For six years, Kelly, a former resident of Asheville, endured physical assaults from her partner with increasing frequency.
The violence worsened after giving birth, and she feared for their child’s safety, too. In 2017, Kelly tried to leave the relationship, and the violence escalated. “Basically every night he was assaulting me,” she explains. “The last injury was a ruptured eardrum and contusions on my face and head where he had beat me. I ended up going to the hospital to make sure I didn’t have any permanent damage.” She had bruises on her neck from strangulation.
(Xpress is referring to Kelly by her nickname to protect her and her child’s privacy.)
A Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office deputy accompanied Kelly to Mission Hospital following that assault. Health care providers collected evidence of her external wounds and performed an MRI scan on her head to assess potential brain injuries.
The BCSO officer performed another crucial role: He referred Kelly to Helpmate, a domestic violence nonprofit, which explained her options regarding a civil order of protection, or restraining order.
Helpmate referred her to Pisgah Legal Services, a legal aid organization that assists low-income clients. Pisgah Legal represented Kelly for three years while the child’s father fought her for custody.
Helpmate assigned Kelly a court advocate to accompany her to criminal court proceedings for the assaults, as well as repeated violations of the restraining order she obtained. Kelly estimates she faced her abuser dozens of times in court over six years. Prior to each appearance, Helpmate allowed her to wait inside its office at the Buncombe County Courthouse. “That way, you don’t have to be in a hallway with your abuser, who is also there waiting for a court appearance,” she explains. The court advocate accompanied her to every criminal proceeding “to provide a human shield in the courtroom,” she says. That companionship “made the court experience so much easier than it would have been.”
As a low-income worker in the service industry at the time, Kelly says the free legal representation she received from Pisgah Legal and free services from Helpmate enabled her to leave safely with her child. Today they live out-of-state, and her child is thriving, she says.
Survivors like Kelly demonstrate the best-case scenario for support as they emerge from a violent environment. But the Buncombe County-based nonprofits that assisted her and many others now face deep cuts to their funding, which will likely impact the infrastructure and core services these organizations provide.
As a survivor of domestic violence, Kelly calls these cuts “alarming.” She knows what might have happened if she didn’t have their assistance. “Legal costs are a huge barrier to women leaving their abusive partners,” she says.
Helpmate’s annual budget is approximately $3.5 million, and in 2021-22, about one-third of that budget — $1.12 million — came from the Victims of Crime Act, or VOCA, says Helpmate Executive Director April Burgess-Johnson.
VOCA funds are generated from the prosecution of white-collar crimes, which are placed in a Crime Victims Fund. According to the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime, the fund includes “federal criminal fines, forfeited bail bonds, penalties and special assessments collected by U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, federal courts and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.” The DOJ administers the funds to each state, and in North Carolina, those funds are disbursed by the Governor’s Crime Commission. Nonprofits apply to the GCC for VOCA funds in January, find out in the summer if they are approved and begin receiving funding in October.
Burgess-Johnson calls VOCA funds “by a long stretch our largest source of funding.” That has been true since 2017, which is when penalties from deferred prosecution agreements no longer went toward the Crime Victims Fund, causing the fund amount to dwindle.
In 2023, Helpmate’s VOCA fund allocation decreased 64% from the year before to $407,000. The nonprofit filled the gap with funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, but that isn’t a long-term fix, as ARPA funds are disappearing, too. (According to the Government Finance Officers Association, ARPA funds must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.) In 2021, Congress passed a law to stabilize the Crime Victims Fund. Called the VOCA fix, it directs fines and penalties from deferred prosecution agreements back to the fund. But it won’t replenish the funding gaps as quickly as needed, as those funds will take time to accrue.
This is the predicament in which Helpmate finds itself alongside Pisgah Legal Services; OUR Voice, which serves survivors of sexual violence; The Mediation Center, which provides conflict resolution services; and the Family Justice Center, which provides victims’ services.
Nonprofits often operate nimbly and depend on multiple funding sources that are not guaranteed year after year. Yet in the 30 years that Burgess-Johnson has worked in survivor services, she says she’s never seen so many nonprofit budgets impacted so catastrophically.
“We need the public to be aware of this,” says Pisgah Legal Services Executive Director Jim Barrett. “We need county commissioners to be aware of it all over Western North Carolina.”
His organization anticipates funding for its programs serving survivors of child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence to plummet from $1.5 million in fiscal year 2022 to $400,000 in 2024.
“It took a long time to build this infrastructure, [which] depends a lot on this federal grant source,” Barrett says. “And we don’t want to lose this infrastructure.”
Services on the line
The funding cuts are expected to hit the Buncombe County Family Justice Center’s core services. The FJC is a centralized location for community partners serving survivors of child abuse, domestic violence and sexual violence. Upon arrival at the FJC, a survivor is paired with a specialist who coordinates assistance to navigate criminal and civil legal systems, medical exams, evidence collection or whatever else is required.
FJC received $1.4 million in VOCA funding, which comes in two-year grants, in 2015, 2017 and 2019. In 2021, the VOCA funding for FJC was cut to $874,000. “And this year we weren’t even offered the ability to apply,” says Buncombe County Justice Services Director Tiffany Iheanacho. The Governor’s Crime Commission didn’t prioritize “multicollaborative centers” like FJC this funding cycle, she says.
VOCA funds at FJC support two intake specialists, a case manager and a counselor through Helpmate; a child care provider through the YWCA; an attorney and legal assistant through Pisgah Legal Services; and a counselor and court advocate through Our VOICE. Buncombe County stepped up to fund those positions through next June. But “after that is uncertain,” says Iheanacho. “We do not have a committed funding source for this program.”
The funding cuts mean the program might have to eliminate two of its four intake specialists. Iheanacho also anticipates “collateral consequences” impacting services. For example, VOCA funding supports child care at the FJC. But if the child care budget is reduced or eliminated, that may affect a parent’s ability to access services, like forensic medical exams or counseling sessions.
The more services that are offered for survivors of domestic violence, the more that they are used, say local experts. In fiscal year 2023, the FCJ saw 567 new intakes compared with 417 in fiscal year 2017. Iheanacho notes that these clients saw two or more agencies on their first visits.
Decreased VOCA funding could be devastating to nonprofits serving survivors at smaller counties in Western North Carolina. This funding might have been so integral to their budgets that the organizations “might not be able to operate” any longer, Burgess-Johnson warns.
Each nonprofit that spoke with Xpress says they’re looking toward philanthropy to meet their budgeting needs.
Additionally, Iheanacho says the Buncombe County Justice Services department, which operates FJC, seeks to utilize existing funding to make up the gaps. “But it is a large gap to fill,” she says.
Iheanacho worries that decreased services for survivors of violence will ripple outward. Interpersonal violence, she explains, doesn’t exist in a silo: There are other financial, legal, medical, educational and emotional consequences that stem from it.
“Violence in the home begets violence in the community,” Iheanacho says. “It agitates mental health and substance use issues. It disrupts housing and displaces people — all these issues we’re seeing across our community.”