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Iowans facing domestic violence or sexual assault are currently able to access crisis counseling, shelters and long-term support from a local program within driving distance. But if the state doesn’t soon find a way to maintain the $4 million that funds the programs, all that could change.
Local sexual assault and domestic violence programs rely on a combination of state, federal and private funds to maintain operation. Although the state provided funding for these programs as early as 1979, a number of changes and tight state budget years have dramatically eroded available state funding.
In 2002 the state budget to support these programs was eliminated, and nine programs were forced to close or merge. Subsequently money was taken from the Iowa Attorney General’s Victim Compensation Fund as a stop-gap measure that would allow the remaining programs to continue operating. But the Victim Compensation Fund can no longer support the domestic violence and sexual assault victim assistance programs.
Realizing that the Victim Compensation Fund would not be able to serve its intended purpose — providing assistance to victims of violent crime — and continue to fund the domestic and sexual assault assistance programs, the Iowa attorney general’s office, the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault began pressing state officials several years ago for an independent budget line item.
While mindful of the current budget crunch, the dependent agencies also know that fiscal year 2009 will be the last year that Iowa’s domestic violence and sexual assault programs will receive $4 million via the Victim Assistance Grant line item.
“Something has to give,” said Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller. “We have advised the Legislature for several years that the Compensation Fund, which comes from various fines and penalties paid by criminals, would not always be able to fully fund both programs. Now we’ve hit that crunch time. We need the Legislature’s direct appropriation of funds again — as it did in years past — for the crucial network of local programs all over Iowa.”
Miller, who led a news conference Wednesday at the State Capitol, said the 31 programs are located in 27 counties, but they serve the entire state. Despite the budget crunch, Miller said the current funding levels must be maintained.
“It is difficult for me to ask for this funding in these hard financial times, but I believe this is a matter of justice and a matter of safety,” he said. “It’s a matter of justice because Iowa has a long record of assisting victims of crime, and not just punishing and rehabilitating criminals. And it’s a matter of safety and security and recovery for victims.”
The programs, according to Miller, provide “indispensable, life-saving services” that include helping victims with safety plans, finding safe houses for women and children, guiding people through the criminal justice system and helping those who fall prey to violent crime cope with the unforeseen costs of being a victim.
Budget requests, filed by the attorney general’s office in October, include a $3.2 million direct appropriation to the programs, ending the mandated link to the Victims Compensation Fund. The attorney general’s office would retain the legal authority to transfer money from the fund to the local programs, but only if such transfers were fiscally possible.
“This would put the Compensation Fund on a more solid footing and would permit the Office to pay victims their full benefits on a prompt basis,” wrote Miller in his October request letter.
Miller also requested an additional $850,000 for local crime victim service programs. This would provide $850,000 for fiscal year 2010 that was moved in fiscal year 2009 from the Forfeited Property Fund to the grant program fund to replace lost federal support.
According to Beth Barnhill, executive director of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault, rural Iowans will likely feel the brunt of any program cuts first.
“The programs most at risk are the rural programs that are heavily reliant on state funding,” she said. “They are unlikely to have local resources to make up the shortfall.”
Last year the Crime Victim Compensation Program served 5,249 Iowa victims of crime and paid $7.2 million of their out-of-pocket expenses. The expenses included things such as victim counseling, medical care, funeral and burial expenses, child care required for court proceedings or medical treatment, and compensation of wages lost due to crime-related injuries or court appearances.
During that same time frame Iowa’s local domestic abuse and sexual abuse programs served 26,934 victims — 20,042 women, 5,294 children and 1,058 men. The programs provided 100,814 nights of safe shelter to 4,416 victims and children.
Local programs provide emergency shelters, counseling, medical advocacy, crisis hotlines, guidance for victims going through criminal justice proceedings and many other individualized services. Most of the local programs serve large geographical regions — some up to six or eight counties — with small, low-paid staffs of dedicated professionals.
On Sept. 27, 2007, the Iowa programs participated in a 24-hour “snapshot” or requested services in the state. The count from that day showed that services were provided to 813 individuals. But there were an additional 114 requests for services that could not be met because of a lack of resources.