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Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Published March 02 2013

Letter: Women’s act vital for ND

Last week during the Senate’s work period, I traveled the state hosting six meetings regarding the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. I co-sponsored and voted for this bipartisan legislation because I know how absolutely imperative it is to North Dakota families. I am so pleased that the House of Representatives passed the Senate version of VAWA, sending the reauthorization to the president for his signature. This will be the first co-sponsored legislation to be signed into law, and I couldn’t be more proud.

My Violence Against Women Act discussions across the state helped reiterate why it is so important for us to reauthorize this law. During these meetings, I heard emotional testimony from women who have experienced domestic violence. I heard from one North Dakota woman who came back here from Montana with her two children and what they could fit in their car, fleeing an abusive relationship. Because of VAWA, law enforcement was able to stop her abuser from following her and her children. Stories like these show how this legislation affects not just women but entire families.

I also heard from law enforcement officials who repeatedly praised the programs funded through VAWA. In Fargo, Police Chief Keith Ternes said that if VAWA was not reauthorized, he feared that the progress we have made in combatting domestic violence would be lost. In Grand Forks, University of North Dakota Police Chief Eric Plummer said that VAWA funding is crucial to help educate college students about dangers they could encounter.

This legislation is important for all North Dakotans, but particularly American Indian women. Thankfully, the provisions I fought for that give American Indians the same protections as non-natives are included in the reauthorization that passed both the Senate and House. Women in Indian country experience abuse at a very high rate, and our bill includes specific provisions designed to make them safer. I repeatedly said that I would not support a VAWA reauthorization that did not protect American Indian women. My position was strengthened when I discussed the law with women in Indian country during my tour. We agreed that the provisions in the Senate bill I supported will go a long way to stop violence on our reservations. Currently, tribal prosecutors cannot prosecute non-natives on the reservation. For example, if a non-native is traveling through a reservation and sexually assaults someone, the tribe cannot punish them. It falls to the Department of Justice to prosecute, but the DOJ often lacks the resources to consider such cases. When a North Dakotan commits a crime in Minnesota, Minnesota prosecutes the perpetrator. Under the reauthorization, the same rules will now apply to reservations.

While many people criticize the ineffectiveness of federal programs, VAWA works. In fact, VAWA has reduced incidences of domestic violence by more than 50 percent. This is real progress, but we can still do better. Senate and House passage of this reauthorization is an important step in our efforts to reduce domestic violence.

Heitkamp, D-N.D., was elected to the U.S. Senate in November.