State Shutdown May Force Victim Advocacy Groups to Close the Doors
The only recourse for many victim advocacy groups is to drop to skeletal staff or close their doors and leave victims in the community without help.
The impact of a state government shutdown on advocates for domestic violence and sexual assault victims is devastating at the very least.
The state funds 100 percent of the Tubman Center’s shelter budget and 50 percent of the nonprofit organization’s legal services budget, said Jennifer Polzin, the chief of resource development and communications for Tubman.
Tubman operates three battered women shelters with 128 beds for victims who need assistance after getting out of abusive situations, Polzin said. To compound the issue, Tubman lost the Lake Elmo facility in a recent fire, and relocated those beds to other facilities.
“The fire was devastating, but we were able to make it work,” Polzin said.
She’s not so optimistic about the impacts the shelters will feel from the shutdown, in the immediate- and long-term once the state budget comes.
Tubman has put a two-week plan in place in the hopes that a shutdown won’t last that long. But it knows the reality is that the shutdown could last for months.
That plan came with some “devastating sacrifices,” Polzin said.
Starting Saturday, Tubman will layoff 39 staff members, move 22 staff members to part-time work and 16 staffers will be paid half of their salary to work full-time.
“We put the plan in place so that we can keep the shelter doors open, so people at least have a safe place to be and food,” Polzin said. “We’re operating a skeleton staff.”
If a shutdown lasts beyond July 15, Tubman's Board of Directors will have to closely review whether the organization can stay open at all, Polzin said.
“If domestic violence services are deemed essential and there is just a delay in payment, we, and the people we provide services to, will be OK,” she said. “If it is determined that it is not an essential service, or we won’t be reimbursed, we can only go two weeks.”
In 2010, Tubman provided 18,000 services to victims in Washington County. The nonprofit provided shelter services to 366 adults and 342 children in Washington County; served more than 2,300 students in a six-week curriculum in schools throughout Washington County; served 50 people through support groups; answered 8,200 crisis-line calls; and made 2,700 court appearances with victims.
Tubman provides safe shelter, legal services, mental and chemical health counseling, youth programming, elder care resources and community education to more than 54,000 people across the metro area.
“The shutdown is the most visible part of this,” Polzin continued. “But we want a budget solution that is reached in a thoughtful way. This is a two-year budget and we want a resolution, but we are also hoping the overall budget takes our services into account.”
Minnesota Coalition of Battered Women
At least three emergency shelters for battered women and their children have suspended services since the shutdown, Liz Richards, director of programming for the Minnesota Coalition of Battered Women testified before Special Master Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz Friday morning.
“If state funding is not restored now,” Richards said during her testimony, ”every day of the government shutdown will force more programs to close their doors.
“Domestic violence programs not only provide a safe haven through emergency shelters, but also resources for food, clothing, restraining orders, and 24-hour crisis intervention and advocacy,” Richards continued. “The consequences to public safety if these services are lost would be devastating for Minnesota’s families.”
The need for funding victim programs isn’t just in domestic violence situations, Richards testified Friday morning, before asking Blatz to continue funding supervised visitation centers, sexual violence programs, abused children programs and general crime programs.
"These are all programs that provide core functions of government," she said. "These services are all linked and all critical.”
Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault
Donna Dunn, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault said she too is concerned at the impact of the state shutdown on community services for sexual assault victims who are in crisis and need assistance.
“We know that the norm is that the majority of these victims do not reach out to traditional crisis services, like law enforcement, emergency medical services, generic mental health crisis lines, but do rely on sexual assault advocacy programs for confidential help in sorting through options and resources.”
When those confidential services are not available victims are even more likely to remain silent and attempt to find answers on their own, she said.
Evidence collection immediately following an assault is critical, Dunn said. Most victims are unaware that they can go to a local hospital for both evidence collection and medical attention.
“The evidence-collection function is paid for by the county and does not require the victim to report the crime,” she said.
Collecting evidence within 72-120 hours is essential, Dunn said. If victims are unaware of this option, they are unable to have important evidence collected and stored for possible prosecution.
"That evidence cannot be collected later and is lost," she said. "Advocates provide services that serve the law enforcement investigation so that sex offenders can be identified and held accountable.”
With funding not available during a shutdown, sexual assault advocacy programs—which are typically small and rely on a cadre of trained volunteers to assist with basic response—do not carry large reserve funds and do not have the security of available cash to carry them without income, Dunn said.
“The only recourse for many is to drop to skeletal staff or close their doors and leave victims in the community without help,” Dunn said. “This is untenable.”
The Permanent Problem Behind The Shutdown
While the shutdown is going to be difficult for victims, communities and programs, the budget that Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed would have “gutted sexual assault programs by bringing forth a 35-percent cut of funds,” Dunn said.
“So, we don’t like the shutdown—but we see that as a temporary problem,” she continued. “The permanent problem, which the original budget would have unleashed, was of much greater concern as a long-term barrier to community-based services.”