A bipartisan bill championed by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., to strengthen protections for crime victims has passed, and Rock County organizations say the measure would help bring sustainability that will lead to expanded services for sexual assault and domestic abuse survivors.
The legislation bolsters the Victims of Crime Act by fixing how the Crime Victims Fund is replenished for survivor support organizations across the country. Groups rely heavily on VOCA funding each year to support operations and programming for survivors.
The bill would redirect money from federal deferred prosecution and nonprosecution agreements in resolved criminal cases for the crime victims fund, increasing funding needed for state victim compensation and assistance programs.
“We took on a problem and worked in a bipartisan way to fix it,” Baldwin said. “This lifeline for so many is rapidly running out of funds and now we have taken action to replenish it so people can continue accessing these critical resources. This innovative solution uses no new taxpayer dollars and now we have gotten the job done so that crime victims—including those who’ve suffered from domestic abuse, child abuse, sexual violence, and elder fraud and abuse, among others, continue to receive the services and assistance they need.”
VOCA funding is typically awarded through grants, and grant awards have decreased since 2019. In Wisconsin, victim assistance grants were cut by nearly 80% between 2018 and 2021. Funding in 2018 totaled over $58 million and estimated 2021 levels are standing at about $12.7 million, according to federal funding data. Statewide, VOCA awards account for $44 million in funding directly to local organizations. Further cuts to VOCA at the federal level would reduce funding levels to Wisconsin service providers by more than half in the coming years.
The county oversees a number of programs aimed at protecting and advocating for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Locally, Defy Domestic Abuse Beloit and the Sexual Assault Recovery Program work to help victims in the Rock County area.
Director of Survivor Empowerment Services Kelsey Hood-Christenson said the organization was “thrilled” by the legislation’s passing.
“Passing this fix is a remedy toward offering sustainability of the funding that will have a positive impact on survivors and organizations everywhere,” Hood-Christenson said. “We are celebrating the sustainability of our services and knowing the ongoing resources will be available to us will really help us grow our program.”
Hood-Christenson said the funding remedy would allow organizations in Rock County to “branch out” and address the many needs survivors have while potentially expanding programming to help keep survivors safe and supported.
“We’ve seen the ebb and flow of other funding sources to the programming, but we also knew that if the fix wasn’t there, we didn’t know whether what we were doing in the moment was sustainable for the future,” Hood-Christenson said. “Remedying that uncertain nature will let us address current needs of survivors now and in the future as we go forward.”
In 2019, SARP assisted 355 sexual assault survivors through 2,958 hours of individual service and 185 hours of group services. Last year, the number of people helped decreased, but Hood-Christenson said the intensity of each case caused service hours to increase.
In 2020, SARP assisted 286 survivors through 3,286 individual service hours and 116 group service hours.
In the first half of this year, SARP has helped 189 survivors through 1,892 service hours and 94 hours of group service.
Defy in Beloit assisted 172 domestic abuse survivors (1,296 service hours) in 2019, 224 in 2020 (1,522 service hours) and 123 survivors as of June of this year (667 service hours), county data shows.
Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, who led a bipartisan coalition of 44 attorneys general in pushing for the VOCA fix, said the change would promote safety for all not only across the state, but the country.
“VOCA provides crucial funding for crime victim services programs around Wisconsin, making more resources available to victims, enhancing public safety and promoting justice,” Kaul said.
Executive Director for End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin Monique Minkens said the COVID-19 pandemic had complicated survivor support services and outreach by organizations because of the logistical challenges posed by reaching victims.
“The pandemic has isolated many survivors with abusive partners, and it’s more important than ever we ensure they have access to services,” Minkens said.
The bill will now head to President Joe Biden to be signed into law.