The year 2018 was known for the #MeToo movement in which victims across the country rose up against sexual assault and harassment — ending careers for several powerful men implicated in the crimes — and encouraged others to follow suit.
The year 2019 has begun with even fewer protections for victims who do.
Dozens of programs meant to help victims of domestic and sexual violence face uncertain, worrisome futures after The Violence Against Women Act expired amid the partial government shutdown, which began Dec. 22 with no end in sight. The act funds services that help victims escape from, or recover after, domestic abuse.
Advocates fear that the lapse will put more victims — the vast majority of them women — at risk of resorting to returning to their abusers.
“2018 was the year of women breaking their silence like never before and that inspires more people to get out and speak out about their situation. So now people are coming out of the woodwork, people are trying to get help but where do they go to get help?” asked Kristen Faith, founder and CEO of Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence, a national organization that planted roots in El Paso County last year.
Because her organization is funded by private donations, they aren’t directly at risk, Faith said, but they also don’t provide the needed services that government-funded crisis intervention organizations, such as TESSA, do.
Break The Silence holds annual retreats for survivors and connects them and their families through a “sisterhood” of support. TESSA assists victims fleeing abuse with housing or legal services, among others. So if TESSA’s services are crippled by the loss of VAWA funding or the delay in payment of funds already allocated, then “we have a serious crisis on our hands,” Faith said.
“If our one (domestic violence) shelter isn’t funded, we have a huge problem,” Faith said, referring to TESSA’s 32-bed safehouse. “We’re going to see a lot more victims on the streets, in homeless shelters, living in their car or staying in their situations.”
TESSA’s Executive Director, SherryLynn Boyles, said the situation isn’t dire, yet.
An email she received from the National Network to End Domestic Violence said that “protections enshrined in VAWA…continue to exist despite its expiration,” and the funding will “very likely continue” once the new funding bill is approved.
In the meantime, TESSA has enough cash flow and reserve funds to get by.
“I don’t want people to think we’re about to close the safe house,” Boyles said. “We’re a long ways away from that.”
VAWA was supposed to be continued for another five years by September, but instead was extended twice before expiring on Dec. 21, when the shutdown was triggered by a disagreement between President Donald Trump and members of Congress over funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall. That dispute stalled spending legislation affecting nine Cabinet agencies, including the Justice Department, which administers the act.
The shutdown means it will likely take longer for local communities and Native American tribes — which have been approved to receive grants under the act — to actually withdraw the funds to help with domestic violence programs.
Those programs fund things such as free rape exams, strengthened federal penalties against repeat sex offenders, training for law enforcement on responding to sexual and domestic violence incidents and the creation of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the Office on Violence Against Women in the Department of Justice.
The lapse also means nonprofit organizations such as the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence, which helps victims who don’t speak English understand what help is available to them, will have to wait longer for a funding source meant to provide those services to more victims.
More than $7 billion in grants has been allotted to help victims since the law was enacted in 1994.
And it means it will likely take longer to receive additional funding to provide temporary housing to victims, a pillar of support services like TESSA, which runs the second largest safe house in the state and which last year spent $325,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Victims of Crime Act to house 87 families affected by domestic violence.
That’s the bigger concern, Boyles said.
While TESSA does receive VAWA funding, it amounts to less than $150,000 of its $3 million budget, Boyles said. But overall, the organization receives close to $800,000 in federal funding. The longer those payments are stalled, the more it could “burden” TESSA’s ability to pay employees or keep the lights on.
“It takes some of the focus off of services and onto figuring out how to pay for things,” Boyles said of the shutdown. “Two weeks isn’t going to create havoc yet, but if it went on months long that’s when we could be scrambling.”
That’s worrisome for places like El Paso County, which has the highest prevalence of domestic violence in Colorado, according to a recent analysis by The Gazette, published in four installments in December. In the last five years, at least 43 deaths in the county were attributed to domestic violence — a number that has increased since the original story was published because the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office amended its numbers.
The Senate last month passed a budget that continued VAWA funding into February, but the bill failed to pass the House after Trump said he wouldn’t sign it. Democratic leaders in the Congress plan to push a budget similar to the Senate version, which would keep the act funded through Sept. 30. That bill does not include the level of funding Trump has said he wants for the border wall.
Kate Irby, a reporter with the McClatchy Washington Bureau, contributed to this report.