Washington, DC - Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Grassley, and members of the Committee. I appreciate very much the opportunity to speak to you today. The Violence Against Women Act has had an enormous impact in combatting domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking, and I am here to urge Congress to reauthorize and to strengthen it.
Before we get started though, Mr. Chairman with your indulgence, I would like to recognize several tragedies that the Department of Justice has suffered in recent days. Yesterday in Tucson, Arizona, a DEA agent was shot and killed, and a second DEA agent and a task force officer were shot and wounded. Separately, last Friday, a Deputy U.S. Marshal succumbed to injuries from a vehicle accident that occurred while he was assisting with a law enforcement operation. These sacrifices remind all of us of the risks law enforcement take every day to protect the communities that they serve. My thoughts and prayers are with their families, and the men and women of the DEA and the U.S. Marshals Service.
Now Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member Grassley, the original passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994, as you have noted Mr. Chairman, had a major impact on my own life. At the time I was a young staff member on this Committee, working for then-Chairman Biden, and one of my responsibilities included responding to letters from people who wrote to the Committee. Time and again, I read firsthand accounts not only about the violence that too many people — mostly women — suffered at the hands of their intimate partners, but also about the lack of accountability for these crimes.
Statistics the Committee reported during that period painted a very grim picture: 98% of rape victims never saw their attacker caught, tried and imprisoned — meaning almost all perpetrators of rape walked free. Fewer than half of people arrested for rape were convicted, and almost half of convicted rapists could expect to serve a year or less in jail.
My conversations with individual survivors, rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, emergency rooms and police stations put a tragic human face on those statistics. This experience led me to want to go to law school and it led me into public service; it drew me to a career in law enforcement and criminal justice. With the passage of VAWA, I saw how a law could make a real difference in people’s lives and I saw what Congress could accomplish through thoughtful policy, driven by courageous voices, experts and bipartisan leadership.
Congress reauthorized VAWA in 2000, 2005, and 2013 — each time with bipartisan support. Over the years, we have made substantial progress, but the need for VAWA’s programs and protections is as critical as ever. I would like to highlight just a few of the items the department sees as priorities for a reauthorization bill:
First, reauthorizing VAWA’s vitally important grant programs at the $1 billion funding levels included in the President’s FY 2022 request, this will ensure communities can provide critical services to survivors, as well as the right tools and training to make sure that responses to these crimes are survivor-centered and trauma-informed. I am pleased to announce today that the Office of Violence Against Women has issued this year more than $476 million in grants to help state, local and tribal organizations support survivors as they heal, promote victim access to justice and train professionals to respond to domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault and stalking.
Second, we need to find new ways to reach and improve services for underserved populations, including culturally specific communities.
Third, expanding the ability of tribes to protect their communities from domestic and sexual violence through expanded jurisdiction.
And fourth, reducing homicides through federal firearms laws, including by closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole” that leaves countless victims at risk.
Before I take your questions Mr. Chairman, I want to speak to two recent issues that have received considerable national attention and underscore the continued importance of VAWA.
The tragic murder of Gabby Petito has been at the forefront of many people’s minds. While I will not speak to the ongoing investigation regarding her death, I am struck by two critical lessons we should take away from the publicly-reported information, not just in this case but in the thousands of other cases that don’t receive public attention. First is the importance of the bystander’s 911 call, which prompted law enforcement to respond to reports of violence between Ms. Petito and her boyfriend. The second, as we learned from watching the public video footage of interviews conducted by those officers, is the vital importance of having trained law enforcement who understand the dynamics of domestic violence when responding to such incidents.
But we should not forget that Gabby Petito is not alone — there are more than 89,000 missing person cases in this country, and roughly 45% of them involve people of color, including too many missing and murdered indigenous persons. Gender-based violence is too often a precursor to these cases, and while these cases often don’t receive public attention, the Department of Justice will continue its work to prevent these crimes and to bring perpetrators to justice.
Finally, I want to recognize the many courageous women athletes who have spoken out and testified on behalf of the hundreds of survivors of Larry Nassar’s horrific sexual abuse, most recently the four brave women who came before this Committee last month. I also want to thank this Committee for its work and that of the Inspector General bringing to light a system that inexcusably failed them and the scores of other survivors.
As the Deputy Attorney General, as a lawyer, as a former FBI official – and as a woman – I was outraged by the Inspector General’s findings and horrified at the experiences Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, Maggie Nichols and Aly Raisman recounted in their powerful testimony. I am deeply sorry that in this case, the victims did not receive the response or the protection they deserved.
I have discussed with the FBI Director the full scope of changes he is instituting to ensure this never happens again. I have also directed additional measures inside the Department of Justice to ensure that where there is an ongoing threat, violence or abuse especially when involving vulnerable victims, that our prosecutors understand they have a duty to coordinate with our local law enforcement partners to address it. And I have made clear that it is a priority of the Department of Justice to provide to victims and witnesses of crime the support that they need.
My experience working on VAWA for this Committee many years ago taught me a key principle that guides me still today: our government has a moral obligation to protect its citizens. And when it falls short in that effort, we must listen to those who we have let down, to better understand where we can improve. Survivors who come forward to report abuse must be met with competent and compassionate professionals who have the resources, training and institutional support to do their jobs. That is the promise of VAWA, and one the Department of Justice is committed to carrying out in our own organization, and in VAWA-funded programs and work throughout the country.
I appreciate the time and attention of the many members of Congress who have contributed to this important legislation — many for decades. I look forward to continuing that work with this Committee and to answering your questions today.