GOP's literal hostage crisis: How the shutdown traps victims of abuse

Republicans' latest manufactured disaster is leaving countless women stuck in potentially deadly situations

Published October 10, 2013 11:44AM (EDT)

                                                        (Ted Cruz, John Boehner)
(Ted Cruz, John Boehner)

The Mt. Graham Safe House in Safford, Ariz., is the only domestic violence service provider within a 150-mile radius in the southeast corner of the state. The "little shelter in Southern Arizona," as executive director Jeanette Aston affectionately calls it, provides emergency housing, legal assistance, transportation, job training and other vital services to survivors of domestic and sexual violence. But if the government shutdown, now stretching into its second week, continues, it will very likely be closed before Christmas.

"We're still recovering from when the economy crashed in 2008. We used all of our reserves just to stay open during that crisis," Aston tells Salon. "There are no more cuts to be made in this staff; if we continue to lose funding, we're looking at a loss of services."

Mt. Graham is not an outlier; the funding landscape for domestic violence service providers has been dire for quite a while. The economic crisis forced state-level cuts to victims assistance programs, and a national population tightening its collective belt has meant a significant drop in individual donations. And then, of course, the sequester, the Republicans' last act of financial brinkmanship, meant even further reductions at the federal level.

But the GOP-orchestrated shutdown is quickly turning a bleak situation into a catastrophic one, jeopardizing the lives and safety of hundreds of thousands of domestic violence victims as providers are forced to scale back staff, hours of operation and crucial direct interventions. Pundits have called the shutdown a hostage crisis, but the metaphor becomes quite literal when you consider that the GOP's manufactured political disaster has already left, and may continue to leave, countless women stranded in violent and potentially deadly situations without access to lifesaving services.

When the government shut down last week -- which, it seems worth noting, happened on the first day of Domestic Violence Awareness Month -- it tied up and, within days, locked down federally-funded victims assistance programs like the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and the Victims of Crimes Act (VOCA). The money drawn down from these programs by state-level agencies and community-based organizations is used to reimburse work that's already been done the previous month: crisis counseling, sheltering, long-term counseling, legal assistance. When scarce agency reserves run out, operations will soon freeze up.

"The people I talk to are worried. They're worried about serving victims," Cindy Southworth, vice president of development at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, tells Salon.

The Denver Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, which provides crisis intervention and safety planning to victims of domestic abuse through its "triage" project, is one such VAWA grantee bracing itself for what's to come. Executive director Dora-Lee Larson, the last remaining member of a staff that, during "peak" financial times, was an organization of three, tells Salon that she could be furloughed, and these crucial services disrupted, as early as next week if a grant from the Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women didn't get processed before the shutdown took effect.

She is watching and waiting to find out if the money will come, but, she says, she isn't planning on going anywhere if it doesn't. Larson is a lifeline to hundreds of women who may not know what their legal options are or how to support themselves after leaving an abusive relationship, and she knows it. Like so many other victims advocates and providers, she recognizes that the availability of services can be the difference between safety and danger, and, often, life and death, for a woman in a violent situation.

The director of a Florida shelter expressed concern that, already operating on a shoestring budget, the loss of federal funds would mean putting out 14 families and more than 30 children who are currently being housed by the program. In California, one shelter is taking a "scattered furlough" approach in order to stay open while keeping administrative costs low, asking staff to choose one day a week as a furlough day so that the shelter never has to close for a full day.

The stakes are simply too high to close. So Larson, like many others, will keep working -- with or without pay -- for as long as she can. "I am not going to walk away from this job," she says.

Southworth says that after news of the shutdown hit, she was sending out two emails simultaneously: one to her own colleagues, strategizing about how to keep their own lights on, and one to programs across the country, urging them to submit any requests for reimbursement to draw down funds before everything closed.

"The advocates themselves are taking a hit too," Southworth continues. "The average starting salary at many of these nonprofits is $21,000. Many people who do this work are barely making ends meet themselves."

"People who do victims services are a really unique, thoughtful group," says a state-level grants manager who requested anonymity. "They will stick it out for as long as they can, even without getting paid. But that will be a hard hit to their families, too."

Circumstances are, of course, different in different places. If the shutdown stretches on, some programs, particularly in rural areas, may only have weeks before running out of money, while others may be able to operate for months before their reserve funds are used up. But domestic violence and sexual assault do not stop in a shutdown, and countless survivors are now being revictimized by their government's indifference.

"Crisis service providers are the same as first responders," Southworth says. "When we pick up the phone and dial 911, we expect a police officer to respond or the fire department to show up with a truck. If a woman is running for her life from her partner, we expect the same emergency response. We expect this in a civilized society, that there must be a safe place where she can go."

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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