Advocacy groups in Washington, D.C., are calling on the mayor to amend her latest budget proposal that would decrease funding for victim services, citing a rise in domestic violence reports during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mayor Muriel Bowser allocated $94 million to the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants, almost an 11% decrease from the year before. The decrease in her annual budget proposal coincides with a rise in domestic violence reports in Washington, with advocates saying their offices have seen a record number of calls in the last two years.
“We are specifically worried, not only because we want to get some baseline coverage for the way that we’ve expanded during COVID, but we’re also tripling the impact of our shelter program next year, and we need to know if our operations are secure,” said Bridget Claborn, the communications director for DC SAFE, a crisis intervention agency.
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In 2021, DC SAFE reported supporting a record number of 11,448 district residents — a 57% increase from the year before. The organization’s call volume nearly tripled during that same time frame, reporting more than 38,000 calls compared to the typical 11,000 the office would see in one pre-pandemic year, according to the organization.
The budget for victim services nearly doubled last year for fiscal year 2022, partly due to an influx of cash from federal COVID-19 aid. As a result, the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants received $105,944,909 — a sharp increase from the year before.
However, advocates with the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which represents service providers throughout Washington, said the mayor’s budget would need to allocate about $28 million more than last year’s budget to address the growing need.
The mayor’s proposal also requests a $30 million increase to the police budget next year as Bowser seeks to curb rising crime and violence in the district. However, Claborn argues police funding isn’t the only way to increase safety.
“Any investment in victim services is not just victim services,” Claborn said. “It’s a form of crime prevention, and it’s cost-saving for the city.”
According to the mayor's office, the claims that the budget would decrease funding are misleading as the victim services office wouldn't actually be losing out on financial support. Government agency budgets are allocated based on the previous year's budget minus any one-time payments, such as discretionary funds for public safety groups, said OVSJG Director Michelle Garcia.
"We're actually seeing an increase in terms of investments for victim services," Garcia told the Washington Examiner. "Where we're seeing the decrease is with the American Rescue Plan Act funds, as these dollars are specifically funds that are to respond to negative public health or economic impacts that were created or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic."
Many of these one-time payments may have fulfilled requests that existed before the pandemic, prompting concerns among advocacy organizations that needs would no longer be met with budget cuts. However, the mayor's office included more than $4 million in its proposal to address needs that may have been exacerbated by the pandemic and had received a one-time payment.
"We recognize the concerns that are being raised by service providers, which is why the mayor has made specific increased investments in victim services in the fiscal year 2023 budget, that will allow OVSJG to respond to those needs," Garcia said.
Another reason these offices are experiencing cuts, according to Garcia, is that the district is expanding the number of victim service organizations that will receive funding. This, in turn, will bring “more providers to the table to ensure that victims and survivors all across the District have access to the types of services that meet their needs," she said during an oversight hearing with the Council of the District of Columbia on April 6.
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The city's victim services office is not the only funder of victim services in Washington, D.C., Garcia added, noting that advocacy organizations can also receive funding from local agencies dedicated to providing support.
The district's council is set to review the mayor’s requests before approving Washington's yearly budget, after which it is subject to a passive 30-day congressional review.