While lawmakers are considering whether to approve big building projects for college campuses and awaiting more of Gov. Mike Parson’s plans for using an unprecedented budget surplus, a fight is brewing over a smaller pot of funds used to combat domestic violence and child abuse.
Each year, the Department of Social Services distributes grants from federal Victims of Crime Act funds, money that is essential to operating shelters and investigating sex crimes against children. The department has $66 million available in the current year’s budget, one of the largest amounts in the program’s history, but sees federal cuts coming.
“If you look at that, if we put that all out and awarded $50 million this year, in the current grants, you will see a big drop next year and the following year, a huge drop,” Patrick Luebbering, chief financial officer for the department, said during a House appropriations subcommittee hearing last month.
To avoid future cuts to individual agencies, the department wants to hold on to a large portion of this year’s money to spend later. At the same time, it is proposing to change how money is allocated around the state.
Originally set to start Oct. 1, confusion about the changes and a high volume of grant applications have pushed the starting date for the new regional distributions to Jan. 1. Previous contracts were extended, but service agencies hadn’t heard by mid-day Friday whether their new applications will be funded, said Jessica Seitz, executive director of Missouri KidsFirst.
Restricting the funding and changing the distribution will hurt the agencies that serve victims, advocates said.
“We have been working hard and doing good and now is not the time to cut and the message is you don’t have to,” Colleen Coble, executive director of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said in an interview with The Independent.
Coble testified against the limits on spending and the new allocation plan during the Nov. 18 hearing of the House Health, Mental Health, and Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee.
Missouri can replace any shortfall from the $2.8 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funds coming to the state, she said in the interview.
During the COVID pandemic, she said, domestic violence shelters have seen increasing demands and increased costs.
“Our numbers are up,” she said during her testimony. “We never stopped working. We never closed. The numbers for domestic violence and sexual assault and child abuse are still high.”
If agency funding is cut or money is diverted from current allocations, she said, shelters, especially those in rural areas, will close or cut back.
“They will not be able to provide the services their community has come to rely on,” she said.
The federal Victims of Crime Act, or VOCA, directs money collected from fines and forfeitures in federal criminal cases to fund programs at the state level. Agencies apply for grants and identify the services they will provide if funded.
There are four priorities – domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and traditionally underserved – and 10 percent of the state’s allocation is earmarked for each of those needs.
How much each state gets fluctuates annually because of the ebb and flow of cases through the courts. But legislation passed during former President Donald Trump’s administration allowed fines and forfeitures received from deferred prosecution agreements to go into the general federal treasury instead of the Victims of Crime Act account.
That diverted billions from the fund nationwide.
In July, President Joe Biden signed a bill restoring the funds that passed with unanimous support in the U.S. Senate and was co-sponsored in the House by U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-St. Louis.
The issue at the state level is how fast, and whether, Missouri’s share will return to current levels. During the hearing, Luebbering said current projections are for the state’s federal allocation to fall to about $20 million a year for at least two years.
That is how the department calculated that it should distribute $35 million a year during the current fiscal year and use that amount as the target for the next two years, he said.
The bill signed in July won’t change that calculation, he said.
“I don’t know that we’re seeing anything on the horizon that will help in the end,” Luebbering said.
State Rep. Hannah Kelly, R-Mountain Grove, noted that the department’s view of future VOCA funding was the opposite of what advocates expect. Kelly is a member of the subcommittee and took testimony earlier in the week about changes to the program as chair of the Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect.
“I respect your, your willingness to try to look long term and try to think bigger picture worst case scenario,” Kelly said during the subcommittee hearing. ” That’s unfortunately the hard part of what we have to do here. I also know that if the worst-case scenario doesn’t happen, we are going to have to answer for that, too.”
Coble, in her testimony, urged the committee to direct the Social Services Department to use the money it has now and maintain funding in future years from available federal funds until the VOCA fix legislation starts producing the expected revenue.
“So I will cut to the chase, that I don’t believe, given that span of time, that we are in a period of scarcity when it comes to the VOCA awards,” Coble said.
Limiting how much is distributed this year will mean a 25 percent cut for grants to child advocacy centers, the 15 agencies around the state that conduct forensic interviews in child abuse cases, Seitz told the committee.
Over the past two years, she said, the centers have received about $6 million per year, “our largest and most crucial source of funding.”
In recent weeks, she said, she has given lawmakers a lot more detail about how the cuts would impact the advocacy centers.
“A lot of conversation has been happening since that hearing,” Seitz said.
Along with limiting the total funds used, the agency that oversees the grant program wants to change how funds are allocated around the state. Previously, all applications were ranked and money distributed based on how the request scored against other requests.
Now the agency has implemented a regional distribution plan. In testimony to the appropriations subcommittee, and earlier to the Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect. The idea was to get funds to all parts of the state based on data about crime, said Jeriane Jaegers-Brenneke, administrator of the funds for the department.
The data, she said, is Missouri State Highway Patrol numbers for three of the priority categories, the underserved, sexual assault, and domestic violence. Data on child abuse is from reports to the state Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline.
The plan was developed as the agency was preparing for a new round of grant applications, Luebbering told the subcommittee. How many people each agency served with past grants was not considered in the development of the new regionalization plan, he said.
Instead, he told the panel, the focus has been on making funding match the incidence of crime because “the way we did the bid last time…certain regions came out way ahead versus certain regions…”
The regions, the notice of funding states, are based on a map of service areas used by Coble’s organization, which splits the state into eight sets of counties. The regions were adjusted to keep counties in a single judicial circuit together.
The regions being used do not conform to the service areas of the child advocacy centers, Seitz told the subcommittee. It complicated the application process and may leave some communities unserved, she said.
“My Sedalia CAC serves Johnson County,” she said. “Johnson County was in Kansas City. If they don’t get funded for that Kansas City [application], Kansas City doesn’t … have the [memoranda of understanding] with the counties, etc., to pick up the slack.”
Both Coble and Seitz said the changes were made without consulting the service agencies or their advocates.
“I learned about it when the RFP dropped,” Seitz told the committee.
The 15 advocacy centers do not divide their responsibilities on the lines of the judicial circuits, Seitz said. The new regional system required a separate application for funds allocated to each county, instead of the past system where one application stated the counties to be served.
“It was really baffling,” Seitz said.
The new regionalization plan created difficulties that prevented funds from being awarded by the target date of Oct. 1. All existing contracts were extended to Dec. 31, when the new grants are expected.
Coble said it will create numerous problems for the organizations she supports, and potentially leave areas without services to domestic and sexual violence victims.
“The department’s current plan to make awards based on a regional distribution has never been done before in the state of Missouri,” Coble told the lawmakers. “It is not endorsed by the advocacy community. It is not done in any other victim service grant in any other department, nor has it ever been done in the state of Missouri for any of these funds.”
This article by Rudi Keller is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.