Domestic violence centers may not survive the next shutdown

Service providers worry that in 90 days, they could be denied grant money that helps keep their doors open

Published October 19, 2013 1:30PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on The Crime Report, the nation's largest criminal justice news source.

The Crime Report While the 11th-hour vote reached by Congress Wednesday effectively reopened the federal government, the 16-day shutdown left deep scars on domestic violence and rape crisis centers that rely on federal funding to provide life-saving services.

And since the new legislation only finances the government through January 15, many service providers worry that in less than 90 days they could once again be denied access to grant money that helps them keep their doors open.

“When an average of three women are killed in the United States every day by a current or former intimate partner, it is unconscionable to allow life-saving domestic violence programs to shutter their doors and put their crisis lines on hold,” Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, wrote in a statement to The Crime Report.

Providers contacted by The Crime Report said they were still awaiting a full assessment of the shutdown’s impact, but several pointed out that their organizations had been left feeling financially insecure and uncertain about their future—particularly with another possible shutdown on the horizon.

“That kind of insecurity does not inspire confidence in boards of directors, and that could have a sweeping and long-lasting impact on organizations,” said Cindy Southworth, vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Southworth added that even though the government has reopened, it’s not clear when grant payments will be disbursed because it will take time to get those systems back up and running.

Local nonprofits are always looking to increase private donations, but the prospect of new financial crises in the government next year, after the current deal reached by Congress expires, could also reduce financial support from individuals worried about paying their own bills.

Staff Furloughs

LIFT3, a small nonprofit in northern California’s Solano County that serves domestic violence victims, decided to furlough its staff on October 4 because it couldn’t access its government funding and it had very little in reserves, said executive director Claudia Humphrey.

Each of LIFT3’s 12 employees was asked to take one day off per week as a “scattered furlough,” Humphrey said—a measure that helped them keep the doors open at their two crisis shelters, a drop-in center, and their family justice center.

LIFT3 received 17 calls for emergency shelter in one week during the shutdown, an increase from their usual numbers, but they weren’t able to accommodate those requests and had to refer callers elsewhere.

Humphrey was actually trying to move current clients out of their shelters as a cost-saving measure.

LIFT3 spends about $1,000 per weekend to staff its 13-bed shelter, and as a fairly new nonprofit with no line of credit available, Humphrey worked to place families in nearby shelters or in transitional housing—a preemptive move to keep those clients safe since the nonprofit had no way of knowing when they’d see their government funding.

One family whose shelter request couldn’t be accommodated was placed at a motel, which offered the nonprofit a discounted $150 rate for the weekend.

“The challenge for us is cash flow,” said Humphrey. “It’s hard to raise funds—we’re doing the best we can, but we don’t have a lot of options. If a shutdown happens again, we would have to close the crisis shelter.”

While the organization always looks for private donations, they also seek help from volunteers, which can go a long way to keep services running, Humphrey said.

The plight of domestic and sexual violence programs during the 16-day shutdown was eclipsed by public attention to the closing of national parks and monuments.

Although several members of congress proposed offering piecemeal legislation to open the parks to visitors despite the shutdown, none offered to do the same for domestic violence shelters, many of which lost funding on October 1.

“I love the national parks,” said Southworth. “But I was heartbroken to hear the speeches about [saving] them when at the same time shelters weren’t able to access their funding.”

“Not everyone understands how pervasive domestic violence is,” Southworth added. “One in three women will be assaulted by an intimate partner in her lifetime—that’s not a small special interest group. That’s a huge swath of our community.”

Threats to Grant Funds

Nonprofits with government grant funding typically provide services first and then get reimbursed by the government.

When the federal shutdown began, organizations across the country were told they would no longer be able to access the grant money they rely on.

Managers of programs that provide critical services to victims of domestic and sexual violence had no way of knowing how long they would be without the funding they receive from congressional appropriations through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

Many of those programs are operated by “small organizations that run on shoestring budgets and count on a steady stream of federal dollars coming in at exact times on the calendar” to figure out their budget, Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, said in an interview.

“They don’t usually have reserves or lines of credit to fall back on; so when the federal government pulls the kind of stuff they’re pulling now, there is no safety net for these organizations.”

If the freeze on funding had continued, it could have forced many shelters to close, or sharply curtail counseling and other support services, including court advocates, Fernandez said.

“These are safety issues,” said Fernandez. “When you don’t know how long these services can last, you’re putting people’s lives at stake.”

Nationwide, on an average day more than 64,000 adults and children receive services from local domestic violence programs, according to a 2012 census report conducted by the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Nevertheless, the same study found that more than 10,000 requests for services went unmet in one day due to lack of resources.

Homicide Risks

The risk for domestic violence homicide is highest when victims can’t access local services or when victims make the decision to leave a relationship, according to several renowned studies by Jacquelyn C. Campbell of Johns Hopkins University.

The shutdown forced the Mt. Graham Safe House in Safford, Ariz., the only shelter serving a 150-mile rural area in southern Arizona, to reduce the amount of transportation provided to victims when funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation was frozen.

Using only one of its three vans, the organization cut back on about 50 trips per week for victims, according to executive director Jeanette Aston.

During the shutdown, one victim called the shelter from about 100 miles away requesting emergency housing, but because their transportation services were limited Aston had to refer her to a shelter in another area.

While those vans primarily provide access to college classes, job trainings and interviews, and to drop off applications—services victims need to become independent—they also are used to transport kids to childcare while a parent is at school or work, and they provide transportation to government offices to access public benefits like family services, social security and housing.

With only one van in use, transportation access was limited.

Aston said the shelter’s financial reserves could pay for just two months of program services while the government was shut down.

Within their 150-mile service area, the Mt. Graham Safe House is the only shelter. “If we closed, women and children would have no place to go, there would be no crisis hotline or any response to their trip to the emergency room,” she said.

Even now, with the government funding pipeline open again, caregivers worry that the shutdown itself will increase their caseload.

“Government shutdowns—just like arbitrary sequestration cuts—may stop funding, but they do not stop human needs,” Tim Delaney, president and CEO of the National Network of Nonprofits, wrote in an opinion piece forPhilanTopic. “Indeed, they actually increase needs.”

Sequestration Worries

Sequestration is not far from the mind of many service providers.

“What’s vanished from this whole conversation about the shutdown is the sequester,” said Jessye Johnson, deputy director of the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“Programs were already impacted by the sequester, then the shutdown cuts go on top of that, and then once that ends, we’re going to go right into another conversation about the government sequester.”

“It’s compounding the cuts that programs are already experiencing, which in turn affects access to services for survivors for safety,” Johnson added. “Pending another shutdown and sequestration, we really need Congress to restore pre-sequester funding levels in order to repair damage the shutdown caused but also to brace for any future cuts or suspensions in funding.”

And the budget cuts not only impact services for victims, but also the people that provide those services.

Many nonprofits reported that they have considered or have already imposed furlough days on their staff, according to Southworth.

The average starting salary for victim advocates is about $21,000, she said, which makes it difficult to pay rent or other basic living expenses when you have unpaid days off.

Unlike federal employees, it remains unclear whether organizations that receive government grant funding will be reimbursed so staff can receive back pay.

In one final irony, the first day of the government shutdown—October 1—was also the first day of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

While some organizations, like Johnson’s, were able to use the shutdown and its impact on program funding as another reason to raise the volume on awareness and to bolster fundraising efforts, others were forced to cancel planned events in order to focus budgets on maintaining services.

“The more awareness we can get out there the more we can help the entire community, including the kids, which is a big focus for us to help end domestic violence with the next generation,” said Aston.

However, her Arizona organization has had to cut back on some of its events this month even though it’s typically their big annual fundraising push.

“Every time we have to stop an awareness event, it hurts the community and our program.”

By Deirdre Bannon

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