Ayo & Iken Report – Violence Against Women Act was last modified: April 27th, 2019 by Howard Iken

Ayo & Iken Report – Violence Against Women Act

 

Our Legal Correspondent Tom Lemons explores the Violence Against Women Act. Attorneys Howard Ellzey, Jason Ponder, and Claudia Blackwell provide their personal and legal opinions on the issue.

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Our specialized content, video, and other informative media are based on input from Ayo and Iken team members,  outside guests, former team members of Ayo and Iken, independent journalists, and subject-matter authorities. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the official position of Ayo and Iken. Attorneys that are not current team members at Ayo and Iken may be reached through their member listing on the Florida Bar website: www.flabar.org

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Tom Lemons:

We’re here at the Brooksville Courthouse located in Hernando County, Florida, where the wheels of justice are turning and deciding the fates of the accused, settling civil disputes, and dissolving irreconcilable relationships. But there’s one law that costs taxpayers billions each year and has more jurisdiction over your life than any judge or jury.

Tom Lemons:

I’m Tom Lemons, and this is the Ayo and Iken Report.

Tom Lemons:

Today we’re investigating the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. For those who aren’t familiar with the law, then-Senator Joe Biden, now Presidential Candidate for the 2020 election, helped draft the bill that gave more power to law enforcement and judges and created a multi-billion dollar industry for the private sector.

Tom Lemons:

The law was initially created to help protect abused women, but something changed since the enactment in 1994, and now legislators are concerned about wasteful spending, misappropriated funds, and even fraud. The US Inspector General’s Office conducted audits on dozens of domestic violence shelters and other nonprofit organizations and found that poor management and lack of oversight was part of the problem.

Tom Lemons:

Some organizations could not account for millions in missing grant money, or administrators paid themselves exorbitant salaries and hired unauthorized third-party contractors, and the list goes on. But that’s not all; Democrat lawmakers want to provide a fast track for illegal immigrants to gain instant citizenship as long as they accuse a US citizen of domestic abuse. And with President Donald Trump declaring an emergency at the US/Mexico border, loopholes like VAWA only make things that much harder to quell the influx of illegal aliens.

Tom Lemons:

Regarding the Violence Against Women Act that was just reauthorized by the House in March, there are a lot of issues that have arisen regarding … well, these are actually past issues have always been questioned-

Howard Ellzey:

Right.

Tom Lemons:

-regarding allegations of fraud and misappropriation of funds, and different types of problems that mostly Republicans have discovered in reviewing the bill for reauthorization. What are your thoughts and what have you found?

Howard Ellzey:

With respect to what the government tries to do when they’re providing programs and support and funding, to try to implement policies and programs, we get into a little bit of difficulty with respect to lack of accountability for federal funding that’s provided down to organizations. Sometimes there’s fraud involved. Sometimes there’s lack of accounting with where the money is even going. May not be intentional fraud, but it could be, simply, lack of proper supervision.

Howard Ellzey:

Where you’ve got an abusive political system, on one hand, when it comes to funding, there’s also an abusive tendency in the mechanics and the application of the law when it comes to domestic violence. We need to take a look at that where the rubber meets the road. We, as attorneys, need to do our best to protect people against violence, but also to protect people against false accusations of violence. Neither one of those are good.

Tom Lemons:

Recently, the House of Representatives, they’ve passed the resolution, or they’ve reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act,-

Jason Ponder:

Correct.

Tom Lemons:

-which has been around since 1994.

Tom Lemons:

There’s been some pushback by Republicans, but Democrats pretty much were unanimous in passing it in the House.

Tom Lemons:

In 2011 Senator Chuck Grassley actually wrote an opinion on the reauthorization that was due for that year, that his concerns are that there’s a propensity to be fraud and misappropriation of funds. With this being a multi-billion dollar law, that his concerns are that this is trickling down to the state levels and it’s making it very easy for those kinds of criminal activities to occur.

Jason Ponder:

It does serve a purpose, and the purpose of the Bill initially was to help unprotected immigrants that have been abused by either legal permanent residents or US citizens from being left out in the cold should their spouse get upset and not continue along with their immigration path.

Jason Ponder:

A lot of times you were seeing women, and/or men, because it is supposed to go both ways, in a situation where they would not seek medical advice, they would not seek police to help them involve because what that did was trigger the spouse, or these immigration issues, to be brought to the forefront.

Jason Ponder:

Listen, there are ground rules on VAWA. You have to be … the other individual has to be US citizen or permanent resident, as I stated before. I believe it can be mental or physical abuse. And you had to have entered into the marriage in good faith. The underlying standards that have to be met for a person to claim VAWA are strong.

Jason Ponder:

Can there be fraudulent situations? Absolutely. We deal in this firm sometimes with marriages that are fraudulent. Fraudulent in the sense of, they brought this individual over to them, they married them, and within a two week period, they’ve never seen them again. There are things that can be done, I believe, to take this fraudulent, or potential for fraud, out of the equation.

Jason Ponder:

Does it trickle down to the state level? I’m sure it does. Federal funding is given to the states to make laws to protect situations where individuals are either abused, in an abusive relationship and have no way out. If money’s being given, they want to make sure that the money that’s being given to the states is being used appropriately. There are several organizations in Florida that have been set up but keeping tabs on them as another story.

Tom Lemons:

The Miami Herald wrote a story several weeks ago on how the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Executive Director, whoever it was that runs that organization, was making a salary of close to a million dollars a year. And found out that some of the … the type of activities going on in, even with just the local shelters where they’re receiving approximately one to 1.5 million a year for their funding, but 75 to 95% of the funding is going for administrative work or salaries.

Tom Lemons:

These are the kinds of things I think people are complaining about, and Chuck Grassley was also concerned about, is there needs to be more oversight in watching the funding and making sure the victims are receiving it and getting those programs that they need.

Jason Ponder:

Absolutely. I think oversight of any funding, especially of that kind of amount, is important because if the money is not going to the people it’s intended to help we’ve got an issue.

Tom Lemons:

If I were to tell you that, just in some of my own investigating, that I found that a lot of the facilities in a local areas here in Florida, that upwards of 90 to 95% of their federally … their taxpayer funding, which usually runs between one and $1.6 million a year, that the majority of that is going to their administrators rather than programs and things that they need for the women who are staying.

Claudia Blackwell:

Very disturbing. Obviously, there has to be some kind of regulation to check what’s going on. Checks and balances. Otherwise, what’s the point in allocating this money for the women who really need it. Not for the people that have these exorbitant salaries, but for the women who really need it. They need a home. They need help in getting employment. Little things on where they’re going to be living, personal hygiene things, and that’s what the act was supposed to do. And if it’s to going to salaries that are exorbitant for the people who are participating, running the program, that obviously there’s something that’s gone wrong. Obviously not enough oversight. Definitely.

Claudia Blackwell:

And of course, we are talking about the Senate. It’s going to the Senate. It’s probably going to get approved too, just before the mere fact of just even the name of the Act, but if it’s not used for the women that are abused in domestic violence situations then obviously we have to have some committee, not just one or two people, a committee to actually regulate and check out each of the administrators, their salaries, what actually gets done. Making sure that the things that they’re supposed to do when they come to … let’s say a woman comes to the facility and needs help and what kind of service they provide, that they actually provide those services. Those things definitely have to be looked upon by a committee that can … nonpartisan committee, that can look at the pros and cons and obviously trying to rectify the problems.

Howard Ellzey:

Where there’s a tendency for abuse, we also have to look inside the system, the court system that we have. It is common, and it’s customary, in many family law practices for an attorney to automatically recommend to a party to fabricate, to invent, to dramatize allegations of domestic violence when it really doesn’t rise to that level.

Howard Ellzey:

Now, I would be just as easily and fervently in favor of representing someone who is a victim of domestic violence and make sure that that protection is there for that victim to seek an injunction from the court. At the same time, while we know there are other attorneys and parties out there that will abuse the system in order to gain the upper hand in a divorce proceeding, we have to be mindful of that as well.

Tom Lemons:

A panel of judges actually discovered that upwards of 80% of cases that were brought before them in civil court, petitioning for injunctions, 80% either had no merit or were completely unfounded.

Tom Lemons:

Is this the kind of thing you’re saying should be addressed more aggressively, and what type of punishment should a person receive if they’re caught lying?

Howard Ellzey:

Well, here’s one of the difficulties in a domestic violence situation where … and I can tell you that I’ve been in the courtroom where sometimes we just want to roll our eyes back in our head and go, I can’t believe that these people are in here, in the court, wasting the court’s time and wasting my time to sit there, and wasting the party’s resources, making false accusations against the other.

Howard Ellzey:

The way the statute is written right now, and historically, the courts have been hesitant to impose sanctions on someone for bringing a false allegation of domestic violence because of the chilling effect that that might have against someone who truly is a domestic violence victim.

Howard Ellzey:

I think that the safe way to go is, if the court is going to make a mistake then the court wants to make the mistake in favor of protecting the victim.

Jennifer Shulte:

Yes, there are times where I think it needs to be addressed, and under certain circumstances, I have seen judges address it specifically. Maybe not under a perjury matter, that I’m going to put you in jail. But there are other avenues ordered to show cause, and those types of things. Nobody should commit perjury. It drives me nuts. It blows my mind. Lying is, again, I was raised that lying’s next to murder.

Tom Lemons:

Yeah.

Jennifer Shulte:

Is that because, when you lie it leaves the other person with an inability to defend themselves because it’s a lie. How do you defend against a lie?






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