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The Refuge Facing Funding Dilemma

State agencies that serve victims of domestic violence and sexual assault may be in jeopardy. The Refuge Domestic Violence Shelter and Sexual Assault Center, based in Toombs County, serves Toombs, Montgomery, Wheeler, Treutlen, and Emanuel Counties, as well as Candler and Tattnall for sexual assault. Because of a cut in federal funds, the services of The Refuge and other similar agencies in Georgia are facing an uncertain future.

Approximately 68% of total funding for The Refuge and Sexual Assault Center comes from federal dollars. One of the main sources for federal funding is channelled through Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), which has been diminishing for the last few years. “VOCA is financed by Crime Victims Fund, which consists of fines and penalties paid by convicted federal offenders, not from tax dollars. Due to fluctuations in the Crime Victims Fund between 2018 and 2021, Georgia’s allocation of VOCA continued from page

funding experienced a 67% drop—from $105 million annually to $35 million,” said Betty Dell Williams, Executive Director of The Refuge Domestic Shelter and Sexual Assault Center.

She added that the issue was compounded for domestic violence and sexual assault centers between FY2019 and FY2020 when other major federal funding sources, including those from the S.T.O.P. Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), also declined. ”VAWA and VOCA are the primary funding streams that The Refuge relies on to keep our doors open,” Williams said.

In Georgia the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) is primarily responsible for distribution of federal funds to domestic violence and sexual assault centers. “CJCC has faced the tough task of dividing the shrinking pot of victims service funds across more than 260 victim services statewide, all the while advocating on the federal level for changes needed to stabilize Georgia’s victims services programs,” Williams emphasized.

Programs that receive VOCA funds include rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, child advocacy centers, CASA, anti-sex trafficking programs, services for homicide survivors and other programs that help victims and survivors. On July 22, 2021, President Biden signed into law the VOCA Fix to sustain the Crime Victims Fund Act of 2021. The bill will eventually provide more federal dollars to state victim service providers — possibly by 2025 —but after years of steep decline, it will take time for the Crime Victims Fund to recover. “This means relief is coming, but not fast enough. Without assistance, it is anticipated that Georgia victims service programs will lose more than 400 front line employees around the state,” Williams noted.

Last October, domestic violence and sexual assault centers received 20% funding cuts in their VOCA awards. CJCC was able to offset those deficits with a one-time allocation of funds from the Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding Program (CESF). “Unfortunately, CJCC is projecting an additional 16% to 17% reduction in VOCA awards to victim services providers beginning next October, resulting in a total loss of 36% to 37% ($30 million) in federal funding to agencies serving victims of crime. This could be devastating, Williams said. “The Refuge is looking to lose $183,140.28 for domestic violence and $78,033.24 in sexual assault for a total of $261.173.52.” CJCC submitted an American Rescue Plan Act ARPA) grant application on behalf of victim service programs reflecting a decrease in revenue and an increase of expenses during the health pandemic. “The Refuge submitted $222,317 for domestic violence and sexual assault. If awarded, CJCC plans to disperse this over three years. We would receive $74,105.67 for 2022. Even if the funds are awarded, we would still have a $187,067.85 deficit,” Williams said.

She explained that not all victim service agencies applied for ARPA funds, and that offers The Refuge some hope that surplus funds might be available. Williams, Board Chair Roger Calloway, and Vice Chair Terry Whigham have been in talks regarding he matter with State Sen. Blake Tillery, Chairman of Appropriations for the Senate The Refuge is joining domestic violence and sexual assault programs across the state to request that Governor Brian Kemp and elected officials provide a bridge across the VOCA funding gap. “Governor Kemp holds the keys to Georgia’s $4.8 billion in American Rescue Plan State Fiscal Recovery Funds (FRF) coming to Georgia,” Williams said, noting that 22 states have used FRF to support human services programs with three states devoting 30% or more of the portions to date, for this purpose. “Advocates across the state are calling for Governor Kemp to utilize those funds to cover the additional $11.2 million in anticipated cuts to domestic violence and sexual assault service providers,” Williams said.

Otherwise, the road ahead for these agencies could be very rocky. “If the state does not come through with additional funds, the Board of Directors and I have some very hard decisions to make,” Williams said.

Victims services programs throughout Georgia have experienced a surge in demands for services throughout the pandemic. Cutting funds at this point could be catastrophic.

The funding deficit is a problem shared by victims’ advocacy agencies across the country. Williams acknowledged that while the crisis is not one the state created, she said it is one that the Governor and legislators can help resolve. She is confident that state leaders will do all they can to ensure that none of the 48 domestic violence shelters or 28 sexual assault centers across Georgia will close or lose the frontline employees that are critical to providing services. About The Refuge and Sexual Assault Center The Refuge is a nonprofit agency in Vidalia that provides safe emergency shelter and other services for women and children who are in danger from domestic violence or sexual assault. The Refuge serves Toombs, Montgomery, Wheeler, Treutlen and Emanuel Counties, while its Sexual Assault Center serves these counties plus Candler and Tattnall counties. The Refuge is staffed by 10 full-time and 6 parttime trained personnel and has a 24/7 crisis line that is available to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault that wish to utilize the services of the shelter or the outreach program. The Refuge houses one of the few free-standing full-service rape crisis programs in the State of Georgia. Rape/sexual assault victims in The Refuge’s five county-service area no longer have to be treated out of town or in the emergency room of their local hospital. The Rape Crisis Center provides confidential, private exams by Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) who are certified and trained by the Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault while allowing law enforcement to interview the victim while the details are still fresh in her mind. The Rape Crisis Center works with the victim through counseling, support groups and legal advocacy.

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