Violence Against Women Act funding critical to Texas organizations serving victims

Posted on: May 10th, 2012 by Teddy Wilson 4 Comments

Photo Credit: By Ira Gelb/Flickr

While partisan politics has hijacked the debate over the Violence Against Women Act, victims rights advocates in Texas say it has been an invaluable resource for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The reauthorization of VAWA, which was originally passed in 1994 and reauthorized in 2000 and then again in 2005, has faced unprecedented Republican opposition. As the Texas Independent reported, Republicans claim their opposition to the reauthorization of VAWA is due to Democratic additions to the legislation, while Democrats have framed Republican opposition as a continuation of the “war on women.”

At the end of April the Senate passed a reauthorization which included expansions of its protections and benefits. Passing 68 to 31 with 15 Republicans in support, S1925 included a provision that expanded protections to gay, bisexual or transgender victims of domestic abuse. Also included in the legislation was an increase in the number of temporary “U visas” for undocumented immigrant victims of domestic violence.

This week the House Judiciary Committee voted to not include protections for the GLBT community that were included in the senate bill. An amendment that would have prohibited domestic violence programs receiving funds under VAWA from discriminating against someone based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity was voted down along party lines.

Most organizations around Texas said that they already serve all victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, and that they have nondiscrimination policies in place.

“We already serve that [GLBT] community and it’s very important to serve that community because they experience a significant amount of violence, and they are a very vulnerable population,” said Abeer Monem, director of programs at the Fort Bend Women’s Center. “We are committed to help all victims of domestic violence.”

Annette Burrhus-Clay, executive director of Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, said that she doesn’t think that there are any organizations in Texas that are intentionally not serving GLBT clients, however, she believes that there may well be programs that are either “neglecting” the community or not providing outreach to the community. “Having nondiscrimination protections in the legislation protects vulnerable populations. The intent of the legislation is to deal with the domestic violence regardless of who the perpetrator is,” said Burrhus-Clay.

Funding programs

The Office on Violence Against Women is, according to its website, the component of the U.S. Department of Justice that provides “federal leadership in developing the nation’s capacity to reduce violence against women and administer justice for and strengthen services to victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.”

OVAW currently funds 21 programs. Three of these programs are “formula” programs. This means that the enacting legislation also specifies how the funds are to be distributed. The remaining 18 programs are “discretionary” in that the Office has the responsibility to create the program parameters, qualifications, eligibility, and deliverables.

In fiscal year 2011, OVAW distributed more than $453 million in grants nationwide. Texas organizations received $15.8 million in grants, which went to 23 different organizations. Of that, the state received $8.8 million, which was distributed to different organizations either through the Office of the Governor or the Attorney General.

Much of the funding that organizations around Texas receive from VAWA goes directly into supporting victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. Typically it funds staff members who work directly with the women that need services. This can include advocates who help victims through the legal process, or to staff members who monitor 24-hour victim support phone lines.

In interviews with the Texas Independent, directors of multiple organizations around Texas said that their organizations receive VAWA funding through multiple channels. Some organizations receive funding directly from the federal level, while some receive grants that are funneled through local government organizations from the Office of the Governor.

Serving victims

The Sexual Assault Resource Center of the Brazos Valley receives VAWA funding from the Governors Office to help victims of sexual assault, which represents about 20% of the center’s total budget. Anna Chowdhury, the executive director of the center, told the Texas Independent that they employ a sexual assault response team that works with local entities to ensure victims access to the legal system.

“It is incredibly difficult to get sexual assault cases through the justice system,” said Chowdhury. “The team works with the local district attorney’s office as well as local law enforcement, and they work together to respond to individual cases to get the best outcome for the client and getting cases to move through the criminal justice system.”

Wendie Abramson, director of disability services at Safe Place in Austin, told the Texas Independent that the organization receives grants directly from the federal level and that several different programs are made possible because of VAWA.

Safe Place has used grants to support children who are victims of domestic violence and sexual violence, transitional housing assistance for victims of domestic violence in partnership with Goodwill. They have also received funding to support disabled victims of domestic violence, which included on outreach through social media to the deaf community.

In applying for grants, Safe Place always partners with another agency, and looks for grant programs that have emphasis on innovation. “There is a focus on creating innovative models, or expanding on those models, and we are always looking to expand our services for the victims of these horrific crimes,” said Abramson.

A 24-hour hotline that is operational seven days a week is funded at the Fort Bend County Women’s Center through a VAWA grant through the Office of the Governor. Monem told the Texas Independent that the crisis hotline is critical because it is the “entry point” for most victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The $100,000 grant, which represents 12% of the center’s budget, pays for case managers and staff. Much like with other organizations, VAWA funding is used to pay for the staff members that work with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Monem said that the funding received through VAWA grants is extremely important. “We need every dollar that we can get,” said Monem.

Organizations lobby for reauthorization

Burrhus-Clay told the Texas Independent, that TAASA has spent a significant amount of time working to assure the reauthorization of VAWA. “We’ve been working incredibly hard in support of the reauthorization of VAWA,” said Burrhus-Clay. “With the Texas delegation in particular. We’ve wanted to let them see the importance of VAWA and how it impacts their constituents.”

Burrhus-Clay acknowledged that the current political climate has made the reauthorization process more difficult than it has been in the past. “It’s been a more contentious issue than it was in the past,” said Burrhus-Clay. “It being an election year, there are economic issues, and lots of other hot button issues that are in VAWA.”

While Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison voted for the Senate version, her fellow Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn voted against reauthorization of VAWA. Cornyn recently proposed the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry Act which would reduce the backlog of untested rape kits, legislation that TAASA supports. Despite his lack of support for VAWA, Burrhus-Clay thinks it’s important to continue working with the senator on these issues.

“Rightly or wrongly, Sen. Cornyn believes that some of the tribal previsions are solutions that will not meet constitutional muster,” said Burrhus-Clay. “I’ve been very upfront with Sen. Cornyn about where we stand. But it did not make sense to me to hold a grudge when he supports legislation that is good for Texans.”

In Texas the funding is critically important says Burrhus-Clay because of the number of people affected by sexual assault and domestic violence. “What we know from studies is that specifically in Texas only 18% of rapes are reported,” said Burrhus-Clay. “There have been 2 million victims of sexual assault in Texas. It affects one out of every five Texas women.”

“The vast majority of sexual assault survivors are not in the system, and they need support from these services,” said Burrhus-Clay. “If they didn’t report to the police, they don’t get compensated for victims services such as counseling. If VAWA goes away we would have lots of agencies who wouldn’t be able to provide services for sexual assault. These programs have been doing so much for so little for so long that it is so frustrating that they are struggling to keep their doors open.”

Repercussions of failed reauthorization

While the reauthorization of VAWA in some form is considered by many to be assured, the funding is still subject to budget cuts just like any other government agency. Organizations often heavily rely on VAWA and other federal grants to continue providing services. Oftentimes multi-county areas are served by just one organization with a small staff.

According to Chowdhury, her organization is completely staff dependent and relies on VAWA funding to serve large swaths of Central Texas. The center is based in Bryan and serves seven counties throughout the Brazos Valley. “We start out with incredibly small staff, with just six positions serving seven different counties,” said Chowdhury.

Any disruption in funding would affect the “quality and continuity of services,” according to Chowdhury. “We stay with clients for as long as we can. This could be from the initial crisis at the ER or police station through the entire legal process. It could take anywhere from a week to two years,” said Chowdhury.

“I think some people might not understand how important it is – this funding allows us to keep going,” said Chowdhury. “I think there is a misconception that things like VAWA… are not doing as much as they actually are. Not having to deal with people face to face, critics probably don’t see all the good that they do.”

“We recently lost a couple of grants, and so it’s been a tight year,” said Monem. Like other organizations, at Fort Bend County Women’s Center the services they provide are predominantly staff oriented. “Case managers are the hub of our supportive services,” said Monem. “They help with housing applications, accompanying clients to courts, go through client service programs, helping the clients with the safety program.”

“These services are a matter of life and death,” said Monem. “Whatever the arguments are and whatever the political disagreements are it’s really important that we get this reauthorization passed and not cut any of the provisions.”

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