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Editorial: A stronger stance on domestic violence

As lawmakers in Washington, D.C., dither over renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, the town of Amherst is improving its ability to help victims and bring more perpetrators to trial. A veteran officer with the Amherst Police Department will take over investigations into domestic violence allegations, a change that should bring consistency and accountability to this sensitive and important job.

Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone is lucky to have someone as capable and experienced as Janet Lopez for this assignment. She will now spend all her time working on domestic violence cases, which include not just relationships between couples and family members but also people who are dating and those stalked by acquaintances or strangers. As a new gun debate grows, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, it is important to remember that children are also subject to hidden violence within families that can scar them for life.

Lopez’ assignment is supported in part by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women. It shows how federal support of this sort can brighten the hopes of crime victims at the community level.

And it is a sad reminder that efforts to renew and update the Violence Against Women Act, which funds the office that is helping Amherst, remain stalled in Congress because House Republicans dislike some of its new terms. The act must be reauthorized every five years and has been renewed twice since its passage in 1994.

Though the office continues to fund programs like the one here in the Valley, it cannot continue to operate without backing from Congress. There is no doubt the law has advanced the cause of peace within American households. Since 1994, the rate of intimate partner violence in the United States has fallen by 67 percent.

The Senate voted again last week — as it did in the previous Congress — to renew the legislation, this time in a 78-22 vote. All the no votes came from male Republicans. But since 2011, GOP members of the House have blocked a vote, citing opposition to a move to expand the law to protect victims of same-sex partners and native peoples.

We understand that U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., is working on a version of the bill that can win her party’s support. We wish her luck, for the stakes are high. Given the bipartisan support the Senate bill received, it would make more sense for the House to use that version.

Republicans have questioned provisions in the Senate bill that would enable tribal courts to prosecute domestic violence suspects who are not themselves American Indians.

Their objection is apparently based on the belief that these courts do not afford proper Constitutional protections. That question warrants attention, but it is not grounds to limit the act’s protections to victims of domestic violence. Rather than let protections stall, nearly 20 years after this law’s enactment, Congress should improve them, just as Amherst is doing.

In her new job, Lopez will be able to track progress in her department’s domestic violence cases and help local prosecutors bring more offenders to justice. Though many believe our culture has faced up to domestic violence, it remains a problem. Fewer than 10 percent of these cases are prosecuted, in part because police and prosecutors lack the resources to develop cases. By being able to spend additional time with victims, Lopez hopes she can encourage more of them to seek prosecution.

Without it, those who return to abusive relationships run grave risks. In the last fiscal year, Amherst police handled 157 incidents of domestic violence.

As she gets to work, Lopez, who is bilingual, will reach out to two groups that can fall under the radar — immigrants and the disabled. And so, even as Amherst works to make sure that people new to our country receive common protections from crime, Congress is held up over the question of extending that help to the first Americans.

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