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Unsafe at Home: Groups that fight abuse struggle over funding

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

In 30 years of operation, Citizens Against Spouse Abuse has weathered plenty of ups and downs in the economy, but the last few years have been some of the toughest for the agency.

Since the recession started, it has lost more than 40 percent of its operating budget, estimates JoAnne Patterson, CASA’s director.

The group, which serves Georgetown and Horry counties, received $710,142 in grants, contributions and other revenue in the 2010 fiscal year, a decrease of more than $90,000 over the prior year, according to its most recent filing with the IRS. They ended the year with a deficit of more than $167,000.

From 2007 to 2010, its total assets dropped from $272,576 to $155,600, largely a result of having to sell off condos the agency maintained as transitional housing. The group now works with agencies such as the Georgetown Housing Authority to provide transitional housing to victims of domestic violence.

“The economic downturn hasn’t just affected people, the housing market and jobs. Agencies like CASA and other nonprofits all over the country are suffering,” Patterson said. “There aren’t as many grants available and funds across the board are down.”

CASA gets most of its funding from the state Department of Public Safety, which issued a 30 percent cut for all grant funding this year, affecting all agencies that rely on the department for funds, Patterson said.

“It didn’t just happen to us. We talked to our sister agencies and they’re in the same position as us, having to eliminate programs and staff,” she said. “We’re already down to the bare minimum.”

As a new agency, the Family Justice Center in Georgetown is also struggling, but it faces a slightly different challenge.

“We’re just trying to break into some of the grant cycles,” said Joan Meacham, the center’s interim executive director. “I would say we’re 80 percent funded by private donations.”

The center’s budget is about $100,000 with only two full-time employees. The budget will grow to about $180,000 when the center reaches a point where it can be fully staffed, including the addition of a permanent director. As interim director, Meacham currently receives $100 a week to pay for gasoline, and she donates that back to the agency.

Her dream for the center is that it will eventually add a full-time attorney to handle orders of protection as well as other legal needs of victims who come to the center, and a full-time counselor and court advocate, bringing the number of staff members up to five with the director and existing case manager.

The center opened its doors at the start of the year, though Safe Families, the group that started the center, had a makeshift location on Front Street for several years.

“One thing is that most of the nonprofits that work in the areas of domestic violence and sexual assault, it’s pretty much the same funding stream they’re going after and the competition is fierce,” Meacham said.

Patterson said that’s what ultimately led CASA to sever its partnership with the center, which was established to be a one-stop location where victims of domestic violence could seek help. The center’s building on Highmarket Street offers space for agencies ranging from law enforcement to counselors and court advocates to set up under one roof, keeping victims from having to go from office to office to access the services they need. They also have a partnership with St. Frances Animal Center that allows victims to bring pets with them when they leave their abuser.

Originally, CASA was supposed to be one of the center’s partner agencies, but Patterson said once it found that the new nonprofit would be competing for grant funds to offer some of the same services as CASA, it pulled out. She said she felt misled about the center’s mission. She believed its sole purpose was to provide a roof for existing agencies to come together to help victims. She didn’t realize there would be a “duplication of services,” such as counseling, she said.

For an agency already having a hard time thanks to shrinking funding sources, another group to compete with for funds to offer the same services to the same geographic area is a major hardship, Patterson said.

The center was straightforward about its plans from the start, Meacham said, and wanted to collaborate with CASA for grant opportunities.

“We’re always trying to pursue collaborative grant opportunities with other agencies. We’re not necessarily trying to compete,” Meacham said. “Collaboration among agencies is the future of providing services.”

Additionally, she said the services provided by the center aren’t a duplication. The center employs a case manager, Linda Collins, who used to work for CASA, and has volunteer counselors, but its approach to victims is more long-term than CASA’s. However, Patterson, argues that point.

Meacham said she was told by Vicki Bourus, a former executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, the center would be remiss if it didn’t apply for grant funding. Bourus is now a member of the center’s advisory board.

“No nonprofit should be dictated to as to what grants they can apply for,” Meacham said. “We asked them numerous times to collaborate on funding.”

If one or both of the agencies aren’t receiving funding, “the loser is our clients,” she said.

Such rifts between agencies are common when family justice centers open in communities and start looking for funding, said Mehry Mohseni of the Family Justice Center Alliance, which works with centers worldwide, providing technical assistance, training and consulting. The alliance has a protocol in place to help centers work with agencies so they don’t “step on each other’s toes when they’re going after the same pot of money.” The protocol includes a written agreement that has the agencies work cooperatively.

Officials with CASA and the Family Justice Center in Georgetown say it’s unfortunate they haven’t been able to reach an agreement so they can work together. But both agencies are moving forward with their missions separately and the center still refers clients to CASA when they need shelter. CASA is the only agency in the area that operates safe houses for victims of domestic violence.

There are a number of ways to help victims of domestic violence through agencies such as the Family Justice Center and CASA.

Funding is, of course, at the top of the list.

“A lot of people are embarrassed to ‘just write a check,’ ” Patterson said. They tell her they feel like they should be doing more, working hands-on with the agency, but “we’re allright with a write-a-check mentality,” Patterson added with a grin.

Private donations go a long way to fill gaps left by restricted or missing grant funds.

That’s something CASA and the Family Justice Center can agree on. The center hasn’t received much in the way of grant funds yet and, in some ways, being funded predominately by private donations is a good thing.

“The plus of not getting a lot of grant money is we’re very strong and very fiscally sound when we go to apply for grant money,” Meacham said. “They can see that private donations have sustained us for going on five years. And with private funds we can create our own programs and hire our own staff without a lot of strings attached.”

Volunteers are also a top need. Without the funds to hire full-time staff, the center is working to assemble a volunteer coalition.

“There are a tremendous amount of volunteer opportunities,” Meacham said. “We need more counselors and volunteer advocates. We have three attorneys who volunteer services now, but we can always use more.”

The center also needs people to provide child care in its children’s room, to answer the phone and do general office work.

CASA’s volunteer needs include everything from Spanish-speaking translators to transportation volunteers to people willing to speak at events to help educate the community about domestic violence.

People can work with kids at the agency’s safe houses, leading them in arts and craft activities, or serve as mentors to women looking to start over and needing to learn life skills.

“It’s difficult because a lot of times volunteers can’t do the meaningful lifesaving work, and when they realize they can’t do counseling and things, they leave,” Patterson said. “But there are so many other things we need.”

How to help

For more information or to donate time or money contact:

CASA: Call 626-7595 or go to the website.

To read previous stories in the series, click here.

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