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.