A domestic violence arrest. During an economic downturn, domestic violence often increases. (Photo: Nubar Alexanian)
The ripple effect of the economic crisis has multiplied in ways that many of us could never imagine: banks folding, stock markets diving, and an astronomical government bailout.
For victims of domestic violence, the impact of this downward economic spiral could be deadly.
Economic stresses often lead to more frequent abuse, more violent abuse, and more dangerous abuse when domestic violence already exists. Domestic violence programs report that victims experience an increase in abuse in part because out-of-work abusers have more opportunity to batter. Rhode Island, for example, has recently seen a 25 percent increase in felony-level domestic violence crimes. Victims end up with fewer opportunities to contact programs for help, attend support groups, or get away from the batterer.
Compounding the problem, domestic violence programs face a trio of economic factors - cuts in federal funding, increased demand for services, and decreased private donations as people lose their jobs or see a downturn in their personal finances. These budget constraints make it more difficult for local programs to meet the needs of their communities.
In 2007, the National Network to End Domestic Violence conducted its second annual 24-hour census of domestic violence shelters and programs across the nation. The census report found that in one day, more than 53,000 women, men, and children across the country received services from domestic violence programs. Over 25,000 of those individuals - more than half were children - found refuge in emergency domestic violence shelters or transitional housing.
Yet tragically, on that same day, more than 7,700 victims who sought services from their local domestic violence programs were not served because the programs didn't have enough funding and resources. Programs in Massachusetts reported 309 unmet requests for services due to a critical shortage of funds and staff.
An equally alarming statistic is the three-fold increase in domestic violence related homicides between 2005 and 2007 in Massachusetts. Researcher Jaclyn Campbell has identified two key risk factors in relation to domestic violence homicides: limited access to services for victims and unemployment for batterers.
And this situation existed before the current economic crisis.
So while the focus has been on the financial crisis, we must also plan for how we are going to protect victims of domestic violence.
On the federal level, two key funding sources to serve millions of victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other crimes must be restored. In 2008, the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act budget was slashed by $2.1 million. Congress has capped the Victims of Crime Act, a federal grant program funded entirely by fines and penalties paid by offenders without any taxpayer dollars. President-elect Barack Obama and Congress should increase funding levels for both programs.
Meanwhile, both the federal and state governments can look to Massachusetts for an example on how to reach victims. A recent public service announcement features Diane Patrick talking about domestic violence. It was produced by Jane Doe Inc. with funding from the Commonwealth's Department of Public Health - an effective private-public collaboration that can be replicated across the country.
Governor Deval Patrick opted not to cut any funding from the sexual assault and domestic violence line items in his recent budget cuts. This continued investment in both intervention services and prevention efforts offers short- and long-term savings for the Commonwealth in terms of both financial costs and lives saved. Already these efforts are proving their worth: despite the worsening economy, there has not been a domestic violence homicide in Massachusetts since the end of September.
We must provide services for every victim in every community, but nonprofit organizations and the government cannot do it without a robust investment of private philanthropy and volunteerism. This crisis affects each of us - and requires each of us to take action.
Mary R. Lauby is executive director of Jane Doe Inc. Sue Else is president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.