Politics over protection

Looming federal funding cuts would jeopardize domestic violence prevention efforts in Kentucky

For the second consecutive year, the U.S. Senate passed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act — the landmark 1994 legislation to protect and empower victims of domestic violence and sexual assault — with a large, bipartisan majority, despite two no votes from Kentucky’s delegation, Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell.

But just like last year, full passage of VAWA is now facing a roadblock in the Republican-led House.

This week, the House is expected to vote on a VAWA bill that strips protections for the LGBT community, women on tribal lands, immigrants and victims of human trafficking. Without the passage of a uniform VAWA bill — which expired at the end of last year — funding for the next fiscal year to combat domestic violence is at risk.

During a press conference last week at the Center for Women and Families, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, discussed what such a significant funding cut could mean in Louisville, where more than $700,000 in federal money from VAWA was allocated last year.

“Victims of domestic violence and sexual assault often face a lot of uncertainty in their lives,” Yarmuth says, “but whether their members of Congress will stand up for their safety should not be one of them.”

For the current fiscal year, VAWA has provided almost $4 million in grants to 45 organizations across Kentucky, funding a wide range of services for victims of abuse, including emergency shelters and free legal assistance, as well as law enforcement training and personnel. A lack of funding next year would lead to staff cuts at these agencies, resulting in decreased and delayed services.

Marta Miranda — president and CEO of The Center for Women and Families — said at the press conference that the failure to reauthorize VAWA could force them to cut up to six positions. She notes that the recent downturn in the economy has prompted an increase in requests for services by up to 30 percent.

The Republicans’ House bill that strips protections for the LGBT community, Native American women and immigrants is not acceptable to Miranda and other advocate groups, who argue these are among the most vulnerable communities needing help.

“That is what’s causing a lot of the gridlock (in Congress),” Miranda says, “as if these folks do not deserve the safety that all of us deserve.”

And while Yarmuth is confident the Senate version of VAWA would pass the House with the support of many Republicans, GOP leadership “is trying to protect certain of its members from having to cast a vote that would show any compassion or sympathy for undocumented immigrants or LGBT citizens.”

Marissa Castellanos — manager of the Human Trafficking Program at Catholic Charities, which received almost $100,000 last year from VAWA while providing services to almost 300 immigrants — said at the press conference that it is essential for those who are undocumented to feel safe enough to come forward and receive help without the threat of deportation: “Anything less is unacceptable, inhumane and unconscionable.”

Failure to reauthorize VAWA funding would also bring cuts to the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office and Louisville Metro Police, who used $264,000 in grants last year to fund three positions at their domestic violence intake center, two detectives focused solely on domestic violence, and additional training for officers.

Jeff Dean — director of the Legal Aid Society, which received $115,000 this year to provide free legal services for abused women to help file emergency protective orders — tells LEO that further cuts would lead to waiting lists or outright denial of services.

“For a victim who’s in a crisis, who is trying to escape and rebuild her life, it can literally mean the difference between whether she’s going to find safety or she’s going to return to an abusive environment,” Dean says.

As if the possible cuts in funding in the next fiscal year weren’t enough, Dean also notes that sequestration — the across-the-board 5 percent cuts in the federal budget that will come if Congress cannot come to a resolution by this Friday — would further de-fund the Legal Service Corp. from which Legal Aid receives $1 million annually.

The White House estimates that sequestration — which currently appears unavoidable — will amount to a cut of $93,000 in grants to Kentucky alone. Mary O’Doherty of the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association says such cuts would simply compound the fact that they have already faced a decade of funding cuts at the state level, further harming their infrastructure.

“This is the time that we need to be getting smarter about how to help women with substance abuse and mental health issues, because we’re serving more of them,” O’Doherty says. “But instead we’re just treading water.”

During an appearance in Louisville last week, Sen. Rand Paul defended his vote against VAWA, saying the funding of such programs should be done at the state and local level, as well as by private charities, not by the federal government.

While Paul declined to answer whether he thought VAWA was unconstitutional, it’s a claim he previously made in a letter to the leader of a “Men’s Rights Activist” organization, which views VAWA as an attack on males. In the 2011 letter, Paul suggested arresting abusers can lead to more violence and that these grants are an ineffectual waste of money.

Though McConnell has voted for VAWA (which historically has passed almost unanimously) three times in the past, his spokesman explained his recent no vote by saying it “could strip Americans of their constitutional rights.”

And for those criticizing VAWA’s cost of $600 million per year, Marta Miranda of the Center for Women and Families notes that her organization is working with Metro Police to reduce the homicide rate due to domestic violence by 40-50 percent, which could save Jefferson County $166 million if achieved.

“If the lives are not enough,” Miranda says, “at the very least look at the return on investment in being able to fund prevention.”