During Shutdown, Pennsylvania Domestic Violence Shelters Weather ‘Perfect Storm’ to Stay Open


It’s a tale of two government shutdowns: For those orchestrating it, political adrenaline junkies, and Twitter groundlings, it’s a game of high-stakes theater. For others, it’s a matter of life and death.

As we enter the third week of the shutdown, it’s becoming more clear that for women and babies it’s the latter.

As widely reported, one of the most vulnerable programs during the shutdown is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Almost immediately, panic rippled through states crunching numbers to figure out how long they could fund the safety-net program that keeps over half the babies born in the United States supplied with formula and other necessities.

After the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a memo stating it could keep WIC afloat for “a week or so,” the Pennsylvania department of health announced it could finance the program “for a few weeks.” Then the USDA announced it shuffled enough financial decks to keep the program operational through October.

While new mothers and babies can rely on two more weeks of formula and support, the shutdown may force the most vulnerable members of this population to remain in, or reenter into, abusive situations, as domestic violence shelters are next on the chopping block if the shutdown continues.

Gov. Tom Corbett has said that the state would continue to step in and reimburse for services until it decides it can’t, but others have recently indicated that the programs are in peril.

“If this isn’t resolved by the beginning of November, you will definitely see a contraction in services,” Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence Executive Director Peg Dierkers told RH Reality Check.

Pennsylvania Budget Secretary Charles Zogby addressed this potential disaster to the Associated Press, which reported that a continued shutdown “could force programs to close … such as subsidized child care, women’s shelters or aid to pregnant women and infants.”

“Right now, it’s maybe more inconvenience,” Zogby said on October 9. “But as we get deeper into the month, it gets more serious.”

The term “women’s shelters” is a bit of a misnomer, as they generally serve both women and children who have survived intimate partner abuse.

Pennsylvania’s network of 60 domestic violence shelters are particularly vulnerable thanks to a cascade of state-level funding challenges stretching back years. First, the long view: Though Gov. Corbett increased state funding for domestic violence services by 10.8 percent in this year’s budget, prior to that, funding was kept flat since 2001. Dierkers estimates that Pennsylvania’s funding of domestic violence services is approximately $2 million behind where it needs to be.

On top of that, Pennsylvania domestic violence organizations (and many other nonprofit human service organizations) have just climbed out of the hole from the state’s notorious budget crisis in 2009. Though the Pennsylvania Constitution demands the budget be signed by midnight of June 30 each year, then-Gov. Edward Rendell did not sign the 2009-10 until October 9. A budget more than 100 days overdue meant organizations had to cope without state funds and some federal funds filtered through the state.

“[The organizations] used up their reserves, and some programs had to obtain lines of credit from the bank,” said Dierkers. “You have to pay interest on that. It cost money, and [loans] aren’t cheap. So it took programs several years for those who had to get a line of credit to repay those.”

Because it’s the end of summer, nonprofits are still recovering from the interruption in funds that comes after new budgets, even when they’re signed on time. Sometimes funds are delayed for up to two months as a sort of financial hangover while paperwork is pushed and checks are signed.

Meanwhile, donations are down and demand is up. Pennsylvania advocates are calling it the “perfect storm” that shelters are struggling to weather—especially, as reported by Bryce Covert at ThinkProgress, rural programs.

Terri Hamrick runs Survivors Inc., a 28-bed shelter in Adams County. She says staying afloat in the storm is like being “pecked to death by ducks.” Hamrick told RH Reality Check that demand for her rural shelter is higher than ever. Last year, the shelter provided services for 640 people.

“Adams County is a very small area,” said Hamrick. “We’re often sitting full. Last week we were at 36. We really do a lot with a little.” Survivors Inc. also provided services for 178 victims of sexual assault.

Currently, 27 of the people staying at the shelter are children.

Hamrick talked about the challenges specific to operating a domestic violence shelter in a rural area, where many townships don’t even have full-time police.

“We have a state troops barracks and the troopers there are wonderful, but they are also dealing with budget issues and there’s not ever enough money or offices,” she said. “Let’s say something happens in the middle of the night, if the state troopers are working someone else and there’s not full-time police that can respond, a victim may have little other resource than to call us. And we’re here, our staff answers 24 hours a day, and if someone has eight minutes while their abuser is in the shower, they shouldn’t have to call an answering service.”

Hamrick points out that while a cunning abuser can isolate a victim in a densely populated city, it’s easier to do so out in the country, where there are few neighbors and spotty cell phone coverage.

“The economy is not going to make someone abusive, but it will make the violence much worse, and that is what we’re seeing,” she said. “We’re seeing some brutal things.”

There are also hidden costs to the shutdown, like the hours and hours of work going toward kiting funds rather than direct services, and illness and burnout among staff in chronic crisis.

Meanwhile, shelters around the country are struggling.

“It’s disheartening to see … some of our sister programs across the country closing,” said Hamrick. “Or not going to be able to make it next week.”

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