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Connecticut Proposes $18M for Domestic Violence Services

The funding would help provide housing, shelter and transitional services to victims of domestic violence and help replenish funds that were depleted due to steep increases in demand during the pandemic.

(TNS) — Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont is proposing to invest $18 million in services for victims of domestic violence, including shelter and housing, and to help to fill "an urgent gap" left by a federal fund for victims that has dried up in recent years.

The pitch unveiled this week, if approved by state lawmakers, would steer an infusion of cash toward a range of issues highlighted in a recent investigative series by Hearst Connecticut Media Group.

The series, "Lost to Abuse," uncovered numerous ways that key public systems in Connecticut had failed to adequately address intimate partner violence, including stagnant funding to curb the problem.

In response, lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz, called for increased investments and other reforms.

Lamont's office said Tuesday supporting victims is an important priority for the governor.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated conditions that place victims at heightened risk and create a more challenging landscape for service providers," said a statement from Lamont spokeswoman Lora Rae Anderson. "These services and supports will reach crime victims at a time of acute need and help make them whole."

The governor's proposal drew praise from advocates who had grown increasingly concerned about having enough financial backing to adequately support victims.

"Throughout the pandemic we have seen an increase in the complexity of issues facing survivors of domestic violence, and a growing need for funding and reforms aimed at helping and protecting them," Meghan Scanlon, president & CEO of the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, or CCADV, said in a statement.

Lamont's proposal, which was announced Monday, would draw on federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, his office said. He will formally present it to state lawmakers when the legislative session begins Wednesday, the opening day of a 12-week focus on budget-amendments for the General Assembly.

The $18 million is part of a broader package of initiatives and a total of $64 million in funding aimed at public safety, from supporting victims of crimes and law enforcement officials to reducing gun violence.

One key component of the proposal is to use $15 million to make up for dwindling federal funds left in the Victims of Crime Act, or VOCA, fund, which is meant to support state and local programs that assist victims of crimes.

The money flowing from VOCA is at risk to decrease dramatically in the coming fiscal year because of a steady decline in the criminal fines and fees that fuel the fund, Hearst Connecticut Media reported in December. The fund has lost hundreds of millions of dollars since at least 2018.

In July, President Joe Biden signed a legislative fix to repair the funding stream, but the money to replenish the fund will not be immediately available. Advocates estimate getting the fund back to a level that maintains current services could take at least two years.

If no additional support was provided over the next two years, an estimated 52,000 victims in Connecticut would stand to suffer through the potential loss of services supported by the fund.

In Connecticut, the federal pot of money is vital. It pays for victim advocates in courts and the operation of the statewide hotline SafeConnect. It also funds victims services including crisis intervention, safety planning, behavioral health counseling and legal aid.

The funding is key for local service providers, which nearly 38,000 victims of domestic violence in Connecticut sought help from in 2020, according to the latest service statistics reported by CCADV.

Advocates have warned Connecticut's VOCA funding could drop by about 40 percent, or about $12.3 million, over two years.

"Connecticut's ability to keep survivors safe was jeopardized by cuts to federal VOCA funding, and Governor Lamont's move to temporarily fill the funding gap at the state level will help provide crisis response, court-based advocacy, coordination with law enforcement, and advocacy related to the basic needs of victims," Scanlon added in her statement.

Scanlon said Monday afternoon advocates were still awaiting the full details of Lamont's proposal but were grateful he put the needs of victims front and center for the upcoming legislative session.

Local organizations like the Domestic Violence Crisis Center in Stamford rely on the VOCA funding to provide their free-of-charge services and advocacy to assist and protect domestic violence, said Suzanne Adam, the center's executive director.

Beth Hamilton, the executive director of the Alliance to End Sexual Violence, runs another organization that relies heavily on VOCA funding to provide victim resources.

In late January, she told Hearst Connecticut Media Group, that without some intervention to increase funding the organization "could lose staff and our ability to meet the needs of our community,"

"We anticipate, even if we lost even 30 percent, we'd lose staff, lose hotline hours," Hamilton said before Lamont's proposal was unveiled. We'd lose some of our core services, and those pieces are what we're most worried about."

"We're really a critical place where survivors can seek out those supports, so a loss of an advocate or a counselor means they (survivors) lose that support altogether," Hamilton added.

Under Lamont's proposal, another $3 million would go toward providing shelter, housing, and transitional services for victims of domestic abuse — services that have seen demand skyrocket during the pandemic.

CCADV member organizations reported a 26 percent increase in the number of adults and children housed in the fiscal year that ended in late June 2020, which included just three months of the coronavirus pandemic.

Bridgeport's Center for Family Justice witnessed a 25 percent increase in overall demand for services as well as an 18 percent increase in domestic violence cases between 2019 and 2020. Safe Futures in New London served close to 10,000 victims across Southeastern Connecticut in 2020, which was a 39 percent increase over 2019.

Lamont's legislative pitch also proposes to automatically disqualify anyone who has been convicted of a domestic or family violence crime from holding a state gun permit.

The measure would close a gap between the state's gun regulations and federal rules.

According to Lamont's office, "anyone who has been convicted of domestic violence is automatically disqualified from owning a gun federally, but not from holding a state permit, and the definitions differ. This forces the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection to hold a time-consuming suitability hearing in each case."

Bysiewicz said the state should update its law to reflect the standard set at the federal level.

"We should do the same thing here in Connecticut because sadly we had more than a dozen women killed by intimate partners last year and domestic violence situations, and we've seen an increase in domestic violence rates in our state, especially during the pandemic," Bysiewicz during a press conference Monday.

Connecticut averages 14 intimate partner homicides per year, and firearms are still the most frequently used weapon in those deaths, according to the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Even the presence of a firearm, or an abuser's ability to access one, makes a victim five times as likely to be killed by their partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

"Taking action to keep guns out of the hands of those who have been convicted of family violence crime will save lives and create a safer community for all," Adam said.

Scanlon also applauded the proposal. "Keeping guns out of the hands of individuals who have been convicted of family violence crimes is a commonsense measure that has been proven to save lives."

(c)2022 the Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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