Domestic violence groups across Minnesota are stuck waiting for money as two federal measures that support their work are snagged in Washington, including the Violence Against Women Act that expired nearly a year ago.
Bloomington-based Cornerstone Advocacy Services has already spent its annual allotment of federal money for clients’ emergency situations that won’t be replenished until fall.
“There isn’t less domestic violence all of a sudden because there’s less funding,” said Pam Maldonado, victim advocacy program manager at Cornerstone.
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has been in a holding pattern since it lapsed last February. The U.S. House signed off on the legislation’s reauthorization that spring, but the measure is stalled in the Senate, which is now consumed by the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
Another source of money is the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA), which provides millions of dollars annually to Minnesota agencies like Cornerstone to help victims who need help with emergency assistance. Examples include repairing home damage done by an abuser that might force eviction, or replacing a cellphone to ensure they can dial 911 if needed. The money might pay cab fare to escape abuse or the fee required to break a lease.
Court fines and fees from federal cases provide the funding for VOCA, so big trials and settlements can be a boon for the program. The last major windfall came from the 2016 multibillion-dollar Volkswagen settlement for the emissions equipment cheating scandal, said Liz Richards, executive director of the statewide coalition Violence Free Minnesota that serves 90 agencies like Cornerstone. The German automaker agreed to pay $2.9 billion to settle a lawsuit over its sales of diesel cars that emitted air pollution over the legal limit.
Some of that settlement went into the Victims of Crime Act, and Minnesota’s share is about $47 million. But nothing like that suit is on the horizon.
Burning through the money
Richards said it’s common to quickly burn through federal money. Now her group is facing adding pressure from the uncertainty of the two legislative measures.
The Minnesota Department of Public Safety annually gets an average of $32.5 million from the two federal programs, money that is allocated across the state based on population, according to spokeswoman Rebecca Rabb. The funds can help pay for direct client services and resources.
If nothing happens on the federal level in the next two years, programs “will be facing a significant loss,” Richards said.
“We’re not in crisis at this juncture,” she said, “but if nothing changes, we see the potential for great harm.”
Hannah Mangen, a criminal and civil justice intervention advocate for Cornerstone, splits her time between the Crystal and Maple Grove police departments, helping domestic violence victims navigate a system she says often causes them to repeatedly relive their trauma.
She said that having less financial support is concerning, given new research from a 2019 study through Northeastern University in Boston that shows a rising homicide rate nationally for women experiencing domestic violence.
Abuse deaths rising
The research analyzed FBI data over a 42-year period and found that four women a day were killed by domestic violence. Violence Free Minnesota reported in 2018 that at least nine women and one man died statewide from intimate partner violence.
“If there’s ever a time that we really need to be focusing on … how do we keep women from being murdered, it’s now,” said Mangen, 24. “Unfortunately, that conversation is just not really happening.”
Shortly after Stephanie Revering took over as Crystal police chief in 2012, she made a goal of getting an in-house advocate to work with domestic violence victims.
“We saw a large increase in domestic assaults happening,” she said. “I really wanted to get somebody embedded into our agency so that our victims can have immediate service.”
Her department works closely with Cornerstone, as do nine other metro-area police departments. Even with those partnerships, as well as education seminars on domestic violence and community outreach, she said there’s no indication domestic violence will decrease anytime soon.
“It’s still one of those crimes that people don’t know about,” she said.
‘Not going to get involved’
For example, Revering said, Sandra Sandland was shot in the head in 2017 by her husband, Dennis, who was charged with second-degree murder. Even though neighbors said they had seen the couple constantly fighting, police were never called.
“It’s that mentality of people saying, ‘You know, I’m not going to get involved in their business,’ ” she said.
Mangen said she believes it should be everyone’s business. Helping to identify the root causes of abuse and address recidivism cannot only reduce domestic violence, she said, it could save taxpayers money in the long run.
“It just makes the most sense to pay for the services people need when they need them, rather than letting things get this bad,” she said.
Advocates on the front lines of domestic violence said that programming comes at a cost, but the cost of not funding the work has a greater price: homelessness, mental health issues, trauma, homicide.
Richards called domestic violence a “comprehensive issue,” one that requires focus and funding.
“It really impacts all of our communities, it impacts all of our systems,” she said. “An investment in domestic violence programming can really make the improvement at many different levels.”