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Domestic Violence Intervention Program will close offices in three cities, bracing for even more federal funding cuts
Because of changes made to the Victims of Crime Act under the Trump administration, the Iowa Domestic Violence Intervention Program based in Iowa City is closing its outreach offices in Burlington, Keokuk and Mount Pleasant — and anticipating the need for additional cuts.
However, the advocates who work in these offices — who often travel 700 miles per week to meet with survivors of domestic violence — have become well-versed in working remotely over the past year due to COVID-19. So closing the offices, which will bring the program in line with this fiscal year's $84,624 cut in federal funding, will allow many services the nonprofit provides to continue.
"One-hundred percent of our services that have been in place will continue to be in place, and that is because we made the hard decisions of having to close our storefronts," Community Engagement Director Alta Medea-Peters said from a conference room inside the former Apple Trees Museum where the Burlington office has been for the past eight years. Effective Aug. 1, the office will cease to exist.
"Over the last 15 to 18 months of the pandemic, we really have seen how our advocates have adapted and really excelled at mobile advocacy," Medea-Peters said. "We've done mobile advocacy all along, which is going to where victims are and feel the safest to give them services that they need. But we certainly have learned we don't need a storefront to do our work."
Allison Peterson, a client advocacy services and rural manager for the intervention program, said she initially was concerned the offices' closure during the pandemic would create a barrier for people needing help. And it did, to an extent, as walk-ins no longer were possible.
"The barrier's still there, but it's not as bad as we expected," Peterson said. "We meet people where they feel most safe and have phone numbers posted everywhere."
Journey House, a transitional shelter in Burlington, and Keokuk's emergency shelter, Serenity House, will keep their doors open. Rural and mobile advocacy programs will continue. But a permanent solution to their funding is needed, and fast.
The 10 percent cut in federal Crime Victim Fund money is just the beginning, as the Domestic Violence Intervention Program faces an additional $230,000 — or 25 percent — loss next year.
"It will be catastrophic for programs," Medea-Peters said.
The Victims of Crime Act was created by Congress in 1984 to provide federal support to state and local programs that help victims of crime, including domestic violence and abuse. It uses fines and penalties paid by those convicted of crimes, forfeited bail bonds and special assessments collected by U.S. Attorneys' Offices, federal courts and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
In 2017, then-President Donald Trump's administration diverted money generated by deferred and non-prosecution agreements to the general fund of the U.S. Treasury. That money used to help feed the Crime Victims Fund.
"The 35 percent being cut by the federal government due to the changes in deposits of the Crime Victim Fund, which started in 2017, put us in this position," Medea-Peters said.
It was not the first time a president's administration has taken money from the fund. In 2015, $1.5 billion was rescinded from the fund to provide an offset for a budget agreement with the Obama administration. But the changes made in 2017 have been especially daunting.
"If we don't deposit money, then eventually there are zero dollars, and when there are zero dollars to award grants, there's no money for programs and services," Medea-Peters said.
Deposits to the fund have decreased since 2017 and are further hindered by increased reliance on deferred and no-prosecution agreements by federal prosecutors.
According to data provided by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legislative Affairs, deposits to the fund dropped from $6.58 billion in 2017 to just $445 million in 2018 before climbing slightly in 2019 to $495 million. The data was cited in a June 3, 2020, letter to Katherine Sullivan, principal deputy assistant attorney general of the Department of Justice, by U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley, Martha McSally, Mark Crapo and Thom Tillis.
The fund’s carry-over balance also decreased, from $13 billion in 2018 to $9.1 billion in 2019.
"These problematic trends for the financial health of the fund caused the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies to formally express concerns regarding decreased CVF deposits," the senators’ letter states.
The Victims Of Crime Act Fix to Sustain the Crime Victims Fund Act of 2021, a bipartisan bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, and supported by Iowa Republican U.S. Sens. Grassley and Joni Ernst, seeks to pump money back into the fund.
"The issue with the Crime Victims Fund is money has been (diverted) from that fund to offset other spending elsewhere," said Taylor Foy, a spokesperson for Grassley's office. "Because of that, it's reduced the amount of funds available for these types of programs, and that's what the VOCA Fix would address."
To do this, the legislation would:
- Direct revenues collected from deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements, which now go to the general fund of the Treasury, to be deposited into the Crime Victims Fund;
- Increase the percentage of state compensation payments to crime victims in the prior fiscal year used to calculate formula grants for state victim compensation programs from 60 to 75 percent;
- Direct states to waive the matching requirement for recipients of state victim assistance formula grants during and for one year after a pandemic-related national emergency; and
- Allow states to waive the matching requirement for victim assistance grants.
Grassley also has proposed a temporary version of the VOCA Fix bill that would include a sunset date to buy more time for Congress to debate a permanent fix.
"The issue here is getting enough votes to get the bill done. What you don't want to have is a situation where, if there isn't enough support for this version of the permanent fix right now, then nothing happens and these programs suffer in the meantime," Foy said.
Ernst is a co-sponsor of the bill.
"Having volunteered at a women's shelter in college and as a survivor myself, this issue is deeply personal for me, which is why I'm working across the aisle to strengthen support for the Crime Victims Fund," Ernst said. "I'm hopeful Congress can come together to get this important bill passed."
But time is running out. Even if either bill is passed, it will be another two years before goes into effect.
Foy deferred to U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, when asked when the bill will be put to a vote.
A message left with Schumer's office was not returned.
"It's stalled and we absolutely need it to take action," Medea-Peters said. "We need them to do something. We need them to take action now so that in two years we are not in a worse position. … If the VOCA Fix Act does not go through, it will be absolutely catastrophic for programs across the state of Iowa. There's no way around that."
Just more than half of the Domestic Violence Intervention Program’s funding comes from state and federal money. The rest comes from private grants and donations.
In addition to closing offices to meet the shortfall, the nonprofit has expanded its community engagement in an effort to reach more donors and explore additional grants.
"It's money we can count on that doesn't fluctuate based on who's in the leadership of different governmental agencies," Medea-Peters said. "We are expert problem-solvers, because that is literally our job, so we are always looking for ways to pivot and build both growth and support for victim survivors."
She and others with the program hope a sustainable giving campaign, wherein individuals donate a set monthly amount, will help to supplement the coming shortfalls and growing need for the services. It costs $35 per day to house an individual in an emergency shelter and $75 per day to house an individual in a hotel.
"Our shelters are full 365 days of the year, seven days a week," Medea-Peters said.
The program started in 1979 in Iowa City after a group of people at the Women's Resource Connection Center applied for a grant to see if domestic violence services were needed in the area.
"Within 24 hours of that grant award being announced, there were a line of individuals waiting for services outside the Women's Resource Connection Center," Medea-Peters said. "That's really where everything began. It was around the kitchen table and it was about how do we help our friends, how do we help other women back in the late '70s."
From there, the first emergency shelter opened, and services grew as the need rose.
In 2013, Iowa's counties were grouped into service regions, with the Domestic Violence Intervention Program taking over services and partnering with existing service providers, such as the YMCA, in Cedar, Des Moines, Henry, Iowa, Johnson, Lee and Van Buren counties.
Shelters continued to be filled throughout the state, but many would close.
"In 2000, we had 38 programs and 27 shelters in the state of Iowa," Medea-Peters said. "At this point in 2021, we have eight shelters in the state of Iowa, because of cuts and slashes and not prioritizing victim survivors."
She fears more shelters will close in lieu of the VOCA Fix, and says the need has never been greater.
Fueled by pandemic-related stress, quarantine and financial circumstances, calls to the nonprofit’s crisis hotline have increased by 28 percent each month since May 2020. Housing costs for victim survivors also have increased.
"With the pandemic, we have seen an increase tenfold in dollars spent on temporary sheltering at hotels, apartments, those types of things, because individuals cannot stay with family members or friends like they normally would to get a reprieve," Medea-Peters said.
The increase has more than doubled advocate caseloads. Peterson said one advocate who typically averages about 20 clients now has 54. Services provided to those individuals vary on a case-by-case basis and include check-in, court and hospital advocacy, one-on-one peer counseling, housing assistance, emergency pet sheltering, safety planning and resource gathering.
Medea-Peters does not believe the rise in clients or calls will change soon. Public health officials have called a rise in domestic violence the “shadow pandemic.”
"In reality, I think it's always been there,“ she said. ”The pandemic just brought it to light."