Each year, millions of people become victims to domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. The Violence Against Women Act serves to protect and help victims heal.

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In early 2013, Congress updated the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), first passed in 1994 to protect victims of domestic and sexual violence, to cover gay, bisexual, and transgender victims as well as undocumented immigrants and Native American women. Despite the name of the bill, the law covers all victims of abuse, including men and children. Though the reauthorization made headlines, many victims still don't know what the law means for them. From support to visitation rights, learn what this law can do for you and your family.

Support Lines

The National Domestic Violence Hotline, which is funded by VAWA, receives more than 22,000 calls a month from victims of domestic violence and their family and friends. Advocates assist callers who need help determining if abuse is happening, victims looking to end an abusive relationship, family and friends who fear for a loved one, and abusers who want to get help, says Katie Ray-Jones, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. The hotline offers support, provides safety information, and connects callers to local resources.

Legal Aid

Handling civil and criminal matters that often arise in domestic violence cases can be especially challenging for victims. That's where advocates paid for by VAWA come in. Attorneys and other legal professionals can help victims navigate the legal system, learn what remedies are available, and provide information during the criminal case. Advocates are available to represent victims in hearings for restraining orders and in family law matters such as divorce, custody, visitation, and child and spousal support.

Housing Support

According to a 2012 report by the United States Conference of Mayors, domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness among families. Under the act, funding is provided for shelters and transitional housing so victims aren't forced to choose between staying with an abuser and being on the streets. The law also helps victims who live in government-subsidized housing and are afraid that reporting domestic or sexual violence will get them evicted or lose program eligibility. Provisions in the act protect victims from eviction or being denied from housing simply because they're a victim, says Bari Weinberger, a divorce and family attorney with the Weinberger Law Group in Parsippany, New Jersey. Unfortunately, she says, the law does not yet provide protections to tenants in private market-rate housing.

Assistance for Children

When children are victims of or witnesses to domestic violence, sexual assault, or other crimes, it's important that they have someone focused on their needs. The Court Appointed Special Advocates program, provided by the law, assigns volunteers to work one-on-one with young victims of abuse and neglect, Weinberger says. Advocates serve as a voice for the child and make recommendations in the best interest of the child with the court.

Child Visitation and Exchange Services

A parent accused or convicted of domestic violence may often still be granted visitation and custody rights. Grants to programs that offer safe exchange services and supervised visitation centers help limit contact between the abused and the abusive parent while assuring that kids don't witness post-separation violence or become victims during visitations.

Citizenship Help

If the immigrant spouse, parent, or child of a United States citizen or a legal permanent resident wants to be granted a green card or legal permanent residency, he or she usually has to rely on the citizen spouse or parent to file the petition. Some abusers use that power to control their partner. The updated law now allows some abuse victims to file a petition for themselves, without the abuser's knowledge. Eligible victims include spouses and children who are abused by a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident, parents of kids abused by a citizen or legal resident, and abused parents of a U.S. citizen.

Better Assistance from Law Enforcement

Victims of violence often don't seek help because of an abuser's threats or because they think the police and court system won't really help. But funding to train officers, victim advocates, prosecutors, and judges to be more efficient at handling domestic and sexual violence cases may smooth out the process for victims. These training sessions teach law enforcement personnel to assess situations, ask questions, and reach a reasonable decision about whether they need to take action, says Weinberger. In some jurisdictions, that means authorities can prosecute domestic abusers without victims testifying, which they may find scary or even dangerous. The law also helps make restraining orders more powerful by requiring their recognition and enforcement in all states and in tribal and territorial jurisdictions within the United States.

Copyright ? 2013 Meredith Corporation.