A 5-year-old cowers in the corner, while yelling permeates the kitchen. The all too familiar sound of glass shattering presages what is next; a cry for help. The door slams as the abuser leaves the house for the bar; the 5-year-old comforts the mother. She finally decides to reach out for help ... and there are no shelter beds available within a hundred-mile radius. A block away, a woman who lost her job due to the COVID-19 pandemic is told by her landlord that he will evict her if she reports that he raped her. She needs to move, but the local rape crisis center does not have the funds to help her relocate, and there are no housing vouchers available.
Interpersonal violence is increasing as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Domestic violence calls to police increased by 30 percent, and in April, the National Domestic Violence Hotline saw an increase of 15 percent in contacts over April of 2019. Calls to the National Child Abuse Hotline increased 23 percent and texts increased 263 percent compared to historic controls. More than 1/2 of callers to the National Sexual Abuse Hotline were minors and 79 percent lived with the person sexually abusing them.
The per-person costs of serving survivors have also skyrocketed. Because of social distancing, domestic violence shelters are providing hotel vouchers to survivors rather than the less expensive option of hosting survivor on-site. Many also need to be provided with internet enabled devices to allow for distance support. Meanwhile, many victim service programs are seeing a drop in donations.
Thousands of victim service providers across the country rely on federal grants to serve their communities, including Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grants. These non-tax funded grants are the mainstay of programs serving survivors of crimes as varied as child abuse, domestic violence, sexual violence, drunken driving, assault, trafficking, and many more forms of violence.
VOCA grants are facing steep cuts as the funding stream dries up. VOCA grants are funded by monetary penalties associated with federal criminal convictions. Convictions have decreased dramatically in the past few years as the DOJ instead focuses on deferred and non-prosecution agreements, particularly for white collar crimes. These monetary penalties do not go to VOCA grants. Congress can easily fix this in the next COVID-19 relief package by diverting these monetary penalties to the VOCA fund, also known as the Crime Victims Fund. Local programs must match 20 percent of the funding they receive. Due to COVID-19, the requirement should be temporarily waived.
Congress must also include dedicated funding for culturally-specific domestic violence and sexual assault organizations in the next COVID-19 relief bill. Due to systemic racism, COVID-19 and the associated social ills disproportionately impact communities of color. The increase both in need for services and the complexity of those needs means that programs cannot serve everyone who needs their help.
Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and Rep. Dave Loebsack, our message is simple — increase VOCA deposits, waive VOCA match requirements, and fund culturally specific organizations. Your constituents are counting on you.
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Mark Graber MD MSHCE FACEP of Solon is a retired emergency physician. Rachel Graber, MA, MSW is director of public policy at the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.