Four years after the 2008 recession paralyzed the country, more and more holes are showing up in a battered social safety net. Local domestic-violence support organizations report struggling both with dwindling funds and a spike in the need for services offered to people who have experienced rape and domestic violence. Federal funds as well as private donations have diminished, and organizations have also been forced to wait for funding as election-year politics keep Congress from re-authorizing the Violence Against Women Act.
“Last fiscal year, we were unable to meet 1,008 requests for shelter—a 19 percent increase,” says Amberlie Phillips, the development director for the YWCA of Salt Lake City, the largest shelter for battered women and their families in the state. The YWCA operates an emergency shelter as well as a more long-term transitional campus where women can stay for up to two years while they become independent.
Phillips says the YWCA helped refer those it couldn’t shelter at its campus to other shelters and service providers but is troubled by the surge. She’s uncertain of the “why” behind the spike, but says that when victims feel that leaving an abusive partner would leave them without a home or other support, they often decide to stay in the abusive environment, leading them to face more severe violence.
Holly Mullen, director of Utah’s Rape Recovery Center and former City Weekly editor, provided figures showing the RRC’s hospital-response call-outs alone have increased 25 percent since fiscal year 2010, and crisis walk-in cases have jumped 27 percent in the same period. The RRC did have a dip in overall services—5,997 in fiscal year 2012 as opposed to 2011’s 6,304—which Mullen attributes to the center being without a bilingual therapist for four months in 2012, which prevented the center from serving some Spanish-speaking clients.
“Part of the reason we’re seeing an increase in numbers is the general decline of a safety net in society that’s reflected in our economy,” Mullen says, “even though we’re supposedly limping along to recovery.”
Mullen says that even as the ability of government to provide services to women decreases—forcing more women to the RRC, which serves largely low-income populations—federal grant money is “dwindling.”
The Rape Recovery Center provides counseling and support 24/7 in the Salt Lake community to those who’ve experienced sexual violence the night before or years past, and the mission is not without cost. “Our advocates are there to support the victim in every way, from filling out paperwork to advice and support during a really grueling* physical exam that can last anywhere from two to eight hours,” Mullen says.
Having just prepared the fiscal year budget for 2013 this past week, Mullen says she’s already been informed that the center’s biggest federal grant in the 2014 fiscal year will be reduced by as much as 15 percent.
“The federal-grant situation is pretty dire,” Mullen says.
Adding to the funding crisis is the fact that partisan tough talk in Congress has delayed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which approves funding for treatment centers, law enforcement and other resources that aid abused women. The act is more than nine months overdue from passage, thanks to some new components to the bill that have drawn the ire of conservatives in Congress. A version of the bill passed in the Democrat-majority Senate allowed tribal authorities on American Indian reservations to prosecute non-natives for domestic violence committed on certain parts of the reservation. Conservatives stripped that component out of the House version of the bill as well as other expanded protections for LGBT victims and undocumented immigrant women. Congress has been deadlocked since on the reauthorization.
“New data shows that as of July 24, 295 days since the Violence Against Women Act had expired, already 1,180 victims have lost their lives during that time period,” says Angie Makomenaw, the Violence Against Women coordinator at the University of Utah’s Women’s Resource Center.
Makomenaw, who has helped coordinate awareness and outreach on domestic violence on the U’s campus, has closely followed the Violence Against Women Act issue, having previously set up a battered-women’s shelter on a reservation in Central Michigan before coming to the U. The disputed provision would allow non-American Indians who abuse their spouses or partners to be tried for misdemeanor offenses.
Currently, a loophole in tribal law would allow, for example, a white husband to avoid punishment for giving his American Indian spouse a black eye in a domestic dispute.
“Two-hundred and fifty-three members of Congress voted to protect the perpetrators,” Makomenaw says of members of Congress who voted for the House’s version of the bill.
Makomenaw says, anecdotally, that on campus she has seen an increase in clients this summer, also as a result of federal belt-tightening. The Women’s Resource Center, which receives no federal funding and does fundraisers for its outreach efforts, is bolstered by an on-campus counseling center. That counseling center, however, is available only to students currently registered in classes. Makomenaw says that because federal Pell grants are no longer offered for the summer semester, fewer students are able to take summer classes but still need counseling services and must turn to the Women’s Resource Center for support.
“We picked up that extra flow of students,” Makomenaw says.
Makomenaw also notes that the Women’s Resource Center’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” outreach—where students in the audience help actors steer clear of acted-out scenarios of violence—has also increased the number of clients, which, in turn, puts more pressure on the group’s fundraising needs.
For the YWCA’s Phillips, raising awareness may bring in more clients, but it also may bring in more charitable help.
“The economy is definitely looking up, the YWCA has opened a new [Family Justice Center] building. The need for service is so great, [but] as long we tell that story, then the fundraisers will respond positively,” Phillips says.
* This article has been updated from the print version, which, due to a transcription error, used an incorrect word to describe the exam.