Victims' groups suffer cuts

By Ed Brock

Jennifer Bivins is slowly, somewhat reluctantly, getting used to her new office at the Harold R. Banke Justice Center in Jonesboro.

The Southern Crescent Sexual Assault Center, of which Bivins is the director, previously had its offices in a house on Walt Stephens Road. Then they lost nearly $60,000 in federal funding and things changed.

"That was basically my whole operations budget," Bivins said.

The SCSAC isn't alone in the budget cuts. Crime victims' advocacy groups around the state have taken a hit, though the SCSAC was one of the hardest hit.

"They really took a beating," said Carolyn James, executive director of the Securus House shelter for victims of spousal abuse.

Securus House also lost about $24,000 in funding this year, including $13,000 or $14,000 in grants from the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, the agency that distributes money from the Crime Victims Fund. The remaining loss came in donations from the United Way and donations from the community have also gone down due to the poor economy.

"We used to get probably double the money from the community that we got this year," James said.

Over the summer the state's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council was awarded $10,035,000 of a $12,339,000 grant from the Fiscal Year 2003 Crime Victims Fund. This year's application process for CJCC money was more competitive with agencies like the SCSAC having to reapply along with many new agencies.

The reason for the change is a $900,000 shortfall in the amount of money from the fund, created by the Victims of Crime Act, CJCC Division Director of Grants Administration Joe Hood said previously.

For several reasons Congress put a $625 million cap on the amount of money the fund could disburse nationwide. Also, part of the VOCA money is used to reimburse states for money they paid to crime victims directly for expenses such as medical bills, lost wages, mental health counseling and funeral expenses. The amount of that money was increased from 40 percent of what each state paid in compensation to 60 percent, and Hood said that means less money for grants to victims' service programs.

Some of the qualifications for getting money are how many victims the agency serviced previously, the kind of area they are in and other services available in those areas. Another option the advisory committee considered was simply cutting all the agencies' funds by 6 percent, but the competition was meant to allow new agencies to possibly get funded and while not necessarily cutting the funds of established agencies.

Bivins said they ended up paying only about 80 percent of the agencies' budgets in some areas.

Originally the SCSAC was going to lose more than $90,000, but Bivins appealed the cut and regained about $33,150.

So Bivins and her employees, dedicated to provide assistance to the victims of sexual assault after the crime occurs and through the legal process that follows, had to move into their new offices that are on loan to them from the Clayton Count Solicitor General's office. They did receive enough money for their employee salaries, but they had to cut one of their counselors who was working on contract and thereby fell under the operations side of the budget.

They've hired a full-time victim's advocate instead and have some counselors volunteering their time, Bivins said. Also, a $10,000 grant from Henry County will help the organization continue to operate its small satellite office in Stockbridge.

It was Securus House's status as a 24-hour operation that saved it from being hit harder than it was, James said.

"We could still use the money to hire an extra staff person because we're really stretching ourselves thin," James said.

The Christmas and New Year holiday season are usually pretty busy for the Securus House shelter.

"You've got the stress of preparing for Christmas," James said, adding that that stress often results in more people calling on Securus House to escape the resulting abuse.

Bivins said they usually don't do much during the holiday season because during that time the victims with whom they are working on old cases don't want to think about the crime perpetrated against them. After the holiday parties, however, the number of new cases often go up, Bivins said.

Securus House did manage to raise enough money to transform the shelter's basement into a Children's Program Area, a dream James brought with her when she took over the shelter 18 months ago. It will be "a space for free expression," James said, where the children in the shelter can read, play, color, watch television or whatever they need to do to cope with the situation that led to their arrival at the shelter.

"We call it ?Reaching for the Stars' so they feel like they can accomplish anything," James said.

Securus House resettled 32 families in the time since James has been director of the shelter. The shelter is a program of Association on Battered Women of Clayton County.