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Alaska Legislature

Domestic violence organizations face huge budget cuts and plead for help from the Alaska Legislature

A conference room at the AWAIC shelter on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 in Anchorage. Abused Women's Aid In Crisis (AWAIC) operates a domestic violence shelter and provides intervention, prevention and other services to victims of domestic violence. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

JUNEAU — Domestic violence shelters across Alaska are facing an unexpected budget shortfall, and many could be forced to close, officials warned the Alaska Legislature.

In impassioned testimony to the House Finance Committee last week, groups that aid domestic violence victims requested $6 million to fix a problem caused by a lack of federal funding. That request would be 0.13% of the state’s expected $4.3 billion operating budget, but the impact would be tremendous, the groups said.

“This state is facing devastating impacts when it comes to providing services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as other crimes. And we desperately need people to advocate on behalf of victims to ensure that we’re getting the support that we need financially from the state of Alaska,” said Suzi Pearson, director of AWAIC, which operates Anchorage’s only emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence.

The budget drafted by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration did not cut funding for domestic violence organizations, so those organizations were surprised when the director of the Alaska Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault announced on April 1 that a key federal grant had been cut by 34.6%, slashing available funding.

The cut, which would take effect July 1 at the start of the state fiscal year, is a result of a shortfall in the federal Crime Victims Fund, which pays for the grant. The fund is capitalized with money paid as a result of criminal settlements in white-collar crimes, but the number of those settlements fell significantly during the administration of President Donald Trump.

Since 2017, the fund’s balance has been on a steady decline, reducing the amount of money available for federal grants to domestic violence organizations.

The Council on Violence and Sexual Assault had been aware of the problem but believed it would be fixed by Congress in time to avoid problems, director Diane Casto wrote on April 1.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill to fix the problem, but it remains under consideration in the U.S. Senate. Even with a legislative fix, it could take two years for the Crime Victims Fund to recover from low deposits, said Carmen Lowry of the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

In the meantime, Alaska groups would face catastrophic cuts. Lowry has compiled a list of statewide impacts, but that list only shows dollar figures.

“Each community would make a decision about what (those cuts) would look like,” she said.

Bethel’s domestic violence shelter could be forced to close, said Eileen Arnold, executive director of the Tundra Women’s Coalition.

If not that, she told the House Finance Committee, she might have to close a center that aids children in need or lay off six to seven full-time staff.

“These are impossible choices and ones I don’t want to have to make,” she said.

AWAIC executive director Suzi Pearson poses for a photo on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 at her office. Abused Women's Aid In Crisis (AWAIC) operates a domestic violence shelter in Anchorage and provides intervention, prevention and other services to victims of domestic violence. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

In Anchorage, Pearson said AWAIC might have to lay off staff or reduce the number of available beds in its shelter. Help might be harder to come by.

Facing the federal cut, organizations have turned to the Alaska Legislature for help. Since the start of April, they have been lobbying hard and urging supporters to write and call lawmakers. State legislators could add money to the budget for the groups, filling the gap until Congress fixes the problem with the federal program.

The groups’ effort resulted in dozens of letters and impassioned public testimony last week and through the weekend as House lawmakers began to consider the state budget.

In written testimony, Sherry Miller said AWAIC offered critical help after her 19-year-old daughter was murdered.

“I can tell you from experience that the legal process is extremely overwhelming and agencies like Victims for Justice and Office of Victims’ Rights help our family navigate the process. I ask you to please, do not cut funding to these agencies,” she said.

The House Finance Committee is scheduled to consider the budget, including proposed amendments starting at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday and continuing Thursday and Friday.