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Senate passes bill to protect victims of domestic violence

WASHINGTON –– U.S. Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK) today announced that their bipartisan bill unanimously passed in the U.S. Senate would help to further combat domestic abuse and sexual violence by promoting probono legal services for victims of these crimes.

Heitkamp and Sullivan – both former state attorneys general in their home states of North Dakota and Alaska, respectively – understand how the legal system can help deliver protection to victims and survivors of domestic violence while also reducing the probability that they are subjected to a cycle of abuse. Heitkamp and Sullivan’s Pro bono Work to Empower and Represent (POWER Act) would specifically require U.S. attorneys in each judicial district across the country to work with domestic violence service providers, coalitions, or an area volunteer lawyer project to hold at least one event promoting pro-bono legal services each year. In a one-day survey in North Dakota in 2016 on domestic violence, 309 victims sought refuge in an emergency shelter or transitional housing, and 188 adults and children received services like counseling, legal advocacy, and children’s support groups. As a result, their bill would help empower survivors of domestic violence, engage citizens, and help lift victims out of the cycle of abuse. Momentum for the bill is growing – companion legislation to the U.S. Senate bill was reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives this spring, and last Congress, Heitkamp and Sullivan’s bill unanimously passed in the U.S. Senate.

“As former state attorneys general, Senator Sullivan and I understand how a legal advocate – or just awareness of services available – can make a difference in the lives of women and men across the country who live under the shadow of domestic abuse and sexual violence,” said Heitkamp. “By encouraging more partnerships in every state to provide pro bono legal services, we can help offer the education, awareness, and legal tools for victims who would otherwise not be able to afford or seek the resources they need to escape, survive, and rebuild their lives. The U.S. Senate stands united behind victims of abuse by unanimously passing our bill. Our bill tells victims across this country, including those in North Dakota, that there is hope, and it’s another step forward in the long-term fight to end the cycle of domestic violence so we make sure everyone is safe in their homes and communities.”

“Passage of the POWER Act by the Senate is a solid avenue in making society aware that legal assistance is a critical first step in helping victims of domestic violence become survivors,” said Senator Sullivan. “Pro bono assistance from Alaska’s legal community has been a particularly helpful tool in giving hope to victims of domestic violence. The POWER Act will bring this tool to more communities, encouraging lawyers across the country to get involved and help victims who too often fear or are unfamiliar with the justice system. I call on the House of Representatives to swiftly move to pass this commonsense bill, so we can get the POWER Act onto President Trump’s desk as soon as possible.”

Across Native populations in North Dakota and Alaska, rates of domestic and sexual violence are staggering. To address these crimes specifically in Indian Country and among Native communities, Heitkamp and Sullivan included a provision in the bill mandating U.S. Attorney’s offices work with the Native populations in their judicial district in planning and holding an event every few years with a focus on addressing these crimes in Indian Country and among Native populations.

Heitkamp has long worked to combat domestic violence in North Dakota and across the country. As North Dakota Attorney General in the 1990s, she implemented the original Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) across the state, and worked to change the perception of domestic violence as a public health issue, so it would be treated and viewed as what it is – a criminal act. As a result, Heitkamp saw firsthand the dramatic changes in the number of incidents that followed after domestic violence was criminalized. Largely due to VAWA, according to the Justice Department, the annual incidences of domestic violence have fallen more than 60 percent since 1993.

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