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'Women's lives in danger': Government shutdown holds up funds for sexual violence victims

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Image: Demonstrators hold a rally in support of the Violence Against Women
Demonstrators hold a rally in support of the Violence Against Women Act on Capitol Hill on June 26, 2012. -
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Women who are victims of domestic assault, stalking, rape or other forms of sexual violence are among the people who could be affected if the partial shutdown of the federal government stretches on.

Amid the budget impasse between President Donald Trump and Congress over his demand for border-wall funding, lawmakers failed to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, a landmark 1994 law that allots federal money to organizations that serve female victims of violence across the country.

As the shutdown drags on, money for these nonprofits, many of them on a shoestring budget, could potentially run dry.

"Our major concern right now is that the program that has been authorized is not being funded because of Trump and the shutdown," said Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women, which was instrumental in securing passage of the law. "That's the big concern, that the money flow may be stopped, which will put women's lives in danger."

In Louisiana, for example, the Sexual Trauma Awareness & Response Center (STAR), which provides free services to sexual assault survivors and their families, is already stretched thin.

More than 1,100 survivors, the most ever, came to the center for help in the 12 months that ended in June. They got help through services ranging from STAR's 24-hour hotline to confidential counseling sessions to legal representation for issues such as protective orders against abusers.

STAR gets $500,000 annually in a Violence Against Women Act funding, its largest single source of funding.

That money covers the center legal and advocacy services, including its sending a representative to hospitals to support sexual violence survivors in the immediate aftermath of the assaults. Advocates offer confidential support and advice and bring care packages, which include spare clothing in case a victim's clothes have to be taken away as evidence.

The federal funding is especially crucial for STAR, given that it is in Louisiana, one of only a handful of states that don't provide state funding to centers serving sexual assault survivors.

The CEO of the center, Racheal Hebert, said funding from the Violence Against Women Act is critical "because without it, we would be completely reliant on volunteers, and volunteers, while they're amazing and dedicated, it's kind of a tough job to not get paid for."

"We have to start thinking of contingencies," Hebert said. "We're talking to the people we serve and letting them know we need people to call legislators to let them know this is a priority."

"Without it, we would be completely reliant on volunteers, and volunteers, while they're amazing and dedicated, it's kind of a tough job to not get paid for."

About one in three women and one in six men in the U.S. experience some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in six women and one in 19 men in the U.S. experience stalking at some point during their lifetime.

Since the #MeToo movement began, many organizations that help victims say they are seeing record numbers of people seeking help, making funds from the Violence Against Women Act more critical than ever.

The act funds a host of programs, including rape crisis centers, emergency and transitional shelters, counseling services and legal aid. Julie Goldscheid, a professor of law at CUNY School of Law and a former litigator who argued in support of the constitutionality of an aspect of the 1994 legislation before the Supreme Court, said its passage provided unprecedented legal support for survivors of violence that empowered them against their abusers.

"It infused a tremendous amount of money into civil legal services for survivors. That means representation in orders of protection and other legal matters. That's huge," she said.

The law also provides funding for police precincts to improve law enforcement's responses to domestic violence and sexual assault, with the aim of breaking the cycle of violence.

The act hands out millions of dollars in grants each year: The Office on Violence Against Women, which administers some grants authorized under the Violence Against Women Act plus other grants, awarded more than $460 million in the 2018 fiscal year.

While both the House and the Senate passed spending deals with clauses that would have extended the act until Feb. 8, it was not reauthorized due to the broader budget debate over Trump's proposed border wall.

Funding for Violence Against Women Act programs comes from two sources: the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Justice. Because Health and Human Services appropriations have already been approved, the recipients of those grants are not in danger.

"It's not a political issue. It shouldn't be a political issue."

The act is expected to eventually be reauthorized. Advocates urged Congress to do so as quickly as possible.

"It's not a political issue. It shouldn't be a political issue," said Qudsia Raja, policy director for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which was formed as a result of the initial 1994 act but does not receive grant money from it. "It's about survivors and their needs. It's pretty disappointing but it's not surprising, considering our current political climate."

The law has been renewed several times in past years, with some modifications. While it has traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support, some of the changes have been contentious: In 2013, some Republicans objected to increased protections for LGBT victims and undocumented immigrants, but they were ultimately signed into law by then-President Obama.

Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee speaks to the media on Capitol Hill on Dec. 7, 2018.
Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee speaks to the media on Capitol Hill on Dec. 7, 2018.Alex Wong

Changes this year, in a bill introduced Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Texas, include increasing funding for the Rape Prevention and Education Program and expanding the response to missing and murdered Native American women, a population particularly at risk for domestic violence.

Raja called the adds "modest and critical" and does not believe they held back the reauthorization.

"I think that it was bad timing amid the current political situation," she said. "It really wasn't asking for a lot."

Democratic leaders planned to again try later on Thursday to push a reauthorization through, but without the funding Trump has requested for the border wall, it was expected to stall in the Senate.

Meanwhile, at STAR in Louisiana, Hebert is hopeful the law will be reauthorized soon so survivors don't lose support, and said she is mystified over why it ever lapsed in the first place.

"How is this happening given everything that's gone on for the past year and a half with survivors speaking out?" she said.

It seems like crucial legislation is getting lost in the middle of bipartisan squabbling, she said.

"It does really feel like a silencing of survivors. It feels really scary."