September 25, 2012

What Drastic Cuts Would Mean for Domestic-Violence Groups

Those of us immersed in the fight against domestic violence know how critical political decisions are in protecting women. When the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed in 1994, on the heels of the O.J. Simpson trial, women across this country won a major victory that shifted the tide toward prevention and signaled that domestic violence was everyone’s fight, not just one for victims, survivors, and the organizations struggling to help them.

But VAWA, arguably one of the most important pieces of legislation on women’s rights in decades, is now under attack. The House of Representatives has proposed massive cuts to VAWA, continuing a downward trend of support for domestic-violence programs. Previously set at $795.8-million a year, the proposed bill calls for  $136.5-million in cuts. Among the proposed changes are those eroding protections for immigrant women and men, gay and transgender victims of abuse, communities of color, and college-age women—changes that practitioners across the sector say will undo 30 years of forward movement. (Read more from the White House, 4Vawa, and

Over the last four years, Nonprofit Finance Fund has partnered with Blue Shield of California to provide financial analysis and management consultation to over 50 domestic-violence service providers in California. For many of our clients, including Women's Crisis Support Defensa de Mujeres, the proposed changes would dramatically reduce their ability to serve immigrants and women of color, who are already hard to reach. “Many immigrants in abusive situations depend on their partners for legal residency and are less likely to know of the available resources,” says Laura Segura, the group’s executive director. “They’re also often less trusting of law enforcement, who may be perceived differently in their countries of origin, which has only worsened through new immigration policies such as Secure Communities. If we are to effectively serve all the women in our communities, we need to provide services that understand and address these cultural differences. The cuts would make that impossible.”

Unfortunately, the threats to VAWA make a bad situation worse. In California, the domestic-violence organizations we work with have shown signs of post-recession crisis for years, exacerbated by California’s 2010 budget cuts and delays. To adjust for shrinking revenue, many organizations have been forced to shut down or scale back services, leaving women vulnerable and alone in their communities. What’s even worse: Faced with absurdly tight budgets and restricted funds, leaders of these groups are frequently forced to focus entirely on short-term financial decisions (how to manage cash flow this month, how to make payroll) and emergency programs (running shelters and only the most vital support services). What’s been cut are the preventive services and time for strategic thinking that are absolutely essential to eradicating domestic violence.

Organizations are forced to cut counseling programs, community outreach, vocational training, and other services that focus on long-term solutions for victims. These services keep domestic-violence organizations from becoming a kind of “nonprofit hotel,” as Patrice Kuerschner, executive director of Emmaus House, in Hollister, CA, describes: “When we’re reduced to only offering shelter-based services, we’re just moving people in and out of our facility without any understanding of what they might face when they leave. If the pattern of abuse continues, what have we truly done to solve the problem?”

When charities are unable to provide a full spectrum of services, it can be devastating for victims. In years when Emmaus House was able to offer more comprehensive services, as little as 4 percent of their clients returned to abusive situations. In contrast, when stretched budgets have forced them to cut back on the full spectrum of services, the percentage of clients returning to abusive situations has skyrocketed—to as high as 19 percent in 2008.

These kinds of statistics are the unfortunate reality for the entire social-service sector as they try to tread water with their hands tied. In order for all of us—practitioners, investors, thought leaders—to move from the tactical to the strategic, we need to evaluate the cost of financial cuts within the framework of our larger social objectives. If the right organizations receive the right amounts and kinds of capital and other support to fulfill their missions, it’s possible for us to envision a world in which domestic violence is a shadow of what it is today.

Rachel Heitler, an associate at Nonprofit Finance Fund, is a member of NFF’s San Francisco consulting team. Rachel works with domestic-violence service providers across the State of California and the Pacific Northwest.