Federal funding for victim assistance drops, state support tries to help

The Massachusetts State House in Boston

The Massachusetts State House in Boston

By SAM DRYSDALE

State House News Service

Published: 05-10-2024 4:18 PM

Dollars coming from Washington to support survivors of violent crimes have dried up in recent years, and state funds to prop up struggling service providers are held up in a spending bill awaiting legislative action.

Federal funding through the Crime Victims Fund to support victim service programming nationwide has fallen dramatically over the past six years – a trend that continued when President Joe Biden signed a budget in March that reduced this funding another 28.7%.

Massachusetts will receive just over $16 million in fiscal year 2024 for these services, compared to almost $28 million in fiscal 2023. In fiscal 2018, Massachusetts received $69 million for victim services from the federal government.

With the most recent cut, nonprofits assisting those impacted by sexual or domestic violence are bracing for 15 to 22% reductions in their funding, according to Hema Sarang-Sieminski, deputy director of the nonprofit coalition Jane Doe Inc.

The cuts could mean letting go of staff, who do everything from counseling to education around sexual assault prevention to legal services, Sarang-Sieminski said.

“These organizations have worked so hard to make sure that they have diverse, culturally competent staff to meet the needs of their regions. And the last thing they want to do is cut staff,” said Rep. Natalie Higgins of Leominster, who worked in survivor services prior to her election.

Pathways for Change, a rape crisis center in Worcester, provides a 24/7 American Sign Language video call hotline for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Its president and CEO Kim Dawkins said Pathways is the only hotline that is accessible for deaf and hard of hearing people in the state.

“These funds are critical for us to be available and accessible to all communities in the places we serve,” Dawkins said.

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Pathways for Change also offers a host of counseling services, resources on domestic violence prevention, educational programs for young people about healthy relationships, and support for survivors who press charges against perpetrators.

“We need to be educating individuals as young as possible, so that we’re changing the societal attitudes about violence. What’s tolerated and what isn’t and why. We have the opportunity to change the trajectory, to move that needle in the long term. We will always be there to support survivors, but gee, wouldn’t it be nice if sexual violence didn’t happen in the first place,” Dawkins said.

As federal funding has declined, the number of people seeking support has trended in the opposite direction. From fiscal 2018 through fiscal 2023, the total number of people served by the Massachusetts Office of Victim Assistance increased by about 56%. MOVA distributes the federal VOCA dollars to nearly 100 providers around the state.

The office said the need for both in-person and remote services has increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“During the pandemic, these organizations not only saw an increased call volume of survivors seeking services, but also in the depth of the need,” Higgins said. “The length of these calls got longer, and these organizations had to show up for survivors and their loved ones more and more. And they did it without question.”

As federal dollars have dropped off, MOVA and providers have gone to the state asking for help filling in the gaps. For the past two years, state officials have dedicated $20 million each year for what they call “VOCA Bridge” funding – meant to bridge the gap between what D.C. used to provide and the funding these centers now receive.

According to the victim assistance office, 34,826 survivors were served in fiscal 2023 who may not otherwise have had services without the bridge funding. That year, MOVA-funded programs provided a total of 534,209 services – whether that be one-on-one counseling, domestic violence hotline calls, or advocacy programs – of which 210,247 were rendered exclusively through state dollars.

MOVA and service providers requested $60 million over three years starting in fiscal 2023, or $20 million per year. The third year of that request is fiscal 2025, which begins on June 30.

Gov. Maura Healey included the $20 million request for fiscal 2025 in a fiscal 2024 supplemental budget (H 4496) she filed on March 21. The bill is sitting in the House Ways and Means Committee, and if it doesn’t advance soon there may be cuts.

“Without this lifeline $20 million investment, over 90 agencies who receive funding from MOVA will experience devastating funding cuts on July 1, 2024,” said Liam Lowney, executive director of MOVA. “Victim service providers have gone above and beyond to continue to support survivors amidst these reductions and increased demand. With support from the state Legislature, we can restore the livelihood of these programs and ensure crime victims and survivors across the state continue to have access to high-quality, lifesaving services.”

Higgins said it’s preferable to pass the $20 million injection through the supplemental budget, rather than the annual budget, as it has a greater chance of making its way through the legislative process prior to the July 1 date when federal funding will dip. The annual budget is due on June 30 but has been late for the last several years.

Victim assistance providers are urging lawmakers to come to a compromise on the spending bill that includes the VOCA Bridge funding soon, so they can know they’ll be able to afford their staff come July.

However, even with state funding, the programs will still feel the impacts of a cut.

“There was a real hope that this was a temporary problem over three years, and that a federal solution would kick in. But that’s looking it’s not going to happen,” Sarang-Sieminski said. “I think we as a community, as a commonwealth, will have to think about prioritization and what it means to fully fund services for victims of crime, for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, looking forward.”