Jerri Lynn Sparks never thought she was a domestic abuse victim.

She worked in Congress when she said verbal abuse at home cleared a path for domestic abuse that changed her life and the life she had made for her children.

A hotline funded by the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) helped Sparks find shelter and response to what she was dealing with in her life. 

Sparks shared her story Monday at an event hosted by the Willow Domestic Violence Center in Rochester. It promoted renewal of VAWA, a legislative breakthrough for domestic violence victims championed in the House of Representatives by Louise Slaughter and scheduled to sunset Friday, December 7.

Slaughter's successor in New York's 25th Congressional District, Rep. Joe Morelle, intends to co-sponsor the next generation of the Violence Against Women Act. It would expand funding for education and services to include the sort of verbal abuse Sparks and others face on the road to more violent and devastating domestic violence.

But just days before the law runs out, the legislation does not have a sponsor in either the still-Republican-held House or GOP-led Senate. Opponents do not want to extend VAWA's legal reach to include verbal abuse. 

"Some of the individuals who are opposed to this say to me, 'well, so if I call someone a jerk, am I going to jail?' It is so much more complex than that," said Meaghan de Chateauvieux of the Willow Domestic Violence Center. "It involves power and control and manipulation through your words. So verbal abuse is not just calling someone names. It's what's behind those names."

Morelle cited those who study domestic violence and include verbal abuse in its definition as evidence that VAWA and its services must evolve. 

"I suppose you could always say, 'well, we'll do half of what we need. That'll be good enough,'" Morelle said. "But we're talking about the lives of people that hang in the balance. So I think it would be not doing our job as members of the house and senate to pass legislation that is no longer sufficient."

New aspects of VAWA would extend educational services to clergy, law enforcement and also expand resources to organizations that provide shelter for those escaping this part of domestic violence, according to Sparks. 

"Chances are you know someone or you are someone, whose experienced domestic violence,” she said. 

Should VAWA not be approved by Friday, funding to services linked to it would not shut off completely, at first. Eventually, advocates said, spending on those resources VAWA supports would run its course. That includes services managed through Willow. 

The deadline comes as Rochester is seeing its highest rate of domestic violence in five years; and as Monroe County reports a domestic violence rate 1.5 times greater than the rest of New York State.