by Heather Campbell & Amanda Bashi
Heather Campbell is the Executive Director of the Advocacy Center. Amanda Bashi is a trauma-informed staff attorney at the Advocacy Center, where she represents survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
Here at the Advocacy Center, we’ve gotten some questions lately about the alarming headlines claiming Trump’s administration changed the definition of domestic violence in VAWA (the Violence Against Women Act) virtually overnight. Because we value accurate information, we consulted with some of the national experts in Domestic Violence Law to take a closer look.
According to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Domestic & Sexual Violence, the “definition change” reported in many viral stories was actually merely a change of language that appears on the Department of Justice (DOJ) website to mirror the existing statutory language in VAWA.
The current federal definitions of domestic violence and sexual assault are essentially the same ones that were in the original VAWA of 1994. For as long as the Department of Justice has been making VAWA grants, grantees (and the Federal Office of Violence Against Women (OVW)) have been constrained by these statutory definitions. They are not new. VAWA was originally part of an omnibus crimes bill, and it was steeped in a particularly criminal-focused legal response. Advocates have been working for years to update and improve the definitions, and in particular, to include a domestic violence definition that is both reflective of the lived experience of survivors, and based on current research and best practice.
As VAWA Reauthorization is considered this year by the Congress, the definitions will again be an important part of the debate. As always, OVW will continue to be bound by the language of the statute (34 U.S.C. 12991), which can only be amended by Congress.
In other words, the spark for these headlines was the substantive change to the language on the
DOJ’s website, not a change to the legal definition of domestic violence (as some news outlets have incorrectly reported). As with any other law, the statute defining domestic violence in VAWA cannot be changed by the executive branch alone. A change to laws requires Congressional action. And when it comes to VAWA, Congress hasn’t acted to change the definition of domestic violence since 1994. “The definition in VAWA has never been broad,” says Heather Campbell, Executive Director of the Advocacy Center. “Advocates can and should push for a more just definition, but be aware that the Trump administration has not modified the legal definition merely by changing the Department of Justice website.”
Viral re-posting of the false reports that the DOJ changed the legal definition of domestic violence can be harmful. Victims experiencing abuse might feel they are no longer eligible for VAWA’s protections after reading any number of the misleading headlines. In fact, the definition under VAWA has not changed and anyone concerned that they are possibly the victim of domestic or sexual violence is eligible for the same assistance from a victim’s advocacy group that was available the Obama era.
The Advocacy Center defines domestic violence as a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship. This could include, physical, emotional, sexual, financial, or other forms of non-physical abuse.
To be sure, there are currently a lot of things to take action and spread the news about — such as the harrowing tales of women fleeing violence in South America only to be met with more violence at our borders, or the outright gutting of Title IX and campus safety, or the ongoing erasure of the struggles of incarcerated survivors of gender-based violence, or the reauthorization of VAWA… You get the point. This administration is no friend to victims of domestic and sexual violence (a fairer characterization is that it is explicitly against victims’ interests). So, there are plenty of reasons to get engaged, get active, and fight for victims of gender-based violence; the superficial language change on the DOJ’s website is not one of them.