Congress Helps Air Travelers, Ignores Victims of Rape and Domestic Violence

Congress went to bat to protect business travelers. VAWA funding? Not so much.

| Mon May 6, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

In March, shortly after President Barack Obama signed an extension of the Violence Against Women Act into law, the Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women sent an email to the hundreds of nonprofits and government agencies around the country that rely on its annual grants. The message was grim: Due to cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act, better known as sequestration, programs that fight domestic violence and sexual assault would see a $20 million drop in funding over the next year. It was Washington at its most inept: Almost immediately after renewing VAWA, a popular law intended to help victims of abuse, Congress had stunted its own efforts, leaving already cash-strapped programs looking for ways to scrape by.

In the months since sequestration kicked in, Congress acted swiftly to restore funding for tuition aid for active-duty service members and prevent unpopular furloughs at the Federal Aviation Administration. But lawmakers have shown little interest in restoring funding to programs that deal with domestic violence and sexual assault.

"The tower is understaffed and the rescue plane can't land," says Kim Gandy, president and CEO National Network to End Domestic Violence. "We're talking about really vital services to people who are already in a terrible situation and really in need of emergency services—and there aren't alternatives."

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The projections are bleak. Sen. Tom Harkin's (D-Iowa) office estimates that 70,120 fewer domestic violence victims will have access to recovery programs and shelters; 35,900 fewer people will get help obtaining non-shelter services such as restraining orders and sexual assault treatment. Cuts to programs related to the Victims Against Crime Act will hurt another 310,574 people. And the effects are already being felt:

  • In Shreveport, Louisiana, the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, a group of 11 nurses who make house calls to collect evidence from rape victims, is considering closing for good.
  • The Kentucky Domestic Violence Association is eliminating a sexual assault prevention coordinator and asking another to go part time; if funding isn’t restored by next year, it may be forced to close shelters.
  • The Department of Defense, which originally planned on hiring 829 sexual assault response coordinators to combat the epidemic of rape in the military, said recruitment for some positions will be put on hold.
  • The Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center in Portland, Oregon, which provides services to American citizens who are victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and forced marriages in 175 countries, is considering closing its doors in September, meaning around 550 women will have to find a new place for crisis services. The center, the only private organization in the United States that provides such services specifically for Americans overseas, is uniquely vulnerable to the budget cuts because it is ineligible for funding from both the Violence Against Women Act (because it works overseas) and from the proposed International Violence Against Women Act (because that overseas work is with Americans). The center was counting on a grant from the Department of Justice's Office for Victims of Crime, but was told there would be no new grants this year. It has already canceled community outreach and volunteer training events in order to stay on budget. "They say we have to make sure that this population is served but there's no funding stream for it," says Paula Lucas, the organization's founder.
  • Melinda Reed, executive director of the Friendship Center in Helena, Montana—the only domestic violence shelter in a three-county area—was already trying to make ends meet after losing out on a major federal grant when she took the job in April; sequestration makes it less likely she'll be able to restore funding for things like cash stipends and food assistance for women and children. "It's gonna be pretty devastating," Reed says. "We are currently operating with reduced staffing and that is our foreseeable future."
  • In Rhode Island, the biggest enemy is the calendar. On June 1, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence is dramatically scaling back its victims' advocacy services to four days a week. Deb DeBare, RICADV's executive director, says that by closing on Mondays, her program will ultimately serve about 1,600 fewer people than it would if it were operating at capacity. That's 1,600 people for whom it will be that much harder to get restraining orders or custody rights.

    "This is sort of the nail in the coffin," DeBare says.

    It is also resulting in layoffs this summer. Nine full- and part-time positions are scheduled to be eliminated, and at least one shelter is reducing the number of beds on site (by 10). DeBare says the personnel moves are a consequence of a multitude of factors, "a slow and painful belt-tightening" that has hit her agencies since the economic crisis began.

Domestic violence programs were, for the most part, already pressed for cash before sequestration, subsisting mostly on a patchwork of state and federal grants, and private donations. A 5 percent cut in Utah is particularly is particularly painful because the state is almost wholly reliant on federal funding.

"The rural areas are so remote that for the services that are available, there are many people that can't access services to begin with," says Peg Coleman, executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Council. "So 5 percent of a very skeletal budget has an enormous impact."

Just last year, the oldest shelter in Utah, at the YWCA in Salt Lake City, closed down an entire wing of its building due to diminishing federal funding—a loss of about 30 beds.

"That's the choice: Do we not respond?" Coleman says. "I don't know that we can keep doing this. We can't keep doing a response of 80 hours on a 20-hour salary. It's not sustainable and it's not humane." Advocates have asked lawmakers to restore at least some of the funding that has evaporated over the last year. And perhaps the quick response to the FAA cuts is an indication that a concerted lobbying effort really is an antidote to the worst of sequestration. But Gandy, who casts her work as a matter of literal life and death, fears for the worst.

"They're gonna wait for more pain, and maybe wait for some woman who couldn't get emergency shelter to be murdered."

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