After Chad Taylor, the district attorney of Shawnee County in Topeka, Kansas, had his budget cut by the County Commission last month, he announced that he no longer had the financial resources to pursue misdemeanor domestic violence cases, essentially handing them off to the city. The City Council, in turn, voted last week to decriminalize domestic violence so that it didn’t have to pay up. This put the ball back in Taylor’s court; he now says he will review cases sent to him by Topeka police and pursue them on a case-by-case basis. During the game of hot potato, suspected abusers walked free—reports range from eighteen to thirty people. Happy Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
But the back-and-forth is not without its consequences for victims of domestic violence, even if abusers eventually suffer the consequences. “There are two messages,” says Joyce Grover, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “One, that it’s not a priority, and two, that it’s not very serious.” For the abused, those are both dangerous things to hear. “You don’t have someone sitting in the home of a battered woman explaining to her what that means when she calls the police,” Grover explains. “All they hear is that we’re not going to prosecute this, your batterers aren’t going to suffer the consequences.”
Budget cuts hit the vulnerable hardest, and Topeka is just one example in which funding to address domestic violence has increasingly been targeted in light of tight budgets at the federal, state and local level. Three-quarters of shelters nationally report losing money from government sources since the recession. But attacks on these services couldn’t come at a worse time. In a study released by Mary Kay in April, 80 percent of shelters nationwide reported an increase in domestic violence cases for the third straight year. Three out of four shelters attributed the violence to victims’ financial issues; almost half said that those issues included job loss, and 42 percent cited the loss of a house or car. More than half of shelters also report that domestic abuse is more violent than it was before the crash. The recession is taking its toll, and it’s sadly not surprising. Studies show that abuse is three times as likely to occur when a couple experiences financial strain; when a man experienced two or more periods of unemployment over a five-year study, he was almost three times as likely to abuse his female partner.
Just as the need is rising, funds are falling. That’s just what’s happened to the Cherokee Family Violence Center in Canton, Georgia, where executive director Meg Rogers reports having had to completely cancel programming for the 120 children living in its transitional housing, fire three staff members and furlough full-time staff two days out of every month in response to the loss of funds. Meanwhile, her staff hasn’t seen a raise in three years. Some of the loss is due to decreased funds coming from hard-strapped partners in the community; some is related to flat-lined or slashed money from grant programs at the federal and state level; some of it comes from reimbursement funds from the federal government that get delayed during budget showdowns. “You can carry maybe a program for three months waiting to get money, but we can’t finance nine months of operations,” she says.
Her struggles don’t end there: next on the chopping block may be the center’s safe house, which provides shelter for twelve women and their children and requires twenty-four-hour-a-day staffing. “We’ve always had a shelter,” she says. “But we’re seeing [victims] stay longer because they can’t get jobs, can’t afford housing, and we have a six-month waiting list for transitional housing. We have to put everything on the table.” Rogers and her staff are weighing whether keeping this shelter open or investing that money in transitional housing programs makes a bigger difference for women and children in their community. “You really have to be able to make some really hard decisions about how you can help the most people in the most impactful way,” she says.
Back in Kansas, Grover also reports that services throughout the state have seen a 25 percent cut in state support. So the Kansas Coalition Against Domestic Violence is cutting back on programs to reach new areas. “It’s the outreach offices, the twenty-four-hour lines in very rural communities” that are suffering, Grover says, even though a study in 2007 showed three out of five victims in the state weren’t aware of how to access services. “When Congress makes [budget] decisions," she says, “they really do have an impact on our local community.”
At the same time, shelters may experience a drought in private donations. No One Alone, a shelter and support services organization in Dahlonega, Georgia, has seen “a significant decrease in individual donations” and less funding across the board to nonprofit organizations and partners, says executive director Marina Barron. In response, it has kicked up its fundraising efforts, but budgets are tight. “My staff and I are doing more with less funding,” she says. But she adds, “As these folks are even more vulnerable during a recession, they need additional help in term of emergency financial assistance, emotional support and trauma services.” Even budgets that stay level can threaten programs. While the budget for New York City’s domestic violence services hasn’t decreased, rising costs mean, for instance, that a project to help victims stay in their homes safely has had to reduce the number of locks changed yearly from 2,000 to 1,000, says Nathaniel Fields, senior vice president at Safe Horizon.
All the domestic violence advocates I spoke to report seeing an increase in both instances of abuse and the level of violence on the ground. Lack of employment and housing options bear some of the blame; if a woman can’t support and house her family, she may choose to stay in a dangerous situation longer, increasing the chance that an abusive situation will escalate. “Financial stability and financial resources in terms of jobs and support are just incredibly critical pieces of victims moving on with their lives,” Grover says. As services that these women relied on are cut back, they may once again find themselves reliant on their abusers. “My fear is that that they may turn to their abuser or abuser’s family to help them with rides, to help them with child care, some of these services that they’ve been using at our agency,” Rogers worries.
Scaling services back has severe consequences for the lives of the victims, but it also has consequences for society as a whole. It certainly has economic ramifications. Many studies have confirmed that domestic violence services are highly cost-effective; one such study of shelter services in Kingman, Arizona, reported that each dollar invested had returns of $6.80 to $18.40. But it also has larger implications: pointing to the recent story of a California man who was battling his ex-wife for custody and shot her and seven others to death in a hair salon, Grover notes that “domestic violence impacts the entire community.”
Shelters are doing their best to work with reduced budgets and still continue the core services for the victims they serve. But this should not be a place where policymakers look to cut corners. Federal lawmakers should keep these victims in mind as they consider more discretionary cuts; without government aid, states, counties, and individual shelters will have to cut back. Support and awareness for crimes of domestic and sexual violence have made significant gains over recent decades. But as Grover points out, “We all woke up the day after the district attorney made this announcement and wondered just how solid were the things we had worked for.” With increased violence and decreased economic security, women can hardly stand to watch us backslide now. It is shameful that “in a country this wealthy, families have to choose between safety and what they can afford,” Rogers says.