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Domestic Violence Shelters in a State of Uncertainty as Shutdown Continues

Federally funded domestic violence programs may have to begin scaling back services in a matter of days if President Donald Trump doesn't sign a spending bill.

by Marie Solis
Jan 7 2019, 8:06pm

Domestic violence programs are worried about keeping their doors open as a government shutdown stretches into its third week, prolonged by President Donald Trump's refusal to sign any spending bill that doesn't include more than $5 billion for a southern border wall.

For the last 17 days, federally funded domestic violence programs have gotten by with leftover money from the last fiscal year and advances from the Office of Violence Against Women, which helped grant recipients receive one final reimbursement in December before going into shutdown. And on Monday morning, recipients were surprised to receive an email from the office notifying them that they could continue sending payment requests up until January 18 at 6 AM. However, without any signs of a break through in spending negotiations, leaders of domestic violence organizations say they've been left in a state of uncertainty about how long their funding will last, and whether they should begin scaling back services to prepare for the worst.

"The problem is the uncertainty," Joyce Grover, the executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, tells Broadly. "When does not knowing what's going to happen become not sending staff members to training or closing down an office because we're not getting reimbursed?"

Grover held a conference call this morning with the 27 domestic violence and sexual abuse programs she collaborates with across the state to figure out a plan moving forward, in anticipation of a complete lapse in federal funding. But she said it proved difficult to come up with any concrete course of action with so many unknowns.

"You’re trying to anticipate that without knowing how long this is going to go on, how severe it’s going to be," Grover says. "This morning we found out that it's not as severe as it was yesterday."

Still, Grover doesn't take the prospect of scaling back services lightly. Though she says domestic violence programs will do their best to keep their "core services," like shelters and hotlines, fully functioning for as long as possible—and encouraged people to continue seeking out those services—even small cutbacks to peripheral services can have enormous impacts on women's lives.

Grover says these cutbacks might mean that a sexual abuse survivor has no one to accompany them to a rape kit exam at the hospital, or that an advocate can't pick up a domestic violence victim to transport them to a shelter. And in more remote areas, these organizations may be the only ones victims can access.

"If you live in a rural area you might be planning on going to a domestic violence office to get some information on Thursday when you know people are there working," Grover continues. "But if that office isn't open on Thursday because there's been a cutback you have someone in a critical situation who's reached out for help and may not get it."

Cindy Southworth, the executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, emphasized that it will be these domestic violence programs and the women who rely on them that will feel the effects of an extended government shutdown most acutely.

"These orgs are living so close to the edge they don't have the give to keep their doors open for months or even weeks on end," Southworth says. "And the staff working there are making just above poverty level so they don't have any give either. When you're a frontline advocate making $24,000 a year, you have to feed your kids."

On a "normal day," Southworth says—that is, a day when the government is up and running—these programs remain underfunded. According to NNEDV's own record-keeping, the 56 coalitions that fall under its purview serve about 70,000 people and field some 12,000 phone calls a day from those seeking support. As it is, Southworth says staff members often have to tell victims they have no counselors or attorneys available to help them at that time. Without any government funding at all, she worries the situation would become untenable.

"Any frozen funds can be disastrous for a life-saving domestic violence service system already underfunded," she says.

Domestic violence programs faced a similar situation in 2013, when an Obama-era government shutdown lasted for 16 days, causing some organizations to make urgent requests for civilian donations in order to stay open. On Monday, Trump surpassed the shutdown during Barack Obama's presidency—his was the third-longest—and suggested he would prolong the current one until at least Tuesday evening, when he plans to deliver an address from the southern border.

If Congress doesn't give Trump the money for his border wall, he says his plan B is to declare a state of emergency, or deploy troops to the border to build it themselves. Domestic violence programs have none, according to Southworth.

"There really isn't a plan B for domestic violence programs," Southworth says. "I consider answering a hotline and staffing a shelter to be the same first-responder type of work fire fighters and police officers do. They aren’t services we can shut down yet they are at risk of shutting down."

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the day Trump would deliver his remarks from the southern border.