Reduction in federal funding for crime victims hits home
The holidays are often viewed as an opportunity for families to gather together and share seasonal cheer, but when there’s domestic discord, many seek help from nonprofit legal or social service organizations.
Thanks to federal funding cuts in the coming year, some of the most vulnerable people in the region may find themselves left out in the cold.
“The cuts are very serious because they threaten the infrastructure in the state to help people get away from child abuse and domestic violence,” said Jim Barrett, executive director of Pisgah Legal Services. “People who are being abused kind of get a bad rap because they often have to go back, over and over, to the abuser for economic reasons or custody reasons. If you want to break the cycle of abuse, you need to make legal services available to people who can’t afford a lawyer.”
Founded by volunteer attorneys in the late 1960s as the Legal Aid Society of Buncombe County, Pisgah Legal Services provides various free civil legal assistance as well as housing and health care support across 18 Western North Carolina counties. Last year, the organization served more than 21,000 people, with 34% of civil cases involving child abuse, child custody or domestic violence issues.
Pisgah Legal operates on an annual budget of around $10 million, raised mostly from foundations, but a full 16% of revenue comes from federal funds. This year, the federal funding cuts will leave Pisgah Legal with a shortfall of more than $1 million.
Those cuts, Barrett said, mean that more than 1,900 people, mostly children and women, could end up with nowhere to turn when seeking help with safe housing, protective orders, child custody or support, divorce and division of assets.
“In the legal world, having access to an attorney is really important to getting away from an abuser, because the abuser holds child custody, housing, the car. Anything they can do to retain control over the person they’re abusing, they’ll use it,” said Barrett. “If you think about having an attorney to get custody established, to deal with who’s name is going to be on the lease, to deal with some of the property from the marriage, including transportation to a job, these are all critically important to keep someone who’s been abused from having to go back to the abuser.”
The cuts, to a federal program called VOCA, affect a broad segment of the nonprofit legal and social services sector.
The Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) of 1984 established the Crime Victims Fund (CVF), which is administered by the Department of Justice and funded not by taxpayer dollars but instead by fines and forfeitures collected from losing parties in federal cases. According to Court Appointed Special Advocates, a national support group, the CVF helps roughly 3.7 million Americans, in every state, every year.
Barrett touted the cost effectiveness of breaking the cycle of violence, especially for children who witness it. Abuse can have both mental and physical health consequences later in life, and some children who grow up in violent environments inadvertently turn to such behaviors as appropriate ways to resolve interpersonal conflicts. The National Institutes of Health says that one in six male inmates were victims of physical or sexual abuse before turning 18, and more than half had experienced physical trauma.
Over the past few years, however, deposits to the CVF have dwindled in the face of fewer federal fines and forfeitures.
In fiscal year 2018, the fund was capped at $4.4 billion. In 2019, it was $3.5 billion. In 2020, it was $2.5 billion. In 2021, the fund dropped to $2 billion. There was an increase in 2022 to $2.6 billion, but in 2023 it decreased again to a new low, $1.9 billion — a new low until fiscal year 2024, which began on Oct. 1, 2023. This year’s cap is $1.2 billion, a reduction of more than 70% since 2018.
According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, the VOCA cuts are due to changing prosecutorial strategies “and are not a partisan issue.”
“What they’re saying is that in the heyday when we had a million dollars a year from that source, that was just an oddity because there had been so much penalty money in the system I guess from the Great Recession,” said Barrett. “When the banks were getting those big penalties for things they were doing to abuse people that led up to the Great Recession, I guess there was kind of a bolus in the system and the Obama administration pushed that out to the states. We got used to that money, and then it really dried up.”
Although the “VOCA Fix” act was enacted in 2021, increasing deposits to the CVF, the increased funding is mostly seen as “backfill” for previous years, leaving nonprofits with an uncertain future.
“They told us that the VOCA Fix that Congress did a couple of years ago was going to help replenish that pot of money and it hasn’t really done that,” Barrett said. “Nothing like they indicated it would.”
The cuts go much further than just Pisgah Legal.
KARE (Kids Advocacy Resource Effort) of Haywood County has provided services centering on child abuse, exploitation and neglect for more than 30 years. Right now, the organization has an annual budget of around $825,000, but that’s after a 33% cut in the 2020 grant cycle, and an additional 67% cut in the 2022 grant cycle.
“We also received a $16,000 cut to our mental health grant, which given the current trends appears to have the highest need and the largest impact,” said Savannah Anders, executive director of KARE. “Our numbers, however, have done the complete opposite. We are already 40 referred cases over our normal average for the year.”
Barrett, who’s been with Pisgah legal for 40 years and plans to retire in August, holds a dim view of what might happen if funding continues to dwindle.
“The way I’ve heard the Republican justices of the Texas Supreme Court describe it, they say democracy can’t exist if people don’t have a way to redress their grievances in court. So many things in a very complicated society need a lawyer to resolve and if you don’t have that outlet, if you don’t have that safety valve, if you will people take things in their own hands,” Barrett said. “Look at what happened when people couldn’t get Medicaid. They died prematurely. There were many times when we could appeal a denial of Medicaid and get somebody treatment that they needed. But if we weren’t there to do that, they don’t get their cancer treated or they don’t get their antidepressants, they can’t go to work, and things just spiral downhill from there.”
Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-Henderson) didn’t respond to an email requesting an interview for this story.
You can help
Federal funding cuts will substantially affect the ability of nonprofits to provide affordable legal and social services for thousands of people in Western North Carolina this coming year. If you’re able, consider making a donation to one of these worthy organizations that provide services to the most vulnerable residents in our region.
Pisgah Legal Services