More than 78,500 victims of domestic violence reached out to the country’s programs offering housing, legal help, and other services on a given day last year. But of those, 10,871 had to be turned away because the programs didn’t have the resources to help them.
The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) recently released its yearly one-day census of most of the country’s nearly 2,000 domestic violence programs and shelters. Many have cut back on key services and have run out of enough beds to accommodate the massive number of people who need them.
That can leave victims in dangerous situations longer and keeps them from moving into stable, independent living arrangements. “When [victims] come into domestic violence shelters, their situations are more dangerous, likely because they’ve waited longer,” said Joyce Grover, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence. “They have to wait for services even when they personally feel like they are in crisis.”
They also end up having a harder time exiting shelter when housing and job training supports have dried up. “Instead of coming in and staying in a shelter for 30 days, we might have people stay for three months, four months,” she noted. “Which then makes it more difficult to serve more people.”
Those long shelter stays don’t just back up services for other victims, of course. They also end up frustrating the people staying in the shelters, which can push them back into bad situations. “Sometimes they might go back to an abuser or go to an unsafe situation,” said Deborah DeBare, executive director of the RI Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “It’s not helping the way our programs are intended to help.”
One victim of domestic violence described in the report had been living and hiding in her car for two weeks with her four children after escaping an abusive situation. “She needed emergency shelter but we couldn’t take her in because our shelter was full,” a Nevada advocate said in the report.
On a given day in 2014, NNEDV’s census found that most of the victims who were turned away were seeking emergency shelter — more than 4,300 people couldn’t get that service. It’s a critical intervention for people looking to flee violent situations.
Sometimes full shelters can still help victims by putting them in hotels or motels, but over the last year 122 programs had to eliminate that service thanks to funding cuts. Transitional housing can also help victims as they move toward independence, but 79 programs had to reduce or eliminate that service.
Programs also often offer legal services to help victims with protection orders, custody battles, and other court-related appearances where they need legal advice and support. But 74 programs have reduced or eliminated legal advocacy while 66 cut back on legal representation. These services are one of the big reductions for programs in Kansas, according to Grover. “We used to be able to have specific court advocates who could be there just to be that person who sits with [a victim], helps her understand what’s going on, helps her figure out what questions she needs to ask to get information, takes her to the right places,” she said.
As one advocate in Oregon says in the report, “A survivor needed an attorney to help modify her custody agreement with her abusive ex-partner because of his unsafe behavior around their daughter. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make an appointment with Legal Aid because they were full.”
Plenty of other services can been cut back. More than 100 programs reduced or eliminated transportation, 68 had to pull back on child care, and many had to cut back on therapy. Kansas programs have also struggled with providing transportation to and from, for instance, hospitals for sexual assault exams or far away courthouses to get protection orders. “If you don’t have enough advocates, a victim may have to sit and wait until one is available for some hours,” Grover said. “When you have a victim who’s in that kind of a crisis, it’s pretty bad to have people wait like that.”
Domestic violence programs are still grappling with an economic downturn that depleted resources at all levels. Last year, of those that had to turn away victims more than a quarter cited reduced government funding. Sequestration, the automatic budget cuts enacted in 2013, still remains in place and even federal funds that remain level hurt programs as inflation and the cost of compensating employees rises. And cuts are coming from other places as well. “Our census is telling us that state and local community cuts are still happening,” Monica McLaughlin, deputy director of public policy at NNEDV, said. Those cuts have not just reduced services but also forced some programs to shutter their doors entirely.
For DeBare in Rhode Island, level federal funding still can’t make up for state cuts and depressed private donations. “We haven’t yet been able to recover from the severe state budget cuts we’ve experienced over the past eight or nine years,” she said. “It’s still way below where funding levels were at six or seven years ago before the recession.”
Less funding also means staff cuts, and 1,392 positions were eliminated last year, three-quarters of which were in direct service such as shelter staff or legal advocates. That comes out to an average of about two positions per program, where staffs are often less than 20 people to begin with. Programs also struggle to pay people living wages when there’s no money to increase salaries or benefits, which leads to high turnover. “Advocates are often paid salaries that allow them to be eligible for [public] benefits,” McLaughlin pointed out. She recounted the story of an advocate she heard about recently who was offered a job that paid much better — at a fast food restaurant.
At the same time, demand has increased, as awareness of the issue has grown and more victims are seeking help. After video was widely circulated in the media last year of NFL player Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee Janay Palmer in an elevator, programs experienced a huge influx of victims reaching out. DeBare noted Rhode Island’s domestic violence hotline saw an “astronomical” increase in calls in the month that the news hit. “We’ve had more hotline calls in 2014 than ever before,” she said.
But while it may be welcome for more victims to seek assistance, programs can’t always offer it. “The combination of of state cuts and increased demand for services is creating a real hardship here,” DeBare said.