Cuts threaten to end legal help for 2,200 domestic violence victims

A $330,000 reduction in Pisgah Legal Services’ state and federal funding could leave more than 2,200 local domestic-violence victims without legal assistance. The Asheville-based nonprofit is scrambling to close the gap but may reduce services.

Pisgah Legal is losing $210,000 a year from the Governor’s Crime Commission, a state agency that distributes federal funds. And the U.S. Department of Justice is cutting another $120,000 from what it typically awards the organization. The total is 59 percent of the organization’s budget for helping domestic-violence victims. Last year, according to Pisgah staff, they helped 4,300 people escape abusive situations. They estimate that the cuts will mean 2,200 less victims get legal aid, and that the organization will need to lay off seven attorneys.

“We’d received these funds for several years, and we were surprised,” Julie Klip Nicholson, a Pisgah attorney who works with abuse survivors, tells Xpress. “We’re not really sure what happened. They said there’s some reduced funding from the sequester, but I don’t know that explains a 59 percent cut.”

The funds provide legal representation to help domestic-violence victims secure court protection, custody of their children, and “get out of violent homes,” Nicholson says. “Facing the court process is intimidating, and having an attorney by their side can mean the difference in a victim following through or returning to their abuser.”

In her experience, the aid can even mean make the difference between life and death. Earlier this month, information released by the state attorney general showed an increase in domestic homicides in 2012.

As Pisgah’s Executive Director Jim Barrett has seen, “with this bad economy, we’re already seeing people not getting out of domestic violence because they couldn’t get a job, and they ended up captive in an abusive relationship … the abuser will use custody, household money to keep the person under their control.”

He’s asking citizens concerned with the cuts to “advocate with the state legislators to find other funding for this work,” but while he’s hopeful, “so far they’ve been in the mode of cutting our services.”

Pisgah is also asking local governments and residents to help make up the gap. “We’re going to need a lot more donations,” Barrett notes.

He also says that the cuts come as a surprise, especially those from the GCC, as “the sequester was 10 percent; I don’t know how that got to be 59 percent. I don’t understand their logic: the most effective way for people to get out of domestic violence is to get an attorney.”

So far, the GCC has not returned calls for comment. Pisgah will still receive $66,000 from the GCC this year from grants earned in 2012.

“We hope the community steps up to support the work Pisgah Legal is doing,” Nicholson says. “Organizations across the area continue to face challenging funding times, but this is a very substantial loss.”

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