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Increase sought in tax credit for domestic violence shelter donations

A group of donors walked through the halls of Rainbow House, an emergency children’s shelter in Columbia, Mo.. Artwork from children who had spent time at the shelter adorned the walls, ranging from self-portraits to colorful scribbles.

Suddenly, one donor stopped at a piece and stared. There, years later, was the drawing the donor had made as a child who needed a safe place to stay.

Rainbow House has been helping such children for decades, and the need is only increasing. In 2018, Missouri had the second highest number of women murdered by men in the nation. When survivors do manage to leave an abusive situation — often the most dangerous step — they can lose access to financial support, shelter and education for their children.

Combatting this violence takes resources. Running a domestic violence shelter isn’t cheap; it requires paying employees for round-the-clock shifts, providing food and personal hygiene products and, in some cases, providing legal counsel to survivors. Now, COVID-19 is increasing those demands exponentially.

“When you think of the ecosystem of services that people are lacking access to, that’s our focus, ensuring that there are bridges to fill the gaps in that ecosystem,” said Courtney Thomas, president of domestic violence shelter Newhouse KC.

Survivors are reaching out for help, but resource shortages mean not everyone gets it. In 2019, out of 62,372 requests for service to Missouri domestic violence shelters, 26,068 went unmet because organizations didn’t have the resources to support them, according to data from the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Gaining funding to expand those services can be a challenge. It requires community buy-in and a simultaneous courting of larger donors and grant programs. These factors have made a little-known tax credit all the more important for many shelters in Missouri. Donors such as the one who’d spent time at Rainbow House are vital, and the tax credit provides a simple way to encourage donations. Now, lawmakers are pushing to expand the credit and introducing new proposals.

Encouraging community support

A child staying at Rainbow House plays with a bowl on Wednesday, Feb. 17. Art from previous residents of Rainbow House decorates the wall.

As it stands, if you were to donate $100 or more to an approved shelter in Missouri, you’d be eligible for a 50 percent tax credit from that donation. The credit works to both incentivize larger donations and to encourage people who would not otherwise donate to do so.

“It makes a big difference in the amount a donor is interested in providing,” said Jennifer Dochler, public policy director for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

It also helps shelters participate in matching grant programs, which require them to raise a portion of the grant amount through donations. Some grant programs require that organizations raise the amount in full before they can receive the grant, making local community support vital to accessing those funds.

Some needs are always present. When a survivor comes to Newhouse, they’re assigned a team of employees to help them get back on their feet. This team includes a case manager, recovery counselor, an adult therapist and a children’s therapist if the survivor comes with their kids. It can also include court advocates, who help survivors navigate the court system when it comes to things such as orders of protection.

Newhouse is also focused on ensuring that parents can access needed services without worrying about their child’s well-being. Thomas said the shelter was the only one in the area to offer full-time child care services and school classes, as well as an early education center.

At Rainbow House in Columbia, donations can go toward basics including diapers, food and hygiene products. The money allows the shelter to purchase individual items, such as blankets and pillows, for each child.

Richie Vanskike, development director for Rainbow House, said there were many stories like the one he recounted about the donor and the painting. He once gave a pillow to a girl who then started showing it off to all of the other children. He asked why she was so proud of the pillow, and her answer was simple: It was the first time she’d ever had one. In the kitchen of Rainbow House, children have their own cups, placed beside a sticky note with their name.

When it comes to the Rainbow House’s child advocacy center, donations can fund crisis intervention sessions and forensic interviews, in which a multidisciplinary team assists the child advocacy center in each investigation into child abuse and neglect. They work together to interview children who may have been abused, and those interviews may then be used in place of the child’s testimony in court.

Some donations come earmarked for specific causes. Veteran’s United provides funding for a van lease, through Machen’s Toyota; another grant goes towards technology.

“Our biggest need for donations are unrestricted funds,” Vanskike said. “A lot of that goes towards administrative costs. And that’s not always popular with grant funding and those kinds of things. But we do need salary money for salaries and stuff like that.”

Increasing the credit amount

A child plays with a booster seat on Feb. 12, 2021 at Rainbow House. To the side, inspirational quotes by the singer Billie Eilish have been written on a blackboard.

Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, is trying to expand the tax credit from 50 percent to 70 percent. His legislation had its first hearing earlier this month, and he’s been working with the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence to fine-tune the bill, which he hopes will increase support to shelters in the private sphere.

“Tax credits get the donor involved in the process,” he said. “And then it allows, instead of government control of how they operate, it allows the private sector to be more innovative in how to meet the needs of these women.”

Some tax credits have been divisive within the Republican-led Missouri legislature, but Koenig is confident his proposal will garner support. The increase is just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the Missouri budget, he said, and the money will go toward an important cause.

Thomas believes the increase in the tax credit can help make the choice to donate an easier one for families.

“People are always looking for ways that they can be philanthropic and charitable, but also make the best financial decisions for their families,” she said. “So a higher level of allowed deductions from their taxable income is significant, for both the person and the organization who receives the gift.”

Expanding eligibility

A child staying at Rainbow House runs through the shelter’s play room on Wednesday, Feb. 17. This room is filled with toys for younger children, including little basketball goals, toy robots and ride-around unicorns.

Koenig’s bill would also expand the types of shelters eligible for the tax credit.

Rape crisis centers, which provide support to survivors of sexual assault, have previously been excluded from the program.

Dochler said before 2006, there were separate groups advocating for domestic violence and sexual assault issues. That division meant that when domestic violence advocates pushed for the tax credit originally, it did not include rape crisis centers. After the two groups merged into the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, the focus shifted to legislation that would benefit shelters in both areas.

“When we became a dual coalition we made huge advancements on legislative priorities specific for rape crisis centers,” Dochler said. “So for example, (before the merge) there wasn’t even a definition of rape crisis centers in statute.”

In 2019, rape crisis centers provided services for 9,057 people, while 5,496 requests for services went unmet, according to data from the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

Weathering COVID-19

Teddy bears line the top rows of shelving in a conference room at Rainbow House. Many of the bears were donated from a Mizzou Athletics fundraiser, which allowed Missouri basketball fans to bring teddy bears to a game and throw them onto the court. The team then brought them to Rainbow House.

Fleeing an abusive situation during the COVID-19 pandemic brings a slew of new challenges for survivors. Although many shelters remain open, their services are limited by occupancy limits and financial strains.

Newhouse KC, which previously housed survivors only within its walls, has been forced to start renting hotel rooms in order to abide by social distancing guidelines. Thomas said that while they’re happy to do so, it’s been an unanticipated drain on the organization’s resources, and brings its own set of complications.

“That person is outside of our facility, where we know we can keep them safe,” Thomas said. “A hotel environment is more challenging for us because we can share the rules and say, ‘You can’t have visitors, or you can’t notify your abuser of where you are,’ but that can happen, and we wouldn’t know.”

Janie Bakutes, executive director of Rainbow House, hasn’t taken a single pandemic-related day off.

“I’m 69,” she said. “Obviously, I fall into that category that says, ‘Hey, stay home, if you want to.’ My theory was, Why would I do that when everybody else is showing up? I need to be here, you know, boots on the ground, with them.”

Those boots are staying busy. The shelter is open 24/7. Staff rotate through three eight-hour shifts daily. When a staff member can’t make it in, the shelter director steps up to the plate. When a donor comes to drop off a donation, whoever’s available accepts it.

Often, that person is Vanskike.

In 2020, Rainbow House supported 138 children in its shelter, up from 90 in 2017, and provided 5,300 cumulative nights of shelter, compared to 1,586 in 2017. This year alone, its child advocacy center conducted forensic interviews with 455 kids.

“We’ve had an increase in families and children that we’re serving,” Bakutes said.

Exploring other tax credit options

A wall of handprints stands at the entrance to one wing of Rainbow House where children who have survived abuse are interviewed. The wall is often something interviewers often use the wall to start the conversation with children, asking them their favorite color.

Koenig’s bill is not the only one focused on tax credits in the domestic violence sphere this session.

Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, is sponsoring legislation which would provide tax credits for developing new housing for survivors or renting to them.

Renting can be a challenge for survivors. Often, they’re forced to move frequently to escape their abusers, something that isn’t generally compatible with leasing an apartment or home. Proudie successfully passed legislation in 2019 that made it possible for survivors to break their leases if they’re experiencing domestic violence, but finding a stable living situation can still pose a challenge.

Proudie said she hoped the legislation would give survivors more options when it came to longer-term housing outside of an emergency shelter.

“Of course we want people to develop shelters,” she said. “But I also know there may be a longer term need than what a shelter can provide. … Everyone won’t do well in a shelter situation. It could be triggering for some folks, or it may just not be a good fit.”

Proudie also hopes the stability provided by renting would allow survivors with children to ensure those children experience as little upheaval as possible. She said that ideally, survivors could rent within the current school district in which their children are enrolled, ensuring that a safety net remains in place.

“The less interruption of stable and healthy encounters we can give children, the better,” she said. “Making sure that stakeholders like the school counselor or school teacher are able to keep an eye on the child, making sure that they’re safe within the situation.”

This article by Emily Wolf is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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