NEW BRITAIN – As the pandemic has caused a heightened risk for domestic violence and has led to an increase in incidents, service providers are looking to government officials for help with funding to keep up with the demand.
In Connecticut, 37.7% of women and 33.9% of men experience intimate partner domestic violence, sexual violence, and/or stalking during their lifetimes, according to Sen. Chris Murphy, who joined the Prudence Crandall Center in New Britain recently to talk about the issue.
“I know how difficult it’s been, especially in the last year, and how the demand absolutely skyrocketed here in Connecticut and all across the country,” Murphy said Friday. “We’re at a moment where it’s harder for you to stay in business and keep your employees safe and funders continued to be engaged.”
Carlos Robalino, Safe Connect Advocacy Coordinator, CT Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the past 15 months have “been challenging for everyone, but especially the victims.”
Robalino added it’s been extremely challenging creating a safety plan while the victims are around their abusers.
According to the National Commission on Covid-19 and Criminal Justice, domestic violence incidents increased during the pandemic by 8.1%, from lockdown orders in March of 2020 through Feb. 24 of 2021. According to the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, those domestic violence victims needing housing increased from 2,214 in 2019 to 2,795 in 2020.
“The level of trauma and the level of abuse that the children and parents were exposed to were huge challenges to overcome and we had to be creative to meet those needs,” said Barri Ritter, Children’s Services Coordinator, Prudence Crandall Center. “I think people being so isolated and being in the house with their abuser, children not being in school, not having exposure to their support systems, and mental health and substance use were skyrocketing, I think all those factors contributed to situations that were already on the verge of exploded during covid.”
Toumi, a domestic violence victim with a 6-year-old, shared some of his story.
“I came to the United States in 2005 from Morocco,” he said. “I never heard about Safe Haven, I never heard about the CDC until one day I found myself dealing with domestic violence, which a lot of men can’t speak about. I went through it. It was a rough experience and it was not easy to deal with.”
Safe Haven, which provides crisis intervention to any victim of domestic violence, provided Toumi with things like hygiene and cleaning supplies, clothes, transportation, renewing his green card, resolving his driver’s license issue and an employment opportunity. Safe Haven is a Waterbury-based organization.
“I was thankful for a lot of people I never met before and I got a chance to meet them today and I like how you always fight the gun violence,” Toumi said.
Earlier this year, Murphy, along with US Senator Richard Blumenthal (D) and U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D), introduced the Lori Jackson Domestic Violence Survivor Protection Act to close loopholes that allow domestic abusers to legally obtain weapons. The American Rescue Plan also included $1.25 million to support Connecticut grantees of the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act Program.
“If it wasn’t so easy to go get a weapon, if it was easier to take guns away from dangerous people, we wouldn’t get rid of domestic violence but we would make a significant dent,” Murphy said.
The CT Coalition Against Domestic Violence is helping to coordinate meetings in different parts of the state with legislators to raise awareness about these issues.
“I know in our program alone we’ve had such an increase in demand for people who need shelter and counseling services,” said Barbara Damon, president and CEO, Prudence Crandall Center. “We have a 40% increase in demand for counseling services. Our shelter at times has been at 250% of capacity and as many as 55 people at a time in our 22-bed program, so we have been using hotels because there isn’t any other way to keep people safe. Those are all challenges all the domestic violence shelters have been facing. “
Marisol Carrasquillo, housing resource coordinator, Prudence Crandall Center, said this is not ideal.
“When we go to visit a hotel client with four children they are confined to the room and it’s a little hard with the pandemic,” Carrasquillo said. “They feel more comfortable here because they can prepare their meals, they have a little more space to accommodate their children and dealing with everything at the same time. Thinking about what I am going to do next, where am I’m going to go, and that’s when I come in and try to work with the family with the rapid re-house program and other programs to try and re-house them again.”
This increase in need has caused tremendous strain on the budget.
“Our hotel budget for Fiscal Year 2021 was $7,500; we spent $87,000 on hotels,” said Lee Schlesinger, executive director Safe Haven of Greater Waterbury.
“Our hotel costs have been, so far, just under $200,000. Altogether, including hotel, food, extra cleaning, facility renovations, plexiglass and all of that we’ve had $500,000 in unbudgeted costs since the pandemic began,” Damon said.
Prudence typically needs to raise $700,000 every year just to meet budgeted expenses.
“In terms of government money, we’ve been able to access CDBG funding that was covid specific for some of the facility upgrades that we needed,” Damon said. “The money that came through DSS was reimbursement for hotel costs. Luckily the community support and some of the cash reserve we had allowed us to absorb some of that cost until it was able to be reimbursed but we’re not typically an organization that has a lot of cash reserve. It doesn’t take much for us to be in trouble, so it’s tenuous.”
These organizations have not been able to do fundraising the way they typically would during the pandemic, so they have relied heavily on the government and the community.
“We were able to leverage some of the DSS funding with For CT which was formed, it’s sort of disbanded, but a bunch of like-minded donors that put together a pool of money to help throughout the state and one of the big priorities was domestic violence services, so we did get significant amount of money from them,” said Meghan Scanlon, president & CEO, CT Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “Then Seedlings Foundation got connected with the coalition which is a bigger foundation in the state of Connecticut, and we were able to offset some of the costs through grants through the Seedling Foundation as well.”
The organizations will be able to sustain this year, but the worry lies with sustainability beyond that.
“We have not really received any significant increase in funding since 2008,” Scanlon said. “We’ve asked for an additional $10 million, so $17 million over next year, and we are trying to get that through either the Rescue Plan money or the anticipated budget surplus, so I’ve been very aggressive with our lawmakers at the state level to try to make sure that they know about this now so that we can work with them over the next several months in order to figure out what that fix is. If we don’t at least get that $7 million I’m not sure how we are able to survive.”
The coalition’s top priority is VOCA funding.
“It’s such a significant part of the funding, but obviously VAWA and FVPSA funds are equally as important, so we want to at least maintain that,” Scanlon said.
The funding supports 37,223 victims, of which 32,201 are adults and 4,922 are children. A total of 2,795 victims are in shelters and other housing programs, which includes 1,386 children shelters ran at 126%. A total of 34,224 victims received court-based advocacy for both civil and criminal matters. There are 33,452 victims that received one-on-one counseling. Under existing funding, the cost of VAWA to each American is about $1.55 per year.
“For the survivors that we’re working with as they are dealing with more and more issues layered with domestic violence, I see our staff stepping up in so many ways and at the same time we’re not even able to keep up with the minimum wage increases,” Damon said. “So people working minimum wage get increases but the rest of the staff aren’t because we don’t have the ability to do that. It’s like OK, more need more services but not able to pay people to do more services and we have to be able to get a handle on that and see what is the longer term solution around sheltering. Can we predict what the need is going to be statewide? How do we fund that; how do we think of it differently?”
“We are advocating in all of our federal grant applications this coming cycle for increase in wages to go above the minimum wage threshold because we would like to be able to provide that to folks that are on the ground doing this work,” Scanlon said.
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE FUNDING
Fiscal Year 2020 Federal Funding for domestic violence services in Connecticut include:
Family Violence Prevention & Services Act DHHS (FVPSA), which totaled $1,469,211. FVPSA is the only federal funding source dedicated to domestic violence shelters. It supports lifesaving services including emergency shelters, counseling, general victim advocacy programs for underserved communities.
Violence Against Women Act DOJ, Office on Violence Against Women (VAWA/OVW), which totaled $686,691. VAWA funds are at the core of an effective, comprehensive coordinated community response to domestic violence. As the foundational VAWA program, services, training, officers, prosecutors (stop) grants are awarded to every state through a formula-based system to train law enforcement, prosecution and courts to improve system-wide response
Victims of Crime Act DOJ (VOCA), which totaled $7,813,618. VOCA uses non-taxpayer money from the Crime Victim Fund, which are funds generated by fines paid by federal crimes. After several years of growing concerns about declining deposits into the fund, President Joe Biden did sign into law the VOCA Fix Act in July 2021 that is expected to provide long-term stability to the fund. However, it is expected the fund will still take a couple of years to replenish, leaving domestic violence providers and other crime victim service providers across the country bracing for temporary but significant cuts to funding.