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Ryan Johnson, Published February 20 2013

Officials warn of impact of failing to pass domestic abuse act

FARGO – Officials here said Wednesday that local efforts to reduce domestic violence will suffer if lawmakers don’t renew a federal law that helps pay for training, prevention and support programs.

In a roundtable meeting about the Violence Against Women Act, Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes said law enforcement “had our head in the sand” on domestic abuse 20 years ago.

“By not having the act reinstituted, my fear is that we basically turn the clock back and whatever progress we’ve made over the course of the last couple of decades all of a sudden gets lost,” Ternes said.

His comments came at one of the six meetings Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., is holding across the state this week with law enforcement and domestic violence agencies. Senators passed a bill last week to renew the law, which hasn’t been approved in the U.S. House.

Fargo-Moorhead Rape and Abuse Crisis Center Executive Director Greg Diehl said if VAWA money ended, his agency would lose 13 percent of its funding and be forced to “greatly” reduce services.

Mara Solberg said her sister, a victim of violence in Crookston, Minn., left her abusive home with the help of law enforcement. But she said the trauma can take a lifetime to overcome, and there wasn’t enough support to help her sister, who died in September.

“I just think we could do better,” she said.

YWCA President Sindy Keller said the agency was able to help 121 women and children find housing last year, relying on funding from VAWA and federal agencies. She said expiration of the act and looming automatic federal budget cuts could mean the agency loses “critical” financial support.

Erin Prochnow, YWCA’s executive director and the niece of Heitkamp, said failure to act will have drastic consequences.

“There’s no time to waste,” she said, adding several local programs could lose funding Sept. 30 if VAWA is not renewed.

The Senate voted 78-22 on Feb. 12 to pass a five-year, $659 million extension to the act. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., joined Heitkamp and both of Minnesota’s Democratic senators in voting for the bill.

As passed by the Senate, the bill included new protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender victims and a provision that would allow non-Native Americans accused of assaulting Indian women on reservations to be tried in tribal courts. The act was first approved in 1994 and reauthorized by Congress in 2000 and 2005 before expiring in 2011.

Heitkamp said one of the issues between the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-led Senate last year was a plan to protect undocumented immigrant victims. That provision was taken out of the new Senate bill to be included in an immigration reform bill, she said, but the other new elements may lead to “some amount of consternation” in the House.

“I will not support a Violence Against Women Act that does not have a provision for Native American women for protection on the reservations,” she said.

Attempts to reach Reps. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and Collin Peterson, D-Minn., for comment were unsuccessful.

Heitkamp said violence against women has fallen by more than 50 percent in the past 20 years, but more is needed to tackle this problem.

“We’ve turned the corner on whether we can in fact solve the problem,” she said. “We know we can.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587

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