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Domestic Violence Protections Still Resonate 20 Years After Crime Bill

Vice President Joe Biden hugs Ruth Glenn, of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, at a commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Act. Glenn says that as a victim in 1992, there was no place to turn.
Susan Walsh
Vice President Joe Biden hugs Ruth Glenn, of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, at a commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Act. Glenn says that as a victim in 1992, there was no place to turn.

Twenty years ago today, former President Bill Clinton signed a massive crime-control bill that funded shelters for battered women and helped train police to investigate attacks. The anniversary of the law falls on a week when violence against women is front and center in the national conversation.

First, the Baltimore Ravens fired player Ray Rice after TMZ released a video where he knocked his then-fiancee unconscious. Then, a South African judge convicted sprinter Oscar Pistorius of negligently killing his girlfriend.

A key part of that 1994 law, known as the Violence Against Women Act, redefined wife beating as a crime rather than a joke. It's hard to believe now, but for years, that was a source of humor in TV sitcoms.

Remember Ralph Kramden taunting his wife Alice in the Honeymooners with the expression, "Pow right in the kisser?" That punch line wasn't so funny anymore back in 1994. But people still didn't take the issue as seriously as they should have.

Melanie Sloan worked on the legislation as a young House aide in those years.

"For one thing, the Violence Against Women Act made it clear that violence against women was a major problem and it hadn't really been recognized as such previous to that bill," says Sloan, who is now with the good government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Vice President Joe Biden — the lead Senate sponsor of the legislation at the time — says domestic violence hid in the shadows in the 1990s. Biden remembered the mood in a speech this week, saying "and no one, virtually no one, called it a crime. It was a family affair."

A family affair, and before the 1994 law, one with no national domestic violence hotlines and few housing options.

Ruth Glenn, an advocate for women, remembered that when she parted with her abusive husband in 1992, there was no place to turn.

"Over the next few months, my husband then harassed, and stalked and even kidnapped me at one point. Soon after, he found me again, shot me and left me for dead," says Glenn, who survived and went onto become an official at the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

The Violence Against Women Act survived too, along with ahead-of-its-time ideas including community policing and special courts for nonviolent drug addicts. "Community policing was thought to be soft on crime, social workers being thrown at a serious crime problem, which is not true. And drug courts were thought to be just an excuse for people who were caught up in the criminal justice system that would not be effective," remembers Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "Both of them have stood the test of time and are now celebrated as an important part of the American landscape."

Same goes for the domestic violence provisions, renewed by Congress several times. Lawmakers added an element to protect women from abusive boyfriends. Later, they included a new training program for doctors to screen patients for physical abuse. And last year, after a bruising political fight, Congress made social services available to people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Women's rights groups point out that even today, the topic's never far from the news. The Baltimore Ravens incident this week touched off a firestorm on social media. Women posted deeply personal stories with hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft.

Out in the open, instead of the shadows, as when Ruth Glenn fled years ago.

"In 1992, after 13 years of abuse when I realized what was happening to my son and I, I realized that the man that I married was not the person I had such hope and love for and fear became an every day event," Glenn told an audience in Washington this week.

Glenn and many other women say the Violence Against Women Act changed the conversation--and helped them change their lives.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.