March 27, 2002 – Three out of four of the not-for-profit agencies on the front lines in helping victims of domestic violence and child abuse in the territory say they are on the brink of financial collapse. And the fourth admits to being short of funds because of government cuts.
This month, the Safety Zone on St. John and Family Resource Center on St. Thomas, have sounded public alarms about strained resources, both fiscal and human. Both say they may be forced to close their doors and that promised action by a group of concerned lawmakers may not come in time to prevent that.
Last week, the board and executive director of Family Resource Center took a hard look at whether it is feasible for the 16-year-old agency to keep its doors open, given that the V.I. government has slashed its funding while continuing to refer more clients than ever. (See the St. Thomas Source story "Family Resource Center 'can't do more with less'.")
Meanwhile, the executive director of the Safety Zone says she can no longer work with half pay or no pay. And the director of the third agency, Kidscope, says reductions in aid from the V.I. government have left it short of funds needed to cover operating expenses.
The fourth agency, Women's Coalition of St. Croix, is short of funds because of government budget cuts, co-director Mary Mingus says, but vigorous fund-raising efforts by a broad base of volunteers has helped the agency create an endowment fund to help ensure its future.
Both Safety Zone and the Family Resource Center leaders say they are relying on promises by members of the 24th Legislature to push for restoration of the $150,000 funding request submitted as part of the Fiscal Year 2002 budget. At the end of the budget process last fall, funds were cut to $60,000.
In the case of Family Resource Center, government money may materialize next week, Sen. Carlton Dowe said Wednesday, and promised assistance is on the way for the other agencies.
Dowe said that he and Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole had agreed to sponsor an appropriation of $100,000 to help the various agencies out. The bill was to have been introduced during the full Senate session scheduled for April 16, he said, but when the session was postponed until late May, he called Ira Mills, director of the Office of Management and Budget, to see what could be done in the meantime.
According to Dowe, Mills has agreed to expedite the third- and fourth-quarter FY 2002 payments to Family Resource Center under the current allotment schedule. Dowe said that with the cooperation of the Finance Department, Mills hoped to cut a check for the agency within a week.
Meanwhile, Dowe said, with the support of six colleagues so far, he plans to introduce the supplement appropriation measure during the rescheduled full Senate session, now set for May 22-24. "I'm confident that the appropriation will happen," he said.
A large percentage of the clients who benefit from the professional counseling, crisis intervention and referral services provided by these agencies are referred by the Human Services Department. Commissioner Sedonie Halbert said she knows the domestic violence service agencies are in trouble. And, she added, without their help, a lot of the people referred to them for help would be in even more trouble. "It means the demands on our department would be greater, which means we wouldn't be able to provide the kind of quality care they need," she said.
The local government's appropriation for these services is through the miscellaneous expenditures section of the executive budget. But Halbert said the Legislature approved the Fiscal Year 2002 budget as a line-item budget instead of giving departments their usual lump-sum amounts. Because of this, she said, she is unable to shift balances to address pressing financial needs such as those now apparent at the domestic violence agencies.
In spite of the restrictions, Halbert said, she will do all she can to ease the financial burden for the Family Resource Center and the Women's Coalition of St. Croix — which are sub-grantees of Human Services providing critical care for individuals and families in crisis.
Halbert said she could not offer a similar promise for the other agencies. "I don't even know if I can say I have monies to award for Safety Zone — but I would if I could, because the people of St. John deserve those kinds of services," she said.
Where the department cannot itself provide funding, she said, Human Services turns to its research and resource development unit, which seeks out financial aid alternatives and shares the information with entities that need help.
Halbert said that throughout her years of service, the greatest rise in the Human Services caseload has been "abused children and adolescent cases … particularly our girls. I find we are having a lot of runaway teen-age girls, many of whom are sexually abused by male relatives."
The Safety Zone
For Iris Kern, executive director at Safety Zone, the need couldn't be greater. The agency's only paid staff member, Kern said she relinquished her salary for two of the six years the agency has been in existence. Last year, she said, she was able to draw down half pay. Now, she says, "I'm not willing to do that anymore."
Kern also said she is under the gun from having to perform the multiple tasks of administrator, crisis counselor, public advocate and chief fund raiser. Juggling these various jobs proved costly recently, she said, when she found herself completing two grant applications at the same time. For one, "There was a misunderstanding over the deadline," she said.
Discovering the error, she said, she called the Law Enforcement Planning Commission, where she was told to send in the paperwork anyway, only to be told later that the funding source was holding firm to its deadline and therefore denying the application.
"We're not in trouble because of local money," Kern said. "I've got that money. It's federal money, which represents about $50,000." She added, "We have survived for the last five months without any government funding."
In 2001, she said, Safety Zone provided intervention services, crisis counseling and referrals for 243 clients on an island with a population of less than 5,000. An anonymous donor recently gave $5,000, and an emergency fund-raising concert is scheduled for April 7. But after a disappointing showing at a recent charity art auction, Kern said, she's "hopeful but not optimistic" about the results.
But if some form of help is not forthcoming, she said, the agency will be forced to close.
"We're hurting very badly, too," Dilsa Capdeville, founder and director of Kidscope, said. "We're struggling. We're smaller than the other places. We've lost money from all the places FRC has lost funding, that Safety Zone has lost."
Capdeville, who for years was on the staff of Family Resource Center, then known as Women's Resource Center, founded Kidscope four years ago specifically to help children who have been abused, neglected or molested and their families. She said 70 percent of Kidscope's revenues come from federal funding, and the agency is suffering because of cuts in grant funding provided through LEPC.
One of the items cut was funding that went to pay rent, Kidscope administrator Carmen O'Garro said, and this has added urgency to her search for grants and donations. Ten percent of the agency's funding has come from the V.I. government. "We've been appropriated funds, but we have not been able to get all the funds," O'Garro said.
As perilous as the situation is, Capdeville said, she is not ready to give up. She is hoping that private donations — like one recently received from the V.I. Bar
Association — will help her agency to meet the needs of young rape and child abuse victims, which she described as the fastest-growing segment of people in need of crisis intervention.
Family Resource Center
"When funding is not [provided] on a timely basis, or is cut for some unknown reason, it puts the whole center in a crisis," Maria Ferreras, Family Resource Center board chair, said.
Ferreras said she got word of the FY 2002 budget cut on Dec. 12, when she went to draw down funds to pay the salaries of seven critical-care workers. Local government funds account for about a third of their salaries. At about the same time, the St. Thomas center found itself facing an eviction notice, although Ferreras said the landlord had been very understanding. "They carried us for 16 months," she said.
Expenses of moving into a new building were met in part through a $40,000 fund-raising effort by FRC board members, but Ferreras said that wasn't enough to address all of the agency's basic needs.
After agonizing over the situation, Ferreras brought a motion to the March 21 board meeting that the center would close by April 30 unless funds were restored. She described it as one of the hardest decisions of her life. She said the thought of a child who has found refuge in one of the agency's domestic violence shelters reading in a newspaper that his or her safe place was about to be taken away left her sleepless for the two nights prior the meeting.
After that meeting received media attention, OMB's Mills said he was trying to arrange for advance quarterly payments of the budgeted allocations. But Ferreras said she is doubtful that additional action will come from the Senate in time, in spite of pledges from about half a dozen lawmakers, including Cole, Dowe, Lorraine Berry and Emmett Hansen II.
Ferreras, Kern and Capdeville said they had heard from lawmakers offering sympathy for their plight and a plan for relief.
Ferreras said that when she expressed the urgency of the situation to lawmakers and executive branch officials, she was advised that she might have to lay off some staff members. But, she said, every member of the FRC staff is essential to meeting the needs of the hundreds of people who turned to the agency for help. "We can't lay off one-third of a person," she said.
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