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116th Congress Legislative Update: Legislation to Watch VAWA, FVPSA, and MMIW

With Analysis By Elizabeth Carr (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians), Senior Native Affairs Policy Advisor, NIWRC

  As Congress returns from holiday recess, the new year will begin with a flurry of action on the Hill in relation to several bills pertinent to addressing and enhancing safety of Native women.  All bills that were pending at the end of 2019 will move into 2020 for continued negotiations and consideration. It is important to note that while there are bills that remain unauthorized (Violence Against Women Act and Family Violence Prevention and Services Act), the funding for important programs related to those bills remains intact and will continue through FY 2020 as they continue to be funded through the appropriations process.  

  In addition, to the legislative updates we provide in Restoration Magazine, NIWRC will provide legislative status updates more frequently using our email listserve. If you subscribe to our listserve, you will receive bi-weekly legislative updates designed to keep grassroots advocates, and tribal leaders updated on the status of bills important to the work of protecting and enhancing safety for Native women. NIWRC will also continue to send out action alerts for major legislative actions and calls to action to mobilize survivors and advocates.  


  The House voted to pass two spending packages on Tuesday, December 17, 2019, which was subsequently passed by the Senate on Thursday, December 18, 2019 and signed into law by the President on Friday, December 20, 2019.  These omnibus spending packages include appropriations for the continuation of VAWA, FVPSA, and VOCA programs.  

Violence Against Women Act: Requires Authorization

  Last reauthorized in 2013, the authorization for VAWA expired in 2018.  On April 4, 2019, the House of Representatives passed a VAWA Reauthorization bill (H.R. 1585). This bipartisan bill was developed in partnership with national and tribal advocacy organizations. H.R. 1585 includes critical resources for tribes to implement VAWA and necessary lifesaving amendments to enhance tribal sovereignty and safety for Native women and is widely supported across Indian Country. Bipartisan negotiations in the Senate unfortunately broke down and has resulted in two Senate Bills to reauthorize VAWA.  
• On November 13, 2019, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced a companion Senate Bill (S.2843) to H.R. 1585 to reauthorize VAWA. This bill closely mirrors the language contained in the bipartisan, advocate supported H.R. 1585 and is inclusive of the important tribal provisions that tribal leaders and advocates strongly support.
• On November 20, 2019, Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) introduced a second bill, S.2920, to reauthorize VAWA. Unfortunately, the S.2920 provisions would leave Native women less protected from violent offenders by destabilizing tribal courts and infringing on tribal sovereignty. S.2920, if enacted, would undermine tribal justice systems by imposing undue burdens and restrictions on tribal courts far beyond those imposed on federal and state courts, including unprecedented audits by the Attorney General while further leaving Tribes vulnerable to lawsuits by tribal court defendants through the stripping of sovereign immunity. Ultimately, this bill would eliminate the gains made in VAWA 2013 and infringes on the inherent tribal authority of tribal nations to prosecute crimes committed against their citizens on tribal lands.  

  In contrast to S.2920, the bipartisan H.R. 1585 and S.2843 include the tribal provisions that national, regional, and local tribal organizations advocated for to provide enhanced protections for Native women. There is no reason to substitute the language in H.R. 1585 and S. 2843 with language found in S.2920 that will preclude tribal courts, and ultimately tribal nations, from protecting their most vulnerable populations, Native women and children. S.2920 would be a huge step backward with VAWA provisions aimed to destabilize and limit the inherent authority of tribal nations. Moving into 2020, NIWRC remains hopeful and looks forward to working with the Senate to pass a bipartisan reauthorization of VAWA that protects tribal sovereignty to increase the safety for Native women and children.

Family Violence Prevention and Services Act: Requires Authorization

  The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA) authorization expired in 2015. The FVPSA provides critical support for shelters, coalitions, training and technical assistance centers, children’s services, emergency response hotlines, and prevention initiatives. The FVPSA is the only federal grant program solely dedicated to domestic violence shelter and supportive services. It is the primary source of funding for these services for Indian tribes.

  This past year, a coalition of national advocacy organizations worked closely with congressional staffers in both the House and Senate to draft an enhanced reauthorization of the FVPSA reflecting the diverse needs of domestic violence victims and priorities of Indian tribes and the domestic violence field. In July, Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced S. 2259. In November, House Representatives Lucy McBath (D-GA), Gwen Moore (D-WI), Tom Cole (R-OK), and John Katko (R-NY) introduced a companion bill H.R. 5041. These bills, S. 2259 and H.R. 5041, expand grant programs and make many needed improvements so that more survivors have access to support and safety including:

- Increasing the overall funding authorization level to address very low per-program funding levels and provide access to FVPSA funds for more tribes and programs not currently funded.
- Strengthening the capacity of Indian Tribes to exercise their sovereign authority to more fully respond to domestic violence in their communities by increasing the current 10% tribal allocation to 12.5% off the top of appropriations.
- Authorizing recognition and meaningful funding for tribal coalitions to provide Indian tribes and tribal organizations with technical assistance and training on developing responses to domestic violence.
- Authorizing recognition and permanent funding for the currently funded Alaska Native Women’s Resource Center.
- Authorizing recognition and permanent funding for the currently funded StrongHearts Native Helpline to serve as the national Indian domestic violence hotline.

  On December 12, 2019, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee passed S.2971 a package of legislation inclusive of a bill to reauthorize FVPSA.  Unfortunately, S.2971 falls short of the tribal enhancements included in S.2259 and H.R. 5041. The NIWRC and the national coalition looks forward to continued conversations in 2020 to ensure that the FVPSA bill moving forward is inclusive of more robust enhancements for Tribes and tribal programs.

Savanna’s Act

  Introduced in both the Senate (S.277) and House (H.R. 2733). Originally, advocates and NIWRC raised several serious concerns with S.277. Those concerns were addressed in H.R. 2733 and have subsequently been addressed in the markup of S.277.  

  Savanna’s Act aims to improve the response to missing and murdered Native women by:
- Improving tribal access to federal criminal information databases;
- Requiring data collection on missing and murdered Native people; and
- Directing the U.S. Attorneys to develop law enforcement and justice protocols to address missing persons.

  Significant changes that NIWRC and other organizations have advocated for include:
- Expand the requirement for the creation of law enforcement guidelines to all U.S. Attorneys, not just those with Indian Country jurisdiction, and require such guidelines to be regionally appropriate;
- Require the Attorney General to publicly list the law enforcement agencies that comply with the provisions of the legislation (rather than list those that don’t comply); and
- Replace the affirmative preference subsections with an implementation and incentive section that provides grant authority to law enforcement organizations to implement the provisions of the legislation and increases the amount of those grants for those that comply, while removing the preference provision in the original S. 277 that will punish Tribal Nations lacking sufficient resources to implement the guidelines their local U.S. Attorney creates.

Not Invisible Act

  Introduced in both the Senate (S.982) and House (H.R. 2438), the Not Invisible Act aims at addressing the crisis of missing, murdered, and trafficked Native people by engaging law enforcement, tribal leaders, federal partners, and service providers and improving coordination across federal agencies. This bipartisan bill establishes an advisory committee of local, tribal, and federal stakeholders to make recommendations to the Department of Interior and Department of Justice on best practices to combat the epidemic of disappearances, homicide, violent crime, and trafficking of Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

Bridging Agency Data Gaps and Ensuring Safety Act

  Introduced in both the Senate (S.1853) and the House (H.R. 4289), the Bridging Agency Data Gaps and Ensuring Safety Act (BADGES) aims to improve law enforcement recruitment, Tribal access to federal criminal databases, and coordination between federal, state, Tribal, and local law enforcement agencies by:

- Addressing inefficiencies in federal criminal databases;
Increasing Tribal access to federal criminal databases; and
 - Improving public data on missing and murdered Indigenous women cases and Indian Country law enforcement staffing levels.
- Promoting more efficient recruitment and retention of BIA law enforcement;
- Providing Tribes with resources to improve public safety coordination between their governments, States, and federal agencies; and
- Mitigating against federal law enforcement personnel mishandling evidence crucial to securing conviction of violent offenders.

Finding and Investigating Native Disappearance Act

  Introduced in the Senate, the Finding and Investigation Native Disappearance Act (FIND Act) (S.1893) aims to require the Comptroller General of the United States to conduct a study on ways to increase reporting of missing Indians and the effects of the use of methamphetamine and other illegal drugs on violent crime in Tribal communities, and for other purposes.

Tribal Reporting and Accountability to Congress Act

  Introduced in the Senate, the Tribal Reporting and Accountability to Congress Act (TRAC Act) (S.1892) aims to amend the Indian Law Enforcement Reform Act to require each tribal liaison within the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to submit to Congress an annual report on missing and murdered Indians.


Native Youth & Tribal Officer Protection Act

  Introduced in both the Senate (S.290) and the House (H.R. 958), the Native Youth and Tribal Officer Protection Act (NYTOPA) aims to reaffirm tribal criminal jurisdiction over some crimes committed by non-Indians including:  child abuse and crimes that are committed against certain public safety & justice officials.
Justice for Native Survivors Act

  Introduced in both the Senate (S.288) and the House (H.R. 3977), the Justice for Native Survivors Act aims to reaffirm tribal criminal jurisdiction over some crimes committed by non-Indians including sexual assault, stalking, and trafficking.


Survive Act

Introduced and passed out of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, the bipartisan Survive Act (S.211) would direct that five percent of the total annual outlays from the Crime Victims Fund (CVF) be provided to Indian tribes to provide crime victim services.  Since Fiscal Year 2018, Congress has appropriated 5% of the CVF for a tribal set aside, S.211 would make the authorize the appropriation permanently.


Alaska Tribal Public Safety Empowerment Act

  Introduced in the Senate, the Alaska Tribal Public Safety Empowerment Act (S.2616) aims to expand the jurisdiction provided in the Violence Against Women Act of 2013 (VAWA) to apply to Alaska Native villages on a pilot basis. This bill would also expand covered crimes to include crimes of domestic violence; dating violence; violation of a protective order, sexual violence; stalking; sex trafficking; obstruction of justice; assault of a law enforcement or correctional officer; any crime against a child; and any crime involving the possession, transportation, or sale of alcohol or drugs where that possession, transportation, or sale is prohibited by an applicable federal, state, or tribal law. Eligible tribes must meet the required criteria including having a community predominantly Native.


Elizabeth Carr