State’s attorneys upset over loss of grant to fight domestic, sexual violence

BRATTLEBORO — For nearly two decades, state’s attorneys and victim advocates in Windham, Bennington and Franklin counties have depended on federal funding to help pay for personnel to investigate and prosecute domestic and sexual violence.

In Windham County, that money paid for a part-time investigator, a prosecutor as well as an advocate in the Women’s Freedom Center. In Bennington County it paid for the same positions.

But starting in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2019, those three counties will no longer receive that funding. If the state’s attorney’s offices and the advocacy centers in the three counties can’t find alternative funding, those positions could very well vanish.

“We regret to inform you that after thorough consideration, your [Services, Training, Officers, and Prosecution Grant] application has been declined support for this funding cycle,” wrote Chris Fenno, executive director of the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services (VCCVS), in a letter to Windham County officials. “We received proposals from eleven counties this year and the decision process was a daunting task. Unfortunately, we simply did not have enough funding to support all the proposals.”

But in fact, the state is getting more federal money to fight domestic violence this year.

According to the office of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., federal grants to Violence Against Women Act and the Victims of Crime Act programs in Vermont for fiscal year 2018 will amount to $13 million, compared to $7.4 million last year.

The $834,000 STOP grant was attached to the Violence Against Women Act and comes from the U.S. Department of Justice.

With the loss in funding comes a loss of personnel and support, advocates said.

Linda Campbell, executive director of Project Against Violent Encounters [PAVE] in Bennington, told the Reformer that in the past the STOP money has been used to pay for a little more than half time for a direct service position, an advocate that works on the hotline, goes to court, and provides direct advocacy service to victims.

“So now that position is gone with the loss of funding,” said Campbell. “How do we make up for that shortfall? I’m scratching my head wondering about that. We are a small agency in a small county. We rely on the STOP funding for a well-established program we have had for more than 20 years. Now we are trying to figure out how to provide the same level of support with less staff. This is a huge blow to the victims who depend on us every day to get the services they need.”

“Obviously, there is a limited amount of money from the federal government,” said Windham County State’s Attorney Tracy Shriver. “But in this process, they took all the money from Bennington, Windham and Franklin and put most of it in Chittenden County. It’s just outrageous.”

According to documents released by the Center for Crime Victim Services, organizations in Chittenden County received $143,278: $76,988 for a prosecutor, $26,735 to STEPS, $14,625 to Hopeworks, $14,800 to Disability Rights Vermont, and $10,130 to Pride Center of Vermont

‘It’s a very rigid formula’

Cara Cookson, the policy director for the VCCVS, which serves as a “flow through” for federal funding to state organizations, told the Reformer the STOP grant is only one of many grants the office disburses on a formula basis.

“It is a very rigid formula,” said Cookson. “The purpose of this particular grant is to encourage multi-disciplinary approaches to domestic and sexual violence services, prosecution and investigation.”

While Shriver said she appreciates everything Leahy has done over the years, others in Washington, D.C, do not take domestic violence “seriously enough.”

“We should put the real blame where it belongs — there is not enough money to combat domestic violence in the United States,” she said. “We need more resources from the state and federal government.”

Despite this, she said, for more than two decades, her office has depended on STOP funding to help it investigate and prosecute domestic and sexual violence crimes and to advocate for victims and survivors of those crimes.

“I’m sure what the Center is going to say is that the application wasn’t up to snuff, but it wasn’t any different than previous applications,” said Shriver. “I am concerned with the manner in which the decision for funding was made.”

Victims of their own success

Fenno said the three counties have proven that the multi-disciplinary approach can be successful, and now it’s time for other agencies to try their own approaches.

“The STOP grant was created to give money so that law enforcement and prosecutors would talk to service people,” she said, and the state’s attorneys in the southern counties have been doing that for two decades. “This money was really meant to bring those entities into conversation.”

Now that they have demonstrated a successful model and kept it operational for nearly two decades, the state’s attorneys are responsible for finding continued funding for their prosecutors and investigators, Fenno said. She also said that the state’s attorneys should have been preparing for this eventuality, as other counties lost STOP funding in the 2015 round.

“There is not a lot of wiggle room in Vermont for funding these types of programs,” said Fenno. “All along the line people are making decisions on where to get the money. There is a lot of competing need.”

Erica Marthage, Bennington County Vermont State’s Attorney, said her office has received the STOP funding since 1997. She said the Center for Crime Victim Services has a statutory requirement to work with victims of sexual and domestic violence, and that includes prosecutors and investigators.

“Though they work in the state’s attorney’s offices they are funded by the Center for Crime Victim Services,” said Marthage.

But that’s not the way Cookson and Fenno interpret their statutory requirement.

“It is not [the Center’s] responsibility to make sure prosecutors and law enforcement are well funded,” said Cookson. It is, however, the Center’s responsibility to fund an advocate in organizations such as the Women’s Freedom Center in Windham County and PAVE in Bennington County, she said.

Advocacy challenged by shortfalls in funding

“We do know that funds for this work are scarce and all of our 15 member organizations are regularly faced with budgetary variations that impact the level of services they are able to provide,” said Karen Tronsgard-Scott, executive director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, which is the umbrella organization for the state’s advocacy centers. “In this case, a loss for some organizations means a gain for others. The overarching issue is that funding does not keep pace with the demand for services.”

Organizations access funding such as STOP and other federal resources as is possible, and they also rely on state funding and the generosity of their communities which support services through financial donations and sponsorships, wrote Tronsgard-Scott. “The loss of any funding source creates real challenges for organizations like WFC and PAVE and the leadership in both of these organizations will be focused on bridging this gap and ensuring that services continue without interruption.”

A spokeswoman for the Women’s Freedom Center declined to comment.

“When you start new programs,” said PAVE’s Campbell, “they shouldn’t be on the back of the entire victim service programs in the southern part of the state. I feel the southern part of the state has always been left out. This is another clear message slammed in the face of our clients that you are not as important. Maybe I am wrong. But that’s the feeling.”

A political decision?

That’s exactly how Marthage feels, as well.

“This is my take on it,” she said. “This was a political decision. The southern part of the state has been completely overlooked.”

Marthage said discussions between the Center representatives and the budget committee of the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs were contentious at best. She also noted that three of the five members of the budget committee were from the three counties that didn’t get STOP funding.

“In 18 years, our discussions with the Center have never been so contentious,” insisted Marthage. “We have struggled so much with the new executive director. Three of the five people on the committee were poking [Fenno] in the eye and now they have lost funding in their offices.”

She noted that in the past, the director of the Center was a former state’s attorney. “Now we have someone showing up and changing the rules.” And perhaps worst, noted Marthage, “She’s not from Vermont. She doesn’t have a good handle on how we do business here.”

According to the Center’s website, Fenno has a Bachelor of Arts in Religion and Philosophy from Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore., and a Master of Divinity from Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Mass. She has more than 25 years of experience providing victim services and ensuring victim rights in Massachusetts, Maine, Washington and Vermont.

“I come from another state where we did things differently,” said Fenno. “One of the things we did was a lot of competitive RFPs. This is how Vermont needs to do it. Before I got here it was a little bit more folksy.”

Fenno said the competitive RFP was instituted at the Center in 2015 at the behest of the federal government, but this was the first time an independent committee was used to grade the applications.

“The Center was under pressure to put things out to bid,” she said.

‘Unacceptable cuts’

State Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said that over the last year-and-a-half, discussions between the Center and the Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs “have not always gone well. I am acutely aware and not happy to hear that the three counties feel they have been cut out. These are unacceptable cuts and we are going to have to find ways to fund these programs. These are too important to lose. During the next legislative session there will be a lot of discussion about these cuts and why they were necessary.”

One thing all parties agree upon is there is not enough money to go around to properly investigate and prosecute crimes of domestic and sexual violence, nor enough to provide support services to victims and survivors of such crimes.

“I get it, I really do,” said Fenno. “Money is tight.”

Cookson noted the Center is in discussion with the victim advocate centers to help them make up for the shortfall.

“There are other victim service’s money available,” she said. “We want to make that happen. There are several other federal grants that we administer that provide domestic and sexual violence advocacy and other services.”

Cookson said that though it’s not the Center’s responsibility to provide funding to the state’s attorney’s offices, they plan to bring the RFP applications to the Legislature to demonstrate the need for funding for investigators and prosecutors in those offices.

However, she noted, “The Legislature hasn’t passed a fiscal year 2020 budget, It’s hard to say there won’t be money for the positions without there being a budget.”

Secondary effects of funding cuts

While victims and survivors are the primary beneficiary of the funding, said Dover Police Chief Randall Johnson, they’re not the only ones who benefit from the funding. For nearly a decade, said Shriver, she has used some of the funding to contract with different local law enforcement agencies to have officers serve as investigators. For the past two years, the Dover Police Department has filled the investigatory position.

“Working with the State’s Attorney’s Office is a great opportunity not only for my officers to get more investigatory experience, but also to help out with the State’s Attorney’s case load,” said Johnson. “It was a very valuable experience and they enjoyed working with the State’s Attorney.”

Johnson pointed out that his officers who work for the State’s Attorney’s Office were doing that work in addition to their normal patrol duties. If the positions in the State’s Attorney’s Office aren’t funded as in the past, he said, it means his officers will be spending less time on patrol duty and more time on investigations. “When in the past her office conducted follow-up, that’s now going to fall back on to each agency. It’s one less resource.”

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or [email protected]

 

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