted in 1994 and reauthorized in 2000. The office has awarded more than $1 billion in grants to assist community agencies and state, tribal and local governments. The funds are used to train personnel, start domestic violence and sexual assault police units, assist victims of violence and prosecute perpetrators of violence.

Democratic Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware warned that not elevating the office means that the issues of violence against women will not command the attention of Congress or the administration.

"A director who is nominated by the president and confirmed by the senate will have the stature, authority and credibility necessary to spearhead the efforts to end violence against women," Biden said from the Senate floor earlier this month. "In practical terms, a director with this sort of clout will attract the attention of key congressional leaders, will be able to travel the country and bring state leaders to the table on local initiatives and will be able to command the nation's bully pulpit on these issues."

But in a letter sent to Biden earlier this month, Acting Assistant Attorney General Jamie Brown wrote that the statute was open to interpretation and that Ashcroft has broad authority to organize the department "in the manner that he judged most efficacious for carrying out its important duties."

"On balance, the department believes that the better reading of 'separate and distinct office' is simply that OVW must have a recognizable status as an organizational entity, not that it may not be part of another department component," Brown wrote.

Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee, says that the language is clear.

"The statute is unequivocal," Leahy said from the Senate floor. "The director shall report directly to the attorney general—do not pass go, do not get out of jail free."

The current VWO director, Diane Stuart, would be the obvious and popular choice if the office were elevated. Stuart was appointed by President Bush in 2001 and was previously state coordinator for the Utah Domestic Violence Cabinet Council. She has a long history as a domestic violence advocate, working for Utah's Division of Child and Family Services and running a domestic violence shelter and rape crisis center.

Biden says keeping the office as a subunit would have ramifications for the many women who are victims of violence.

"When the director is out of the leadership circle and placed in a satellite office, the Violence Against Women Office's involvement in activities decreases," he said. "For example, it is no longer involved in educating U.S. attorneys about their role in local communities' efforts to stop violence or it is no longer involved in deciding whether to appeal or bring specific cases."

Permanent Office Meant to Ensure Permanence

Efforts to elevate the office to a more prominent and visible role was spearheaded last year by Democrats Biden, Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota. Before the provision became law, Violence against Women Office did not have a permanent place in the Justice Department and could potentially be eliminated.

"In previous administrations, we had individuals in power with personal commitments to the issue, such as Attorney General Janet Reno and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, so elevating the office was not a priority," says Stewart of the Family Violence Prevention Fund.

Stewart points to recent budget cuts as further evidence that the current administration does not view violence against women as an important issue. President Bush's proposed budget includes $17 million in cuts to programs that train law enforcement in its response to domestic violence.

But the Justice Department did not answer calls seeking comment, although Brown in his letter to Biden said: "The attorney general shares your commitment to ending violence against women."

Rebecca Vesely is the West Coast bureau chief for Women's Enews. Women's Enews is a news service based in New York City.

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