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From left: Defy Domestic Abuse Beloit Survivor Advocate Chianta Jefferson, Survivor Advocate Mandy Chitwood, Director of Survivor Empowerment Services Kelsey Hood-Christenson, Human Trafficking Survivor Advocate Jennifer Carlson and Survivor Advocate Tiffany Mercaitis.

BELOIT — Local organizations in Rock County helping support victims of domestic violence and sexual assault say a newly introduced bill by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, could remedy a funding gap that would have devastated operations and jeopardized the high level of care for assault survivors.

Baldwin introduced a bill to strengthen the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) by fixing how the crime victims fund is replenished.

The legislative adjustment would redirect money from federal deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements in resolved criminal cases for the crime victims fund, increasing funding needed for state victim compensation and assistance programs.

“This innovative solution uses no new taxpayer dollars, and I’m glad to see it incorporated into our new bipartisan reform that will ensure that crime victims—including those suffering from domestic abuse, child abuse, sexual violence and elder fraud and abuse, among others, continue to receive the services and assistance they deserve,” Baldwin said.

VOCA funding is typically awarded through grants, and grant awards have decreased since 2019. In Wisconsin, victim assistance grants were cut by nearly 80% between 2018 and 2021. Funding in 2018 totaling over $58 million and estimated 2021 levels standing at $12.7 million, Baldwin said.

Statewide, VOCA awards account for $44 million in funding directly to local organizations. Further cuts to VOCA at the federal level would reduce funding levels to Wisconsin service providers by more than half in the next few years.

In the Stateline Area, Family Services oversees a number of programs aimed at protecting and advocating for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Locally, Defy Domestic Abuse Beloit and the Sexual Assault Recovery Program (SARP) work to help victims in the Rock County area.

Director of Survivor Empowerment Services Kelsey Hood-Christenson said the organizations received over $1 million in VOCA funding last year and added that the funds have helped grow services in Beloit.

Through VOCA funding, Defy Domestic Abuse Beloit and SARP have added staff and increased outreach to help victims get out of dangerous situations.

“We’ve shifted more of our resources to focus on contacting survivors sooner,” Hood-Christenson said. “There’s been a really strong push for outreach and to raise the exposure level of our services. We want to be as proactive as possible and that’s really where our service model is headed.”

If funding cuts were made permanent to VOCA, Hood-Christenson said the organizations would have to reevaluate staffing levels and potentially have to reduce services.

In the wake of Baldwin’s announcement, Hood-Christenson said Family Services was “pleased” by the push to secure funding for years into the future.

“We hope that this does not become a partisan issue: political affiliation does not prevent victimization. We see in the faces and stories of those we serve the value of victim-centered resources,” she said.

Director of Public Policy and Systems Change at End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin Jenna Gormal said the legislative fix was “vital” in providing service that support survivors of assault.

“Sen. Baldwin’s solution is the centerpiece of the bipartisan VOCA Fix to Sustain the Crime Victims Fund Act and we hope to see this important legislation signed into law,” Gormal said.

The legislation has been endorsed by more than 1,680 national, state and tribal organizations.