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Op-Ed: Government must help save domestic violence programs

NEW YORK (JTA) — As we observe National Domestic Violence Awareness Month this month, we mark the 15th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act — a tremendous achievement that significantly buttressed efforts to address domestic violence. Unfortunately, the anniversary occurs amid news of significant state and local cutbacks to domestic violence programs across the country, just as reports of violence are increasing.

The stress of unemployment, homelessness and the evaporation of hope do not themselves cause violence, but such conditions do exacerbate abuse.

Before the advent of the current recession, a study sponsored by the National Institute of Justice found that 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States. Of women surveyed in the study, more than one in five reported that they had been physically assaulted at some point in their lives by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner, boyfriend, girlfriend or date.

The situation likely has worsened. Earlier this summer the Mary Kay Foundation asked more than 600 domestic violence shelters nationwide whether they had seen an increase in those seeking help since the recession began in September 2008. Three out of four said yes, citing financial issues, stress and job loss as the leading contributing factors.

Anecdotal evidence underscores these numbers, sometimes in horrific detail. In Wisconsin, 30 people died from domestic violence between January and July. That figure puts the state on track to record the highest number of deaths associated with domestic violence in more than a decade.

Similarly, police in Dayton, Ohio, responded to nearly 1,500 incidents of domestic violence in 2008, an increase of 13.6 percent over the previous year. One Dayton area agency recorded a 17 percent increase in hot-line calls toward the end of 2008 over the previous year. The director of a women’s crisis center in Douglas County, Colo., told a reporter as early as last fall that “we got about 2,100 calls in the month of September,” compared to a normal monthly average of 700.

While reports of domestic violence are on the rise, state and local funding for services to its survivors is down everywhere. California is the hardest hit. In this summer’s budget crisis, all state funding for domestic violence was eliminated. The 94 nonprofit agencies that run the state’s domestic violence shelters lost about $200,000 each, or more than 40 percent of anticipated annual financing for most.

In Pennsylvania, a budget stalemate has deprived social service agencies, including women’s shelters, of their expected quarterly payments since last spring, forcing many to slash services and cut payroll. While some agencies are in line for federal stimulus funds, their long-term prospects are uncertain at best.

The federal stimulus package does contain $225 million to combat violence against women. The bulk of that money — more than $140 million — is intended for law enforcement efforts that address domestic and dating violence, sexual assault and stalking, some of which will fund victims’ services. Of the rest, $43 million will pay for transitional housing.

Other funds may be available elsewhere in the federal budget, but with the recession’s effects predicted to peak in 2010, when the unemployment rate may hit 10 percent, recovery is expected to be long and slow. That means efforts to end domestic violence and aid its victims have more hard times ahead.

Congress and state governments can help by prioritizing the life-saving emergency services that aid the most vulnerable among us. Women who need to escape their abusers, figure out how to provide a safe home for their children and get themselves back on their feet financially simply cannot do all this alone. The social cost — indeed, the danger — of doing nothing is too high.

(Nancy Ratzan is president of the National Council of Jewish Women.)

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