July 21, 2024

At a loss: NC rape crisis centers struggle as federal funds dry up | WFAE 90.7

There are cubicles but no distinct offices, the room a hum of soft voices and the scratching of pens on paper. The overhead fluorescent lights are off, and the natural light gives the wide space a calming, rather than corporate, feel.

Across the white walls, bright signs draw the eye: “This space was made with you in mind.” “I’ll tell you what freedom means to me: no fear.” “I believe survivors I believe survivors I believe survivors.”

This center in Chapel Hill, N.C., is the kind of space that Ellie Macksood would’ve liked to find in 2021. Somewhere she could feel safe, sit for a while. Among clicking keyboards and soothing conversations: somewhere where her experience isn’t only believed, but understood.

In March 2021, Macksood, a first-year at the University of Madison, Wisconsin, was sexually assaulted twice in her dorm room by another student.

For a while, Macksood didn’t understand what had happened. It was only after a conversation with an old roommate who experienced something similar that she realized she had been raped.

“She explained to me, ‘Just so you know, that’s not OK. That is rape.’” Macksood said. “Hearing that word, which is so stigmatized, was shocking.”

Macksood turned to her parents, who helped her begin private therapy. But she still didn’t feel safe on campus—between every class, her eyes scanned masses of students for his face. The next month, her parents helped her get a lawyer, and a year and a half later, she won her Title IX case, resulting in the man’s expulsion from the university.

Because Macksood’s assault occurred on campus, she was able to use student resources for a Title IX investigation. But for victims of sexual assault or domestic violence who don’t live on a college campus and lack the means to seek private therapy or legal action, one of their only options for support are crisis centers: specialized, public spaces that offer trainings, programs and a 24-hour helpline.

And because of a federal funding glitch, those centers are nearly out of money.

Funding cuts

Domestic violence and rape crisis centers receive their funding from the Crime Victims Fund, which was created through the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) in 1984. It provides federal money to states for victim assistance and programs that offer support to those affected by violent crimes.

The fund is filled by revenue that comes from the prosecution of white-collar criminals. Each state is allotted funds and is required to distribute a minimum of 10 percent of the revenue to three priority areas in victims services: domestic violence, child abuse and sexual violence.

But in 2017, after the switch in presidential administrations, the Department of Justice prosecuted far fewer federal cases than in past years. The COVID-19 pandemic further decreased the number of federal prosecutions, with cases resulting in settlement fines that went into the general U.S. Treasury, not the Crime Victims Fund.

By the time the Justice Department fixed the glitch with the VOCA Fix Act of 2021, in which settlement fines were rerouted into the Crimes Victims Fund, the damage was done. In 2018, North Carolina received more than $100 million in VOCA assistance funds, and last year, that number was down to about $40 million.

The Orange County Rape Crisis Center in Chapel Hill is one crisis center that has felt the strain of the underfunding, Executive Director Rachel Valentine said.

“Four years ago, we were receiving somewhere around $800,000 a year in federal funds to support the center—and that was the core of our funding, it was like 70-to-80 percent of our money,” Valentine said. “Now, we’re getting less than $200,000 and anticipating that being even less moving forward.”

The same thing is happening across the state. There are about 80 victim services centers in North Carolina, with only three or four of them being standalone rape crisis centers rather than combined domestic and sexual violence centers.

The state’s VOCA funds are distributed to those victim services agencies through a grant application process administered by the Governor’s Crime Commission, a group appointed by the governor that consists of government leaders such as Attorney General Josh Stein and Kinston Mayor Dontario Hardy, and a mix of law enforcement officials, educators, lawyers and private citizens.

Funds have been building back up since the glitch was fixed, but the relief won’t come overnight, said Holly Jones, the senior policy advisor and program manager at N.C. Department of Justice and who works closely with Stein.

“It’s going to be a while before we’re back to where we were before the problem started,” Jones said. “What we’re feeling right now and what Orange County’s feeling right now is no joke, these VOCA restriction cuts.”

Staying afloat

Valentine said that Orange County Rape Crisis Center had been able to weather the cuts in the past few years due to COVID-era supports like the American Rescue Plan Act and small business association loans. But now the COVID relief has dried up, too.

a woman's desk with her hand using the mouse of her computer while working at the Orange County Rape Crisis Center
A staff member at the Orange County Rape Crisis Center works on their computer.

In 2022, the center employed 20 staff members. In 2023, they had to let 10 of them go.

In addition to the 50 percent cut in staff, the center’s services have also taken a blow, Valentine said.

“We’ve had some great programs over the last few years to really advance the vision of a rape crisis center without walls: trying to equip more people in our community with the skills to support survivors,” Valentine said. “There’s so many that are now dead in the water.”

Among the canceled services are a Latino outreach program, a program that supported trans survivors of color, a trauma care collaborative that brought together therapists to do trauma-focused professional development and a variety of other trainings that focused on cultural competency, working with sex workers and sexual trauma.

But there are a few services that the center will never allow to be shut down, Valentine said.

“Our core services are the things that we’re just always going to protect no matter what,” Valentine said. “The 24-hour helpline: that’s got to stay. That’s what a rape crisis center is. We’re going to celebrate 50 years of service next year—we’ve had a crisis line all 50 years.”

In addition to the helpline, the center will retain its hospital accompaniment program that sends companions to be with survivors who have recently been assaulted; long-term advising on financial goals, stabilization goals and legal matters; peer support groups; clinical therapy; prevention programs in schools; and community organizing for safety.

Staying afloat might not be possible for other centers across the state, especially those in underprivileged and under-resourced areas, Valentine said.

“We’re all kind of swapping survival tactics,” Valentine said. “I would say we’re one of the more fortunate organizations because we’re in a community that values our work and has the means to support some version of it. We’re not at risk for shuttering our doors, and I can’t say that’s true for every other rape crisis center in the state.”

Uptick in sexual violence

The underfunding of these centers comes at a time when sexual violence is at a new high, Jones said.

“It couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” Jones said. “There’s a CDC report that came out which found that one in 10 young women have been forced to have sex. The need is never higher for outreach, prevention and engagement.”

That number has increased by 27 percent since 2019, according to the 2023 CDC report. A lot of this violence was exacerbated during the pandemic, said Lauren Schwartz, director of the Solace Center at InterAct of Wake County, an agency that supports survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

“A lot of folks were not working and isolated at home: people were losing jobs, there was a financial crisis,” Schwartz said. “And we certainly saw an increase in child abuse and domestic violence and sexual assault.”

Amid this crisis, government figures such as Stein emphasize the importance of keeping the crisis centers funded, Jones said.

“This is on the forefront of his mind as it relates to the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault because local programs are where survivors go, that’s where they get help,” Jones said. “So we’ve got to keep them going.”

The sector of sexual violence protection that Stein has focused on most heavily is dealing with the statewide backlog in sexual assault evidence kits.

Those kits are a way of collecting evidence from victims of assault within 24 hours of being raped. After the kit is completed at the hospital, it gets tested and processed at a lab for a DNA match in the system, which can result in criminal action for the assailant and justice for the survivor. But state to state, backlogs vary heavily, and some kits can remain untested for years.

North Carolina once had one of the worst kit backlogs in the country, with as many as 16,000 kits sitting untested in police custody in 2019. When Stein started his term, he made it a priority to reduce the backlog.

Now, about 80 percent of North Carolina’s outstanding kits have been processed or are undergoing testing. DNA matches are rare, but getting a sexual assault evidence kit increases the possibility that a victim will receive justice, even if it’s years down the line.

In order for victims to receive justice, however, it’s important that they first feel safe in reporting the assault—a process that can feel intimidating, Macksood said.

“It’s scary to come forward,” Macksood said. “And I think that’s also another reason there is such a stigma, because even if you do come forward: I’ve lost friends, people didn’t believe me, I’ve also had people be like, ‘You’re being dramatic.’”

Finding support

Despite the backlash she received, Macksood said leaning on her support system and utilizing resources is what got her to where she is today.

“I was in a really dark place until I got help, and I’m still getting help today,” Macksood said. “If I didn’t get help, I honestly would have dropped out of school.”

And victims aren’t the only ones who can benefit from seeking public or private resources about sexual violence.

“One cool thing about support services is that they can also be for people who actually haven’t experienced trauma, but are helping people go through trauma,” Macksood said. “My parents actually went to therapy to figure out how to deal with this.”

A colorful sign at a rape crisis center that reads
The sign near the entrance of the Orange County Rape Crisis Center.

That sentiment is reflected by a training run by the Violence Prevention & Advocacy Services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The training, called HAVEN, provides students, faculty and staff with the tools to support someone who has experienced sexual assault, violence or stalking, said Shelley Gist Kennedy, a violence prevention coordinator.

“In 2023, over 200 students, staff and faculty completed HAVEN Training,” Gist Kennedy said. “We have seen an increase in interest in HAVEN Training this semester and look forward to expanding the number of people in our community who have the tools to be an ally to those who have experienced gender-based violence.”

From private therapy to university programs to public crisis centers, there are spaces throughout the state where victims will be heard, believed and understood.

“If you have nobody, these are public places where somebody is there for you,” Macksood said. “So nobody has nobody.”

But the underfunding of victim services nationwide remains a problem without a clear solution, Valentine said. “We’re trying to get the word out as much as we can that things are going to look different.

“There’s going to be waiting lists, but we’re not going anywhere. And you should still call us — don’t stop calling. Please keep calling.”

UNC Media Hub is a cohort of students from various concentrations within UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media who collaborate to produce top-tier integrated media packages covering stories across North Carolina.

This article first appeared on North Carolina Health News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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