(Reprinted from MS Magazine, Summer 2014. Author Lindsey O’Brien)
A unanimous Supreme Court decision in late March reaffirmed a federal law making it a crime for domestic-violence offenders to possess a gun. James Castleman had claimed that his state conviction for assaulting his child’s mother had not required proof that he had used violence. But as Justice Sonia Sotamayor pointed out in her opinion on United States v. Castleman, domestic violence includes “seemingly minor acts” such as pushing, grabbing, shoving, pulling hair and “a squeeze of the arm that causes a bruise.”
This was a major victory in fighting violence against women, and will undoubtedly saves lives. But at the same time, there is a disturbing trend that has gone little notices: the reduction in the number and staffing of domestic-violence shelters.
Last year, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDBV), cuts to domestic-violence funding caused the loss of 1,696 jobs in the field — including legal advocates and those providing direct services in shelters. This resulted in 9,641 victims turned away daily when requesting emergency shelter, transportation, legal representation or financial assistance.
The first reason for these cutbacks is simple: State and federal budget cuts have reduced funding for human services. The Family Violence Prevention and Services Act (FVPSA), the only federal law dedicated to funding domestic-violence shelters, authorizes $175 million in spending a year, but last year Congress appropriated less than $122 million.
The second problem is a cap on the Victims of Crime Act. VOCA is funded by criminal fines and penalties that provide services to crime victims. In the beginning of 2013, however, Congress voted to allow only $730 million to be distributed annually, no matter how much had come in. As of September 2013, $9 billion has accumulated and has yet to be seen by victims of crime.
Of those victims who are turned away from services due to budget cuts, 60 percent return to their abusers. “That’s pretty stark. And that, of course, means that their kids are going back too,” explains Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the NNEDV. Thirty-eight percent of those turned away report becoming homeless or living in their cars.
For the past five years, Louisiana has averaged one domestic-violence shelter closure per year. Yet the state faces one of the highest domestic-violence homicide rates in the nation. Women in Louisiana are murdered at a rate exceeding 40 percent higher than the national average. “I think that’s directly correlated to this lack of a safety net[for victims],” explains Beth Meeks, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
As another example, the state of Rhode Island has been lucky enough to escape closures, but can no longer offer around-the-clock staffing at every shelter. That means that those facing domestic violence can’t seek emergency shelter during the night.
Gandy suggests two ways to start turning around the situation: Congress needs to appropriate all the money authorized in FVPSA, and lift the cap on VOCA. “Even the most conservative members of Congress,” she says, “ought to see the appeal in sending money to the states to serve their own victims of crime.”
When I helped to start a Domestic Violence Shelter in the seventies, we were one of the first shelters in America. I can’t express my anxiety and worry that shelters are closing and staff is being cut. Why? It is not because there are less battered women. In truth, today in 2014, a woman is battered every 11 seconds according to the FBI. My original shelter is functioning and use a large amount of volunteer staff. It provides many services for women. The last time I went back and visited, they had a half million dollar budget.
Today, we need women to help fund raise and to start new shelters. Shelters don’t need to be fancy, just warm, good food, and safety. It is a place where women can volunteer. There is so much needed to be done. Children need to be counseled and played with. Moms need to receive counseling, legal assistance, transitional housing, they need to talk and express their feelings. They need to learn how to fill out a job application or practice interviewing. I They need other women to lean on and to draw strength from.