Shutdown puts added stress on domestic violence and sexual assault groups already strained by needs of victims in the #MeToo era

  • Groups that help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault are already straining to maintain resources as more women are emboldened to seek aid in the #MeToo era.
  • The partial government shutdown, which entered its 35th day Friday, is only heightening the stress on organizations that depend on funds from the federal government.
  • Victims could lose out on food stamps and cash aid if the shutdown drags on. "That could cause victims of domestic violence to return to their abusers if they can't financially support themselves," said the executive director of one nonprofit group.
Federal government employees, contract workers and other demonstrators march during a "Rally to End the Shutdown" in Washington, January 10, 2019.
Kevin Lemarque | Reuters
Federal government employees, contract workers and other demonstrators march during a "Rally to End the Shutdown" in Washington, January 10, 2019.

Groups that help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault were already straining to maintain resources as more women have been emboldened to seek aid in the #MeToo era.

The partial government shutdown, which entered its 35th day Friday, is only heightening the stress on organizations that depend on funds from the federal government.

"We're already really taxed because of the need for services" sparked by #MeToo, said Jennifer Adams, executive director of RISE, a nonprofit that provides resources for sexual assault and domestic violence victims in central California. "Two hundred people are currently on the waiting list for counseling services, and our two shelters are consistently full."

RISE has a $2 million annual budget and over half of it comes from federal funding, she said.

Right now, RISE is managing its budget by cutting back on spending for things like travel, training and new furniture. So far, it has avoided crucial service cuts.

That could change if the shutdown goes past March 1, a possibility even some Trump administration officials are preparing for. Government funding for these agencies mostly comes from two Department of Justice divisions: the Office of Justice Programs and the Office on Violence Against Women. Both of them are funded only through Feb. 28.

The DOJ press office did not respond to a request for comment. But a message directed inquiries to an online form which generated this response: "Due to the lapse in appropriations, messages submitted through this web form may not be returned until funding is restored."

In anticipation of potential funding shortfalls, some groups are cutting down to the bare minimum, said Cindy Southworth, executive vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, an association that represents agencies across the country.

Even key programs, such as helping clients get temporary restraining orders or accompanying them to medical appointments, are on the chopping block, Southworth said.

For the 70,000 adults and children who receive shelter assistance on any given day, these cuts "may have a lasting impact on their lives," she added.

Staff cuts

In part, groups are worried that they may be unable to pay for salaries later if they don't make tough decisions now.

"If the shutdown continues beyond [March], we have to start looking at furloughing staff, and that means a cut in services," Adams said. "If we had to cut staff too much we would have to close one of the shelters."

Other agencies share Adams' staffing concerns, Southworth said. She noted that employees who believe their jobs are at risk could try to find a more stable alternative.

Southworth referenced the CEASE Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Center in Tennessee, where 17 staff members were told they would be furloughed Jan. 21, only to have a funding extension pass Jan. 17 that allowed the employees to stay on for another six weeks.

"If I was one of those advocates that was told I would be laid off Monday and then told I had six more weeks, I might look at the job ads," Southworth said.

'No place for them to run to'

To make matters worse, victims themselves could be affected as funding runs out for food stamps and cash aid, causing extra financial strain.

"That could cause victims of domestic violence to return to their abusers if they can't financially support themselves," Adams said.

Victims might also have trouble navigating the sometimes confusing messaging behind the shutdown, which could lead to dire consequences.

"All victims hear is 'government shutdown,' 'services closed or reduced,' and they're terrified that there's no place for them to run to," Southworth said. "A survivor may not leave a threatening situation because they don't think there's services and may be killed."

Lori Jump is the assistant director of StrongHearts, a Minnesota-based helpline that directs Native American victims to domestic violence and abuse services in their communities.

"For us, we'll have less access. If a shelter is reducing the number of clients it can serve, it'll be harder for us to find the services for people that call us," Jump said. Last month they received about 250 calls from people seeking help.

"Native Americans do suffer from the highest rates of domestic violence in the country, and the majority of tribes don't have opportunities to continue resources if funding ceases," Jump said, adding they've already learned of shelters reducing services and not being able to accept new clients. "The longer the shutdown goes on, the more likely it is that we will see that."