Making Homes A Safe Haven

By Senator Susan M. Collins

Home is a place where people should be able to relax, be comfortable, and enjoy time with family.  It is the one place where people should feel entirely safe.  But, for far too many families across the nation, home is a place of violence and fear. 

Domestic violence is a serious problem in the U.S.  And unfortunately, Maine is not exempt. According to the most recent study by the Department of Justice, an estimated 588,490 women were violently attacked in 2001 by an intimate partner. In Maine, one-third of all criminal cases were related to domestic violence.  One important way to address this problem is to increase awareness.

In 1989, Congress designated October as “Domestic Violence Awareness Month.”  In honor of this designation, groups and individuals across the country have scheduled events to raise public awareness about the prevalence of domestic violence, the need for prevention, and resources that are available to victims.  In Maine for example, the Maine Department of Public Safety has scheduled events in conjunction with this awareness month.

Domestic violence does not discriminate.  In addition to physical dangers, it can destroy a woman’s life and her self-esteem regardless of her age, education, economic status, religion, or race.  And this is a crime that is affecting communities across Maine.  Tragically, domestic violence is the number one cause of murder in our state.  It is our duty as citizens and friends to recognize this problem and work together to do what we can to put a stop to it.

 In addition to local and community awareness events, Congress can also play an important role in this issue by ensuring that resources are available to families that are suffering because of domestic violence. 

For example, in 2000, Congress reauthorized the “Violence Against Women Act” (VAWA), which has proven to be a valuable resource in the fight against domestic violence.  I was an original cosponsor of this legislation and it was unanimously approved by the Senate.

VAWA encourages states and local communities to strengthen the criminal justice system's response to domestic and sexual violence, to be proactive in addressing violence against women, and provide services to victims.  VAWA also sets aside Department of Justice funds to aid law enforcement officers and prosecutors, encourage arrest policies, establish and operate training programs for victim advocates and counselors, and train probation and parole officers who work with released sex offenders.  Under this legislation, Health and Human Services (HHS) grants are also available to shelters for battered women and for community domestic violence programs. 

VAWA has done a great deal to assist victims, but I believe that additional funding is needed for this and other similar programs.   

I also cosponsored the “National Domestic Violence Hotline Enhancement Act.” This bill would direct HHS to oversee the establishment of a secure network and website that would link every domestic violence shelter and service provider in the country to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.  This would enable victims and their families, through a single phone call to the Hotline, to quickly and confidentially locate a shelter or other much-needed services so that they can escape a dangerous situation.  Since only 43 percent of shelters in the U.S. have Internet access, this bill allows funds to be used to provide Internet access and training to shelters that currently do not have the appropriate technology.  

In addition, I also joined with Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) in introducing the “Family Violence Prevention Act.”  This legislation would create an Office of Family Violence at HHS to coordinate family violence programs among federal agencies, as well as those at the state and local levels.   The bill would create five centers that would provide research on family violence, linking each center to local and community resources.  Finally, the legislation would establish new health professional training grants to test and evaluate current or new training models and programs used to identify and treat victims of family violence.

These bills created important provisions to build upon the “Violence Against Women Act” and it is my hope that Congress will approve them to provide additional vital resources for women who are abused by their partners.

I have also urged my colleagues to provide increased funding for transitional housing for domestic violence victims.  This is a critical resource.  When abused women have access to immediate shelter where their abuser cannot find them, they are more likely to escape their dangerous situations.  

Women who escape domestic violence can avoid becoming a statistic.  One in three women who are murdered are killed by a current or former partner.  And according to the Maine Department of Public Safety, domestic violence assaults increased more than 11 percent last year, from 4,813 cases in 2002 to 5,364 in 2003.

This and other alarming statistics illustrate that we must continue to protect women from abusive partners.

There are many victims of domestic violence who need our help.  Last year, more than 13,000 people received services from the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence.  If you believe you know somebody who is a victim of abuse, you can begin helping by just talking to her and encouraging her to utilize the resources that are available to her.  If you are a concerned citizen who is saddened by the realities of domestic violence, there are numerous volunteer opportunities available in many communities throughout our state.

It is my hope that this awareness month will inspire more people to volunteer in programs that will really make a difference in the life of an abused woman, so that more women will again be able to look to their homes as a safe haven.