MADISON, Wis. (AP) – The Wisconsin Justice Department has warned organizations that help sexual assault victims to expect drastic reductions in state aid next year, a surprise move for an agency that has prided itself on capturing sexual predators.
Justice Department officials informed service providers around the state this month it plans to cut grants from its Sexual Assault Victim Services program by 42.5 percent this year. The announcement blindsided service providers who rely on the grants to pay for therapy, crisis intervention and education. They expected cuts, they said, but never thought they would be so dramatic.
“These are disastrous cuts,” Pennie Meyers, interim executive director of the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said in a statement. “(The cuts) will serious imperil our members’ ability to meet the needs of sexual assault survivors.”
The cuts pose a potential public relations black eye for the Justice Department as well. Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has made cracking down on sexual predators who prey on children via the Internet his signature issue. Now his agency plans to cut back on dollars that could help those predators’ victims.
Justice Department officials say they had to scale back the grants. Revenue from criminal surcharges that fund the grants has dwindled from $1.76 million in the year that ended in mid-2008 to $1.39 million for the year that ended in mid-2011, they said. The agency also must comply with mandates in the state budget that call for all state agencies to cut spending by 10 percent and find another $174.3 million on top of that.
Van Hollen implored Republicans who control the Legislature’s powerful finance committee to exempt Justice Department programs form the cuts to no avail.
“The perception is we’re responsible and we’re making the judgment that we think this is something that isn’t important. It is important,” said DOJ Executive Assistant Steve Means. “It doesn’t serve victims if we lay off people who investigate crimes and prosecute crimes. We really don’t have much choice here.”
The Sexual Assault Victim Services program was created in 1995. The program offers grants to nonprofit corporations that provide services such as counseling, crisis hotlines and educational programs designed to prevent sexual assault.
A Justice Department grants specialist sent a letter to service providers last month warning them of the 42.5 percent reductions. Service providers said they knew the program would likely see cuts as part of the 10 percent cut mandate but didn’t expect further reductions.
Terri DeWalt is the executive director of Sexual Assault Services, part of Lutheran Social Services, in Racine. She said her organization got a $50,000 grant last year. She budgeted for $45,000 this year, taking into account the 10 percent cut. Two weeks ago she discovered she’d get only $28,800.
The grants help fund four employees, including herself, who visit sex assault victims in hospitals, run a crisis telephone line and offer counseling. She said she didn’t know how she will absorb the cutbacks.
“I cannot support the staff we have on $28,000,” she said. “We don’t have an extra $21,000 from anywhere. We’ll have to cut back on our time and not serve as many victims.”
Michelle Arrowood, executive director of Avail Inc., a service provider in Antigo, said she expected a grant of $24,000 but now will receive $15,000. She uses the grant to fund two part-time employees who travel to schools and churches educating people about sexual abuse. She already has moved one of them to another position so she can use what’s left of the grant to fund the other.
She said now isn’t the time to pull back on sexual assault safety nets She expects more victims emboldened by the Penn State and Syracuse University sex abuse scandals to come forward.
“These educators are key because we can get out there in the world and talk to people about what to do if you’re sexually abused and how to prevent it,” Arrowood said. “At this point in time with Penn State and Syracuse University in the news people are looking to us for more information and leadership.”
The cuts aren’t final yet. The Department of Administration must approve them. Then it must submit them to the Legislature’s finance committee, which would automatically approve them unless a committee member objects. That would prompt a hearing.
Eric Peterson, chief of staff for Sen. Lena Taylor, a Milwaukee Democrat who sits on the committee, said Taylor will object to the grant cuts when they reach the panel.
“Any cut to a direct services program affects taxpayers, constituents, citizens,” Peterson said. “We should be applying these cuts across the bureaucracy, not to those programs that affect people, especially victims.”