Domestic violence victims advocates warn about decreased federal funding
Federal funding for programs dedicated to victims of crime has been dwindling, and those who work with the victims are concerned about the impact on Connecticut organizations that help them.
The Victims of Crime Act, passed in 1984, created a funding pool for state and local victim services groups and programs, which is not taxpayer-funded. Instead, The Crime Victims Fund is funded with fines from federal convictions. During the past several years, VOCA funds have declined significantly due to "prosecutorial strategies that have changed over the course of the last decade," according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
The Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence has 18 member organizations. It sent a letter to U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy on April 7 urging his support of the Fix Act and elaborated on why more money is needed.
"Instead of prosecuting federal crimes, particularly white-collar crimes, the Department of Justice is increasingly relying on non-prosecution and deferred-prosecution agreements," the letter reads. "If these cases had been prosecuted, the monetary penalties would have been deposited into the Fund. Instead, the money that would otherwise go to serve victims is being deposited into the General Treasury."
In 2020, the money CCADV received from the fund decreased by 25%, "and victim service providers have been told to expect further, potentially catastrophic cuts," the letter reads. "Cuts of the magnitude that we are being warned about would devastate Connecticut's domestic violence service system."
The decline in funding led to the VOCA Fix to Sustain the Crime Victims Fund Act of 2021, which the U.S. House of Representatives passed in March. It's now up to the U.S. Senate to move the bill forward. It amends the VOCA law to allow money from penalties and fines in deferred and non-prosecution agreements to be deposited in the Crime Victims Fund.
Safe Futures of New London Executive Director Katherine Verano has been one of many asking not only for Congress to pass the VOCA Fix Act, but to determine how organizations like hers will be funded years in advance. In some ways, the bill currently in the Senate is a stopgap measure, Verano said.
"It's not just passing it, it's also the decrease of 25% for the money supporting it, how do you get that back?" Verano said. "Beyond just keeping it going for now, they have to look at how to replenish it down the road."
Verano went into detail about the services VOCA funding helps Safe Futures provide. One of these allows criminal and civil court advocates to work with victims in domestic violence arrests.
"You may have 20 arraignments on Monday morning in New London court alone on just domestic violence cases," Verano said.
Advocates work on behalf of victims who are afraid to go and face their abuser in court.
"The advocate can work with you over the phone, or at one of our offices, and advocate for you in the courts system, with the prosecutor, with family relations," Verano said. "Maybe three months down the road with the case continuing you may need a modification for a protective order. An advocate is there to do all this work, and confidentially. They're the only people in the courthouse with that confidentiality."
Civil court advocates also offer assistance with handling restraining orders.
"All of our services are free and confidential because sometimes victims can't afford attorneys, and maybe their funds are connected with their partner's," Verano said. "One part of abuse is monetary abuse, emotional abuse, power and control. Offenders have public defenders if they can't afford an attorney."
Last year, Safe Futures worked with more than 7,000 victims, which doesn't include children affected by domestic violence. All told, CCADV's organizations support more than 34,000 victims maneuvering through the court system each year.
In the coalition's letter to Murphy, it said its member organizations have been able to increase advocacy in civil courts "to assist the more than 8,000 victims who annually seek restraining orders."
Verano said her organization also uses the funding to hire a law enforcement advocate who works with the Lethality Assessment Program, which police use to assess a victim's risk of being murdered.
"Cops will ask a series of questions at the scene, and if it comes up as high danger of murder, they contact us immediately, and connect that victim to services," Verano said.
The advocate then provides those services to a victim.
She said in 2020 there was an increase in the state of about 1,200 Lethality Assessment Program screens. A total of 54% of the screening victims were deemed to be in high danger, and 94% of those victims use domestic violence services.
Safe Futures has advocates working in its offices that rely on VOCA funding. These services and more are at stake, Verano says, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic is tied to an uptick in domestic violence. One of Safe Futures' functions is providing shelter for victims. One year prior to the onset of the pandemic, between March and January, the organization spent around $14,000 on hotel costs for when its shelters were over capacity. It spent more than $126,000 for that same timeframe during the pandemic.
In April 2020, The Day reported that domestic violence incidents had increased dramatically during the first month of the pandemic. At the time, calls to Safe Futures' domestic violence hotlines had increased by 20%.
During that time, three Safe Futures clients died in three weeks: one by drug overdose, one by suicide and one by murder, traumatizing staff. New London police responded to 30 more reports of domestic violence between March 1 and April 15, 2020, than they did in the same timeframe in 2019.
Those who need help can call the Safe Futures support line, (860) 701-6000 or (888) 774-2900, or visit ConnecticutSafeConnect. The agency's office at 16 Jay St., New London, is open with extra safety precautions in place, and victims' advocates continue to work in the court system.
State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said the state Judicial Branch briefed legislators on the VOCA issue last week. She said the amount of funding is declining, and "there is a cliff in 2022 where basically we have to ask, 'How are we going to pay for this?'"
She said the bill in the U.S. Senate, at the very least, "changes VOCA's funding structure to help address that cliff," she added.
Cheeseman pointed out that Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a nonprofit organization that aims to stop drunken driving, and other groups receive VOCA funding as well. Throughout the U.S., more than 6,000 local organizations dedicated to servicing victims of all types of crimes receive VOCA funds. Aside from Safe Futures in New London, CCADV's 17 other member organizations include Domestic Violence Program United Services in Willimantic and New Horizons in Middletown.
"If you don't have these services, if everything gets cut, the state and the coalitions have to make a decision: Who gets cut, what gets cut, and which programs go on?" Verano asked.