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Friday, June 2, 2023
June 2, 2023

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Help for crime victims drops to ‘crisis level’ in Washington

Advocates seek $132M from state as federal aid drops, demand rises


When Heaven Strothers learned two of her children had been sexually abused by her then-husband, it felt like “the floor shattered and fell out from underneath” her.

She didn’t know what to do until a prosecutor connected her with the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center. The people there saved her oldest daughter from “falling through the cracks,” said Strothers, who agreed to the use of her name in discussing the abuse. The Seattle Times typically does not name crime victims or make them identifiable without consent.

Strothers’ oldest was abused for nearly a decade, and a younger daughter for potentially a year, based on her medical history, until Strothers’ ex-husband was arrested in March 2014. Strothers became a single mother overnight. She tried to help her kids heal while filing for divorce.

Strothers’ ex-husband pleaded guilty later that year. Her daughters spent months in therapy, obtained through the resource center, to come to terms with what happened.

The agency “was super-helpful for me as a parent, because I didn’t know what I was about to face,” Strothers said. “I just was so lost.”

Because of cuts to federal funding, the heads of the resource center and other victim services in Washington worry they may not be able to help as many people as they do today.

Washington’s network of crime victim services — which includes sexual assault resource centers, domestic violence programs and child advocacy centers — want $132 million in state funding for the next two years, citing an increase in demand coupled with the decrease in federal funds.

The groups detailed their request in a letter to lawmakers saying the victim services network “has never been weaker” financially.

“As one organization shuts down or a survivor or family is placed on a waitlist, the remaining network of services is unable to absorb their unmet needs,” the letter said.

Dwindling federal dollars

Victim services get much of their funding from the federal Victims of Crime Act, tied to the fines, fees and forfeitures from convicted federal offenders. But that pot of money has declined steadily over the past five years as prosecutions have declined, in part because of the pandemic.

Rick Torrance is the managing director of the Office of Crime Victims Advocacy, the state agency that administers these federal dollars. He said the amount of money can vary greatly from year to year.

As federal funding fell, the Washington Legislature approved $22.5 million over the last two years. The money helped stave off significant cuts, service providers say, but the situation is still dire.

Mary Ellen Stone, CEO of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, said the services coalitions assumed federal funding would return to higher levels, but that hasn’t happened.

Since 2017, the center has seen a 23 percent increase in demand for its services. But the VOCA funding for sexual assault services will be cut 28 percent in the next year, according to the center.

“We’re not quite at that point of turning people away,” Stone said, “but we will be significantly at that point if the Legislature doesn’t approve the $132 million.”

If the resource center doesn’t get its portion of that state funding, Stone estimates, it would have to cut at least seven positions. Hundreds of people would not get the help they need.

One survivor, who asked for anonymity, said the mental health services she obtained through the center after a sexual assault helped her recover.

“KCSARC is a community builder,” said the woman, 38, of Seattle. “We need to be preserving places like that.”

After her assault, the woman said, she struggled to sleep, and when she did, she had nightmares. She was hypervigilant, always afraid of what was around the corner. After about five months of weekly therapy sessions at the center, she could balance her sleeping and eating habits and went back to school.

She now works in the mental health care field, referring others to the resource center she once used herself.

A statewide dilemma

The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which supports crime victims, already has started turning people away, executive director Jorge L. Baron said.

Baron said the Seattle office’s waitlist exceeded 1,000 people in 2021. His team, realizing they couldn’t help everyone, rejected hundreds of people in the past year. Many undocumented immigrants turn to the Immigrant Rights Project for help out of fear of speaking to law enforcement.

“Our hope is that legislators will understand that there are literally thousands of human beings who unfortunately experience crime in the state,” Baron said. “We need to have the resources, as a community, to provide them the support they deserve.”

As VOCA funding dries up, domestic violence programs in Washington have reached “a crisis level,” said Elizabeth Montoya, spokesperson for the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“The funding stream is so volatile and unstable,” Montoya said. “It’s really not meeting the needs of programs that are providing these lifesaving services.”

People turned to these programs more often during the pandemic, and an increase in the complexity of cases, as economic uncertainty, made it harder to escape the violence, according to coalition leaders. There has been a similar trend among children, said Paula Reed, the executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Washington.

“There’s much more severe abuse that has happened, and it takes much more intensive services to actually help the family move forward and stabilize that child,” she said.

Lawmakers are working on the budget, so the coalitions will likely need to wait until at least April to see if they will get the money.

Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Des Moines, who is sponsoring the coalitions’ request, is making the case to her colleagues.

“It’s gotten to the point where we really just have to step up to the plate and backfill the lost federal dollars and make sure that we have sufficient funds to provide services to victims of crime,” she said.

‘A second home’

Strothers’ oldest daughter was 16 when her abuser was arrested. Her youngest was only 4. When Strothers first met with a prosecutor after her then-husband’s arrest, she and her daughters were greeted by a KCSARC legal advocate.

“We knew that at that point, we had someone on our side,” Strothers said.

The advocate was not only there when the teen sat down for an interview with a prosecutor, but also checked in on how Strothers was doing after court hearings, and reminded her to eat and drink enough water.

When Strothers needed help filing for divorce and a protection order, KCSARC advocates pointed her in the right direction.

Strothers said the trauma from the abuse will affect her family forever. But with the resource center’s guidance, they now have a path to healing.