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Government shutdown exposes domestic violence funding woes

Service providers remained open, despite financing uncertainties

The country’s longest shutdown highlighted funding insecurities and strains for many domestic violence prevention organizations, at the state and local level, reliant on federal grants.

The Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994, was not renewed in December when the federal government shutdown. The partial shutdown, stemming from disputes over President Donald Trump’s proposed southern border wall, lasted through Jan. 25. Domestic violence and sexual assault services, many of which are dependent on federal funding, were sent into a period of uncertainty.

“Originally, they thought they could only keep staff going until the 18th of January,” said Cindy Southworth, executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “Local providers were panicked and looking to do furloughs.”

Carryover funds from the Justice Department were eventually secured to keep VAWA from lapsing through March 1, Southworth said. But the 35 days of the government shutdown put an additional strain on organizations already working in low-funded, high-stakes situations.

“It causes a lot of stress for people who are already dealing with people in crisis,” said Amy Pohl, associate director of Colorado’s statewide domestic violence coalition, Violence Free Colorado.

The uncertainty surrounding funding during the shutdown was felt on a professional and personal level for those working at domestic violence organizations.

“Most of the frontline victim advocates are seriously underpaid. So it’s not like they have a buffer in their checking accounts if they miss a paycheck,” Southworth said.

Throughout the shutdown, organizations like Violence Free Colorado were fielding concerns from both service providers and survivors of domestic violence seeking help.

“A lot of people read into (the shutdown) that we’re closed and don’t have services,” Pohl said. But Violence Free Colorado, like most domestic violence service providers, remained open throughout the partial shutdown.

For Kim Zook, executive director of Alternative Horizons in Durango, the government shutdown did not impact her organization’s operating ability.

“We are providing services and responding to clients exactly the same as we have in the past,” Zook said during the shutdown.

While the federal government has been reopened through Feb. 15, it is uncertain when VAWA will officially be reauthorized. This uncertainty has left many providers recalling the last time the act lapsed.

Doherty Demko

“For us as an agency, the biggest things we’re concerned about is when VAWA ended in 2010 and it took them three years to reauthorize it,” said Maura Doherty Demko, executive director of Durango’s Sexual Assault Services Organization.

With the federal government now reopened, service providers are left to take stock of the effects the shutdown had on their community. While most organizations were able to continue providing direct services to survivors, “they don’t know day-to-day or week-to-week what the long-term consequences could be,” Pohl said.

The length of the shutdown led many organizations to reflect on the unreliable nature of federal funding during a government shutdown.

“Legislators need to make sure there are long-term services available to survivors, but they can’t do that when they’re focused on making sure our government reopens,” Pohl said.

SASO, which is staffed by six employees and 30 volunteers, provided direct service to 410 clients in 2018, Doherty Demko said. The organization’s 24-hour crisis hotline, which is staffed by 33 volunteers, logged 6,840 hours last year.

“I’m grateful our community has these resources,” Doherty Demko said. “Someone who has had their choices taken away from them, they deserve to have the choices they want to have.”

Liz Weber is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.

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