Last year, in what proved to be an all too fleeting moment of compassion, Congress quadrupled the amount of funding distributed to victim services organizations by raising the cap on the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) fund. Members of these organizations rejoiced and began moving towards a future where everyone who seeks support receives it.
But Congress's recent budget deal sent that optimism crashing. The deal siphons $1.5 billion from the VOCA fund and reallocates it towards federal spending, in what victim services organizations view as a violation of the sanctity of VOCA and a disturbing precedent. To these organizations and the women they serve, this decision is a serious blow.
"Historically, VOCA money was only allowed to be used for victim services," said Monica McLaughlin, Deputy Director of Public Policy at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. "The appropriations bill indicates that this money is not sacred and offline, and we are concerned. Three women are murdered in this country every single day. We have to fight for funds for survivors—they are needed to save lives."
VOCA was enacted with bipartisan support in 1984, following a report issued by a Task Force on Victims of Crime, "to address the needs of the millions of Americans and their families who are victimized by crime every year." Through the VOCA fund, every state gets a grant, and that money is passed onto local programs, public agencies, and nonprofits within the states for victim services. This can include include domestic violence shelters, rape crisis centers, child advocacy services, and payments to families of murder victims.
From 2000 to 2014, the amount that they've released each year is less than the rate of inflation."
The VOCA fund is unique in that it is not taxpayer-funded; it was designed to be self-sufficient. Money enters it through fines, fees, and penalties collected by the U.S. Department of Justice from federal criminal offenders. For example, when GlaxoSmithKline pled guilty to fraud in 2012, $960 million of its settlement went into the VOCA Fund. Credit Suisse added $1.14 billion to the fund after pleading guilty to conspiracy to aid and assist U.S. taxpayers.
The VOCA fund is also considered mandatory spending, meaning that money deposited into the fund must be doled out and spent the following year. In 2000, following a number of nine and ten-figure settlements, Congress decided to cap the amount of money that can be allotted. Rather than distributing an unstable amount each year depending on the amount of collected fines, the cap regulates distribution. As a result, the fund has accumulated a substantial balance, which has swelled in recent years due to a string of massive settlements from big banks and major corporations.
"These very large cases have been continuing and growing, but the rate at which Congress has allowed the money to be distributed has been at a much slower pace than the amount of money that's been collected," said Steve Derene, Executive Director of the National Association of VOCA Assistance Administrators (NAVAA). "In fact, from 2000 to 2014, the amount that they've released each year is less than the rate of inflation."
At the end of the 2014 budget year, the VOCA fund held nearly $12 billion, while the cap in the 2014 fiscal year was $745 million. In FY 2015, Congress quadrupled the VOCA cap and allotted $2.3 billion, surpassing $1 billion for the first time. For victim services organizations, this was a watershed moment.
"When that $2.3 billion was released from VOCA, it was a game-changer," McLaughlin said. "We thought we no longer had to live with the status quo of unmet need and could get to a place where every victim gets services."
The quadrupling of the cap galvanized victim services organizations into action. Around the country, they began hiring, investing in staff, bolstering their existing programs and creating new ones. Then, in November, Congress approved a two-year budget deal that included an alarming surprise—$1.5 billion from the VOCA fund is slated for the general treasury. The proposed budget deal is $80 billion over the budget limit, and that $80 billion has to come from somewhere.
I can't for the life of me understand what would motivate Congress to scale back at this point.
For victim advocates, this pilfering from VOCA is deeply disheartening. Terri Poore, who works on public policy for the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said that after the dramatic FY 2015 increase, local programs were unsure whether they could count on a similar level of funding in FY 2016, but had hoped for a cap in the neighborhood of $2.6–$2.7 billion. The raid on the VOCA fund does not bode well. It has ignited concerns that the FY 2016 cap will be around $1.2 billion—that's half of last year's level—because with less money in the fund, Congress is less likely to appropriate more.
"We've been trying for years to increase the VOCA cap and get more money out into the field to provide direct services," Poore said. "I can't for the life of me understand what would motivate Congress to scale back at this point. Scaling back would have a devastating impact, just when rape crisis centers and other programs were thinking for the first time that they could get out of triage mode and actually start meeting need."
Rebecca O'Connor is the Vice President for Public Policy at the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN). She said she understands why, with a $12 billion balance, pulling $1.5 billion out of VOCA might seem minor. She also said she has heard the arguments that crime is going down, so there is less need for victim services, and that the field can't absorb $2 billion every year. But, "There are false arguments," O'Connor said. "This money is absolutely needed, and anyone who works in the field can tell you that. Imagine being a survivor and reaching out for help, which is such a brave step, and there is no one to call. The reality is that if we cut off services at the state level, we are cutting off lifelines."
In fact, demand for services at domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers is actually climbing, and climbing fast. O'Connor said that 73,000 people visited RAINN's Sexual Assault Hotline last year who went unserved. Miriam Elizondo, the Executive Director of the Rape Crisis Center in San Antonio, Texas, said that demand for their services has increased "rapidly and drastically" over the past 18–20 months.
Victim service organizations have historically been perpetually underfunded. In 2011, the Department of Justice released a report revealing that just 9% of victims of serious violent crime received direct assistance from a victim service agency. These services are overwhelmingly used and needed by women.
Over one third of rape crisis centers have a waiting list for basic services.
One in four women reports experiencing domestic violence in her lifetimes, causing 2 million injuries and 1,300 deaths each year. According to Derene, about half of the people who have been served with VOCA funded programs are domestic violence victims. However, local organizations do not have the capacity to help all these women. During a 24 hour period last year, 67,646 victims were helped by 1,697 domestic violence shelters and programs in the U.S., but 10,871 victims were turned away. And that's in one day alone.
"When men, women and children see violence in middle of the night, and they are scared and in crisis with nowhere else to go, the fact they get turned away from programs is unacceptable," McLaughlin said. "Victims who come forth for help are not a number on the page, and we can't accept this status quo."
Rape crisis centers also rely heavily on VOCA funds and are struggling to keep up with demand. Over one third of rape crisis centers have a waiting list for basic services. In 2014, over 40 percent of the America's rape crisis centers had to reduce staffing because of funding shortages.
The Rape Crisis Center in San Antonio, Texas served 27,000 victims last year, and currently has an eight-month waiting list for counseling with 150 people on it, half of whom are minors. Elizondo said this year, eight people had to go to the hospital without an advocate because the center could not meet demand. VOCA has helped fund San Antonio's RCC for over ten years, and provides around one third of its budget for services like crisis intervention, counseling, and case management.
"This goes along with rape culture, to be honest," Elizondo said. "It says that some people are more important than others. It's a step backward."
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VOCA funding is not only needed to expand the quantity of services, but also the quality. Victim service providers are severely underpaid. Denere said that most full-time staff members at VOCA-funded organizations make just above $20,000 a year, and many organizations have had to freeze salaries. These are people who work long, intense hours and often respond to crisis calls in the middle of the night. Unsurprisingly, turnover is extremely high, which is not only expensive, but can also detract from the caliber of service they are able to provide.
"Service providers need to make a living wage so they don't go looking for other jobs," Derene said. "With high turnover, you need to make sure staff is trained to work with people who are in crisis and experiencing trauma. You can do damage to people if you don't have workers who know what they are doing and are qualified."
Poore said in her experience, advocates tend to work for these organizations for two to three years, but ultimately can't survive on the tiny salary, especially if they have families. This accelerates the rate at which they burnout and leave. In addition, knowledge surrounding rape trauma has deepened over the past few years, but many rape crisis centers do not have the capacity to implement this knowledge into the services they provide.
"These are people who are responding to some of the most traumatic things that happen to a person," Poore said. "They do it because have a passion for the work and care about healing, but having done it personally, I know it can take a strong toll on your life. With money sitting there, those funds could be used to pay advocates closer to what they are worth."
Coming up with the budget is a complicated and fraught process, and has only become more so over the recent years of Congressional infighting and the specter of government shutdowns. The VOCA fund, which does not draw on taxpayer money, is supposed to be exempt from partisan bickering. Interestingly, members from both parties played a role in attempting to yank money away from crime victims, as well as in protesting it. Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) and Rep. Jim Costa (D-CA) wrote a letter to John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi expressing their "serious concern" that the draft will rescind and permanently cancel $1.5 billion from the VOCA fund:
"This provision in the budget agreements sets a terrible precedent and will lead to the depletion of a Fund that is intended to be sustained for some of the most vulnerable in our society. The Crime Victims Fund has existed for 30 years and served millions of victims. We cannot balance the solutions to our significant, long-term fiscal challenges on the backs of victims of crime."
After this provision of the budget deal came to light, victim service organizations began activating a grassroots campaign called "Don't Cut VOCA" before the deal and the subsequent raid on the fund, is passed. They want the $1.5 billion to stay in the VOCA fund, where it helps ensure that people who have suffered are able to get the services and support they deserve. They also want to sanctity of the VOCA fund preserved. Additionally, they hope the cap for FY 2016 will continue the elevated levels from FY 2015, so victim service organizations can make meaningful updates and expansions to the work that they do.
Most of all, they want a government that gives them the resources they need to help every single person who walks through their doors, so people who have lived through traumatic experiences will know they are not alone, can get help, and ultimately, will be able to heal.