Politics & Government

Help for Wichita victims of domestic violence at risk during government shutdown

What happens when the government shuts down?

The world won't end if Washington can't find a way to pass a funding bill. That's the truth about a government "shutdown": the government doesn't shut down.
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The world won't end if Washington can't find a way to pass a funding bill. That's the truth about a government "shutdown": the government doesn't shut down.

Organizations that help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault may go without some federal grant funding during the partial government shutdown.

Some grant funding — including money through the Violence Against Women Act — is tied up in federal bank accounts as the shutdown prevents Wichita agencies from getting reimbursements.

The Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center isn’t affected yet, said executive director Kathy Williams. But if the shutdown continues a few more weeks, they won’t get money to reimburse their grant expenditures.

“We will do everything we can to fill in the gaps so that we’re available on the hotline and to meet folks at the hospital and to go to court with them as we can,” Williams said. “I don’t know exactly what that will look like.”

Grant funding from the federal Violence Against Women Act is disbursed through the Kansas Governor’s Grants Program. Administrator Shawn Cowing said the shutdown limits the state’s ability to draw down federal grant funds.

The shutdown doesn’t threaten awards already made to organizations, Cowing said. They will still be able to get their grant money, but not until after the shutdown ends.

The Wichita Family Crisis Center doesn’t receive the federal VAWA funds, but it does have grants through the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime. The Justice Department, which also administers many VAWA programs, is one of the nine Cabinet agencies affected by the shutdown.

“If no one’s there to process the applications or the requests for reimbursements, we are very concerned we won’t get funding,” said Amanda Meyers, executive director of the Wichita Family Crisis Center. “Without the funding we won’t be able to keep the doors open.”

About 80 percent of the organization’s funding comes from local, state and federal grants, Meyers said. The crisis center provides outreach and shelter for survivors of domestic violence and their children. The shutdown will also affect applications for future grants.

“A shutdown at any level is very eye-opening and terrifying for us,” Meyers said.

Support for advocates

The Violence Against Women Act, regarded as an important tool to provide services for victims of domestic abuse, was supposed to be continued for another five years by September.

Instead, the law was extended only until Dec. 7, then to Dec. 21, when the shutdown was triggered by a disagreement between President Donald Trump and members of Congress over funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

The act funds free rape exams, strengthened federal penalties against repeat sex offenders, training for law enforcement on responding to sexual and domestic violence incidents, such as identifying victims at serious risk, and the creation of the the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the Office on Violence Against Women in the Department of Justice.

The lapse also means additional funding to provide temporary housing to those victims will likely take longer.

More than $7 billion in grants has been allotted nationally to help victims since the law was enacted in 1994.

“Refusing to reauthorize that would be taking a generational step back,” Meyers said.

Williams said the Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center receives about $150,000 through VAWA with an additional $450,000 through the Office for Victims of Crime. Advocates with the center support victims of sexual assault during hospital examinations and court hearings while also providing other services.

“People do not understand how critical these services are until they are in the position to need them,” Williams said. “Lots of folks are suffering because of the shutdown, but our job is to provide services to survivors and we are committed to providing that.”

Cowing said the state typically processes reimbursements on a monthly basis. But Kansas officials, in anticipation of a possible shutdown, submitted reimbursements to the federal government before the shutdown, which started Dec. 22. The grant office also sent a notice to affected agencies in the state.

The Kansas grant office is only allowed to draw down funds for immediate use, Cowing said. If the cash has not been spent or disbursed within 10 days, it must returned to the government agency that awarded the money.

Kansas officials recommend that organizations maintain a three-month cash reserve balance, which would help alleviate the affects of a short shutdown.

The Justice Department’s Office on Violence Against Women told the Kansas Governor’s Grants Program on Monday that the office will remain fully operational and continue to process payment requests at least until 6 a.m. Jan. 18. The office said it will contact grant recipients if the shutdown continues beyond Jan. 18.

Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.