Money for crime victim services in budget limbo

Frustration grows as advocates seek state help to weather federal cuts

WHEN IT IS fully staffed, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center employs 50 people who run its hotline for sexual assault victims, provide referrals, offer counseling, support survivors in the hospital, and conduct education and prevention programs. Now, the crisis center is down to 35 people, due to general labor shortages and factors specific to victim advocacy work – low pay, burnout, and cases made more complex by the pandemic.  

To make matters worse, due to a federal funding cut, the organization just lost $1 million from its $5.5 million budget for the fiscal year that started in July. Interim executive director Duane de Four is waiting to hear if the state Legislature will fill the gap with state money. But in the meantime, BARCC suspended hiring. Staff have been unable to take vacation time. The center has become stricter about limiting services to residents of the cities and towns in its catchment area. 

De Four knows the state is swimming in money, between surplus tax revenue and federal recovery aid. He can’t understand why lawmakers cannot make up for the federal funding lapse. “It’s really frustrating that at a time when the state is in such a good financial situation…that this kind of decision is taking so long and is such a difficult one,” de Four said. 

He worries that while lawmakers debate the budget, more staff members will quit due to burnout. “People continue to be overworked, extremely stressed, burnt out, and there’s nothing I can do about it because I can’t fill in those positions to find the support,” de Four said. 

As state lawmakers continue negotiating a final fiscal 2023 budget nearly two weeks into the fiscal year, the limbo facing victims’ rights organization is one example of the real world impact caused by a late state budget. While the organizations may – or may not – ultimately get their money, advocates say the process adds unnecessary stress to an already stretched industry.  

We’re dumfounded,” said Tom King, executive director of the Massachusetts Children’s Alliance, a coalition of providers that help children who were victims of sex trafficking and sexual assault. “It’s something that’s just mindboggling that there’s literally money we don’t know what to do with, and we’ve spent upwards of the last six months trying to articulate how this is going to impact a really sensitive group of people and those providing the services.” 

King said he and his colleagues testified at a legislative hearing on how to use federal recovery money and met with key officials, but they got unofficial feedback from people connected to Beacon Hill that they “didn’t make enough noise.”  

That comment irked King. “The idea that this issue is falling in the category of ‘making enough noise’ when things like to-go drinks are getting funded and other topics are getting attention is really infuriating,” King said.  

King added that lawmakers have been talking about passing bills to improve the mental and behavioral health system. “Well folks, there’s one [system] that’s about to fall and go splat on the floor, and it’s one that’s quite fixable and other states have fixed,” King said. 

The core of the problem is an unstable federal funding mechanism. A 1984 law created the Crime Victims Fund and established a system where fees and fines levied on a person or organization convicted of a federal crime are deposited into the fund. Money from the fund is then given to each state for distribution to organizations that help crime victims.  

Denise Edwards, director of government affairs for the Washington, DC-based National Children’s Alliance, a national accrediting body for children’s advocacy centers, said the fund was getting $2 billion to $3 billion a year for a long time. At some points, Congress would distribute the entire pot of money each year. At other times Congress adopted a policy of distributing less money each year to maintain some reserves and more consistent funding levels.  

Several years ago, the Department of Justice began settling more lawsuits against corporations through agreements or deferred prosecutions, where the company paid a large settlement but was not convicted of a crime. Because there was no criminal conviction, the money obtained from these settlements went to the US Treasury, not the Crime Victims’ Fund. 

Over several years, money continued to be administered to the states for services, but the pot got smaller and smaller,” said Liam Lowney, executive director of the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance, an independent state agency that receives the federal money and distributes it to service organizations. Lowney has been working on the issue nationally as president of the National Association of VOCA Assistance Administrators.  

Edwards said there was a “perfect storm” in which Congress had been spending down the fund’s reserve, the Department of Justice changed the types of cases it prosecuted, and the pandemic delayed court proceedings. 

In 2021, President Biden signed a law requiring that any money obtained from deferred and non-prosecution agreements be deposited into the Crime Victims Fund. Advocates say this will solve the problem going forward. But until the fund is recapitalized, there will be several years of small grants.  

The long-term problem has been fixed. The short-term issue is the fund hasn’t yet replenished itself, and we can’t undo the three bad years of awards that we have,” Lowney said. 

The Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance received $69.2 million in fiscal 2018; $46.9 million in fiscal 2019; $34.6 million in fiscal 2020; and $21.5 million in fiscal 2021.  

These are multi-year grants, so the money received each year is distributed over the next three years. After three years of decreasing grants, there is less money available. In fiscal 2022, MOVA gave out $44.2 million. In fiscal 2023, which started July 1, it plans to distribute $32.6 million to 124 organizations, with an average cut of 22.3 percent. The cuts are not uniformly distributed, with some organizations getting a single-digit cut and others losing more than 40 percent of their budgets. Lowney said MOVA tried to make the cuts intentionally with a focus on maintaining existing personnel, although 220 positions are projected to be impacted if more funding is not forthcoming. 

While some victims’ assistance organizations have other public and private funding streams, for many of them the MOVA grants make up the largest portion of their budget. Lowney noted that organizations also had to curtail private fundraising efforts during the pandemic because they could not hold galas or other events. These are organizations that help families of homicide victims, sexual assault and domestic violence victims, elder abuse victims, children who have been trafficked or abused, and others. 

Some states have found other pots of money to fill the gap. Edwards said there are 10 or 11 states that passed “bridge funding,” using federal American Rescue Plan Act dollars or state tax dollars to alleviate the impact of the federal cuts. Around half of states, including Massachusetts, are at least talking about using state money. 

Gov. Charlie Baker, in a supplemental budget he filed in February, proposed using $60 million in state money to cover the three-year decline in federal funding. That money never passed the Legislature. The House included $20 million in its version of the fiscal 2023 budget to cover one year of funding, but the Senate did not include the money, so it will be up to the conference committee of House-Senate negotiators whether the money makes it into the final version.  

Lowney said advocates need a multi-year fix because MOVA is planning to go into an open bid next year, where new and existing service providers can apply for funding. MOVA will not know how many organizations it can help without knowing how much money it will have. He said service organizations will hesitate to fill positions if funding is not guaranteed for more than a year, and those people hired with uncertain funding may seek new jobs if they are worried about being laid off. 

A group of more than 40 service providers wrote to the heads of the Legislature’s Ways and Means committees June 30 asking them to support the state funding. “The timing of this reduction could not be worse,” the providers wrote. “The effects of the pandemic exacerbated the trauma for victims of crime as the stay-at-home advisory left survivors more isolated and without access to care.” In fiscal 2021, organizations funded by the money served 96,000 people, they wrote.  

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

King, whose nonprofit got $832,000 instead of $1 million, said this translates into less funding for case managers who help commercially exploited children and for training and administrative support – including the grant manager who administers Massachusetts Children’s Alliance’s $1.5 million budget. King has been trying to obtain private funding to keep paying the administrator. 

“This is a problem that’s been fixed in Alabama, in Arkansas,” King said. “The idea that these folks in Massachusetts can’t get it together and say a bunch of us who are weary didn’t make enough noise…this is not the way mental health professionals or those working with victims should be operating. We should not be spending so much time advocating to a Legislature that should get it.”