How Trump has quietly been rolling back protections for survivors of sexual assault

How Trump has quietly been rolling back protections for survivors of sexual assault
President Donald Trump speaks during an event Thursday to declare the opioid crisis a national public health emergency. Evan Vucci/AP
President Donald Trump speaks during an event Thursday to declare the opioid crisis a national public health emergency. Evan Vucci/AP

Allegations against Harvey Weinstein have led to a surge in discussions about sexual assault, both inside and outside the entertainment industry. The #MeToo social media campaign has led thousands of people to share their own stories of sexual harassment or assault, while the number of accusations against high-profile public figures have continued to pile up.

But on Friday, the Trump administration is set to cut funding for programs that help prevent sexual assault and support victims, the latest move in a series of quiet policy changes that advocates say have slashed survivor protections since President Donald Trump took office.

In an Oct. 12 press release, the Department of Justice identified five jurisdictions that had one “last chance” to abolish immigration sanctuary laws, policies or practices. Cities had until Friday to show compliance with the department’s policies, with no specific timeline as to when funding might be taken away.

The Office of Violence Against Women is one source of federal funding on the chopping block. That would mean a loss of tens of millions of dollars in federal OVW grants to four major American cities and one county: Cook County, Illinois; Chicago; New Orleans; New York; and Philadelphia.

That money helps provide emergency shelters for victims of sexual assault, funds legal representation if they are seeking a protection order and establishes specific bureaus local district attorneys can use to target perpetrators of assault.

“That would be a big blow,” Sandra Park, a senior attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, said in an interview. “Federal funding has been a major source of providing services and changing practices around domestic violence and sexual assault.”

In an Oct. 18 meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, senators grilled Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the government’s threat to pull federal funding to sanctuary cities. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) keyed in on gun violence in Chicago, arguing it wasn’t being driven by violent immigrants.

But there was no discussion of the impact cutting these grants would have on victims of sexual assault — despite the fact agencies that deal with immigrants who are also survivors of sexual assault are reporting an increase in the number of victims afraid to step forward.

“By targeting cities with so-called ‘sanctuary’ policies, the administration is scapegoating immigrants,” Archi Pyati, chief of policy and programs at the Tahirih Justice Center, which has studied the impacts of sexual assault programs on immigrant communities, said in a statement. “It threatens to not only undermine community policing tactics, but also to punish victims themselves by stripping away critical funding for services.”

The removal of funding for sanctuary cities isn’t the only Trump administration move that advocates say disadvantage survivors of sexual assault. In March, Trump ended via executive order an Obama-era policy that said companies receiving federal funding could not force employees claiming sexual assault or harassment into arbitration, a common tactic companies use to resolve complaints outside of the court system.

According to Maya Raghu, director of workplace equality at the National Women’s Law Center, arbitration clauses can make victims afraid to come forward. “Arbitrations are private proceedings with secret filings and private attorneys, and they often help hide sexual harassment claims,” Raghu told NBC News in April. “It can silence victims.”

Then in May, the Department of Labor pushed back consideration of a regulation the Obama administration began crafting in 2016 to protect victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault and workplace violence in the health care industry. The government had pursued a rule singling out protections for health care workers who are about four times more likely to be the victims of intentional workplace violence than workers in all private-sector industries.

But when Trump signed an executive order in February instructing federal agencies to “alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens,” the Labor Department decided to push back consideration of the workplace violence rule for health care workers beyond 2017.

“We’ve been concerned that a lot of the positive reforms, with respect to domestic violence and sexual assault, once you start taking a deregulatory approach, those reforms will be undermined,” Park said.

In July, the White House issued 27 objections to policies within the National Defense Authorization Act, one of which objected to a House Armed Services Committee proposal that would have given victims of sexual assault in the military greater access to documents during lawsuits via an “open discovery” policy. (The “discovery” phase of a sexual assault lawsuit in the military currently limits what information the victim can obtain. The “open discovery” policy would have made it easier for victims to get more information to prove their case.)

The NDAA passed the House in July and the Senate in September without the open discovery language.

“Simply put, women’s lives are worse now than they were before Trump took office,” Jacqueline Ayers, national director of legislative affairs for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement. “Survivors of sexual assault deserve an administration that stands behind them, not one that makes it harder for them to seek justice.”