by Jennifer Bringle

Catherine Johnson knows the impact the Victims of Crime Act Crime Victims Fund, commonly known as VOCA funding, has on some of the most vulnerable North Carolinians.

As director of the Guilford County Family Justice Center in Greensboro, Johnson sees how this money from the federal government directly affects survivors of violent crime served by 17 programs the center oversees.

And with cuts to the fund already rolling out and expected to continue throughout the year, Johnson worries many victims of violence in the state will lose access to assistance when they need it most.

“Unfortunately, the timing of the cuts could not be worse,” Johnson said. “In a post-pandemic world, domestic violence, crimes against children and crimes against the elderly are up.”

Tracing the decline

The VOCA fund was established in 1984, financed by fines and penalties paid by convicted federal offenders. The federal government awards money from the fund in the form of grants and reimbursements to support service agencies for victims of crime across the nation. The fund receives no tax dollars.

In recent years, the prosecution of federal crimes that traditionally fund VOCA has changed. Department of Justice attorneys have eschewed the traditional court process in favor of settling cases as deferred, or nonprosecution, agreements.

While those defendants still pay fines and fees, their convictions are no longer considered criminal because of the deferral, or nonprosecution, agreement, so the payments cannot go into the VOCA fund. Instead, they are funneled into a general fund at the U.S. Treasury.

In 2018, North Carolina victim support agencies received more than $100 million from the VOCA fund. As of 2020, the VOCA fund balance stood at more than $6 billion. But in 2021, the state’s VOCA funding dropped nearly 80% to $22 million, and more cuts are anticipated for 2022.

“The potential cuts will impact the programs that are already far behind in their fundraising because of COVID,” said Nisha Williams, legal director of the N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“Also, the agencies will end up feeling the cuts throughout the year because people are on different grant cycles. VOCA funds different grant opportunities, so some of the programs may be realizing they’re not getting additional money toward the end of the year.”

Increase in incidents during pandemic

Incidents of domestic violence and abuse have climbed over the past year with many stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic due to closed schools and quarantine orders.

An article in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine reported that police departments across the nation saw significant increases in domestic violence calls and arrests since the onset of the pandemic. And a recent study by the University of California, Davis found an increase in intimate partner violence during lockdown.

Domestic violence support agencies have felt the effect of the pandemic, too. According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence’s annual Domestic Counts Report, 36% of domestic violence support programs reported more than $25,000 in additional or unplanned spending to maintain services.

Many of those expenses were attributed to pandemic-related needs such as procuring personal protective equipment and upgrading technology to provide virtual services. And with in-person services becoming more available again as people get vaccinated, many agencies have seen an increase in abuse victims seeking assistance.

“As restrictions are being lifted with COVID, survivors of domestic violence are more safely able to seek these services as the world is opening back up,” Williams said. “The agencies need this funding, and once the funding gets granted, that impacts the upcoming grant cycles. There are folks currently missing out on funding.”

With that increased need coupled with funding cuts, some support agencies may be forced to offer fewer services and even turn away abuse victims.

“When funding is cut, staffing is cut, programs are cut, and when programs are cut, agencies are faced with some really difficult decisions,” Johnson said. “The consequence is going to be a ripple effect of longer wait times to get the care you need, less capacity for services and less access to care.”

Because of the way VOCA is funded, the stability of the fund has long been a source of concern. But in March, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bipartisan VOCA Fix to Sustain the Crime Victims Fund Act of 2021, also known as the VOCA Fix Act.

 

The bill directs revenue from deferred prosecution and nonprosecution agreements — an estimated additional $4 billion to $7 billion — to go into the VOCA fund rather than the general fund of the treasury. In addition, the bill increases the percentage that state programs are reimbursed by the federal government from 60% to 75%.

After passing in the House, the bill stalled in the Senate despite receiving bipartisan support. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has blocked the VOCA Fix twice in the Senate, most recently in June after Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, requested unanimous consent to pass the bill. Both North Carolina senators — Republicans Richard Burr and Thom Tillis — have expressed support for the VOCA Fix.

“We know these cuts are going to continue because Congress continues to not pass the VOCA Fix,” Williams said. “The House had almost unanimously voted to support the VOCA Fix, and (Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.) put it up for a vote, and just one senator essentially stopped it from being able to come to the floor.”

Unless the VOCA Fix is passed, Williams said she anticipates staff layoffs and even program closures among some service agencies, particularly those in rural and low-wealth areas of North Carolina.

With the growing demand for victim services and diminished funds to provide that assistance, advocates like Johnson fear the state is on a course to disaster when it comes to protecting some of the most vulnerable members of the population.

“We are in a critical time for communities that need health and safety resources like domestic violence and sexual assault services,” Johnson said. “We’re at the cusp of what’s going to be a pretty substantial crisis in our state, and we’re going to have to be creative in our solutions.”

 

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