Federal funding cuts have put Yinaldis Sanchez in a position she would rather not be in. She files so many complaints of domestic violence and sexual assault that she is forced to prioritize them. She just can’t help everyone.
“Attention is not the same [for each case], and that’s what really crumbles our hearts. We don’t want to choose who we’re going to help,” said Sanchez, who has worked as a law enforcement advocate at the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center for the past three years.
Sanchez provides assistance to victims who have reported allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault to police in Coventry, East Greenwich, West Greenwich and, in recent months, Cranston. Sanchez took over Cranston’s caseload after another attorney left, and the position was not filled.
“In itself, Cranston needs a person,” she said. “Their load is huge.”
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It takes guts and courage to report a physical or sexual assault, advocates say. Multiply that by a thousand when the alleged abuser is someone you know or maybe even love.
For decades, victims, often women, have had a law enforcement advocate — like Sanchez — by their side as they take allegations to police and then pursue them in court. The lawyers offer support and advice on the intricacies of restraining orders and no contact orders, as well as advice on giving evidence at bail hearings and other legal proceedings. Additionally, they connect victims with housing, food assistance and counselling.
“That’s why it’s really, really important for the victim to have a law enforcement advocate. There are many, many hurdles that person has to jump through,” said Gina Scordino, director of advocacy services at the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center.
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Severe budget cuts lead to layoffs and heavy workloads
In recent years, the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center, like most agencies providing services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in Rhode Island, has experienced deep cuts in funding that pays for its advocacy work. . The cuts have forced some to lay off defenders or leave vacancies after staff leave to take up more stable and lucrative jobs. The remaining defenders are juggling heavier workloads than ever before.
Center Elizabeth Buffum Chace lost one of its three defensemen earlier this year, and due to dwindling funding, the center left the position open and filled the gaps, Scordino said. Sanchez and another lawyer are now helping police in Cranston, East Greenwich, West Greenwich, Coventry, North Providence and Johnston deal with cases of alleged domestic and sexual abuse. Additionally, the center expects to absorb clients in West Warwick and North Smithfield as Day One has stopped supplying lawyers in those communities, Scordino said.
“Advocacy, in general, is at the bottom of the fundraising list, which is crazy,” Scordino said. “The victims really need support and help.”
Sanchez estimates that she assists at least 25 clients a week through phone calls, referrals and court visits. She said she would like to be able to help 10-15 other people, but cannot due to time constraints. All she has to do now is play “God,” she says, and concentrate on the most serious cases.
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“The hardest thing is wanting to serve more people,” she said on a recent afternoon.
Despite the fact that her job can prove to be “exhausting,” Sanchez remains committed.
“I feel so determined in my job,” Sanchez said.
Resources for the Victims of Crime Fund have dropped
Law enforcement advocates, along with other services for victims of crime, are paid for by the Victims of Crime Fund, a federal program created in the mid-1980s that relies on fines and sentences imposed on federal defendants convicted at trial. The money is used to provide social services and compensation to victims of crime at no cost to taxpayers.
The Crime Victims Fund has declined sharply in recent years due to federal prosecutors’ increased reliance on deferred prosecutions and non-prosecution agreements, officials said. Additionally, any monetary penalties resulting from such lawsuits are directed to the General Treasury instead of the Crime Victims Relief Fund.
Prior to 2015, the Rhode Island Public Safety Grants Administration Office routinely received approximately $2 million in victim services grants each year – an amount that remained relatively stable and was distributed to agencies in the form of the Victims of Crime Act, or VOCA, grants. The money available increased for a period due to several major criminal settlements, peaking in 2018 when Rhode Island received more than $11 million, according to Maj. Laurie Ludovici of the State Police of Rhode Island.
Since then, financial aid has dropped to $3.7 million in 2021, down 66% from the peak in 2018, Ludovici said.
“All towns and villages were covered [with a law-enforcement advocate] until the last two years. These are devastating cuts,” said Peg Langhammer, executive director of Day One.
Her agency, which helps victims of sexual violence, has lost the ability to provide law enforcement advocates in Newport, Middletown, West Warwick and other communities, she said.
“There are a number of departments that we simply cannot cover,” she lamented.
The Rhode Island Public Safety Grants Administration Office received $9 million in funding applications in 2021 and would need $6.7 million to fund all existing initiatives, but it will only be able to issue about $4 million in agency rewards, Ludovici said.
Reed and Whitehouse get another $3.7 million for victims of crime
US Senators from Rhode Island, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, are among the congressional leaders who successfully lobbied this year for the so-called VOCA fix, a legislative package intended to bolster the Crime Victims Fund and bring some relief.
Signed into law by President Joe Biden in July, it allocated the state Department of Public Safety an additional $3.7 million for services to victims of crime. In addition, the act directs that settlements of non-prosecution and deferred prosecution agreements be deposited in the Victims of Crime Fund, instead of the General Consolidated Revenue Fund, to mitigate future dramatic reductions and stabilize the fund.
This legislation was an important step, but it will take some time for agencies to rebuild, according to Vanessa Volz, executive director of Sojourner House, a nonprofit that serves victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual violence and human trafficking.
“The last two years have been extremely impactful,” Volz said. “[VOCA grants] have all been eviscerated within the past two years.
Run to answer calls for help
The Blackstone Valley Advocacy Center recently lost its attorney for the Pawtucket Police Department, which means its remaining attorney now supports victims not just in that city, but in Central Falls, Lincoln and Cumberland, said Kimberly Demers, director community services in Blackstone.
“The workload is incredibly high. [Pawtucket] needs its own defender,” Demers said.
In practical terms, the cuts mean that instead of a lawyer being stationed at the police headquarters of a city or town on a given day, he will be rushing from place to place throughout the day to respond to calls for help.
“The reality is that our lawyer bounces from one police department to another as needed. It’s taking from one side to give to the other,” said Demers.
The cuts are being felt by police departments who have come to work hand in hand with law enforcement advocates.
“It means a lot to us. We want our [law-enforcement advocate] be there with them. Right off the bat, he’s someone they can contact,” Cumberland Police Deputy Chief Douglas Ciullo said.
Advocates act independently of police departments to provide advice and support while investigators focus on the criminal case. This victim-centred model, which has been accepted and implemented nationally, relies on involving advocates in a case as early as possible.
“There are a lot of things that come into play. Think about the trauma that’s involved,” Ciullo said. “It lets the victim know ‘you have a voice in the process’.”
The pandemic creates a “horrible” situation for victims of abuse
The cuts also come amid the pandemic, when people have been isolated at home for months, in some cases with their suspected abuser. Access to some courthouses was restricted due to health and safety measures, which Ciullo and others said posed additional barriers.
“The pandemic has been horrible in dealing with these cases,” Ciullo said.
Statewide statistics from the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence reflect an increase in calls to the state hotline and agency hotlines. In 2020, 17,690 calls for help were received, compared to 15,623 the previous year. The duration of calls and the needs have also increased in intensity, according to the coalition.
Advocates who work with victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and child molestation are pushing for the state to provide additional support through $1.1 billion in assistance from the American Rescue Plan Act that he received during the pandemic.
“Anytime we don’t have enough money to invest in resources, it absolutely puts people at risk,” Volz said. “A tiny part could close the gap.”
Langhammer wants to see continued support from the state and cities and towns, as well as the police departments themselves, in the future.
“We need the state to invest and commit to this program,” Langhammer said.
Tonya King, the coalition’s executive director, worries about the consequences of having to dismiss people in need.
“The reality is that these cuts are about more than numbers — these cuts are impacting the most vulnerable Rhode Islanders who face the most vital needs: victims of domestic and sexual violence,” King said in an e -mail. “Collectively, we should do everything we can to support these Rhode Islanders in grave danger. We must invest in their safety – survivors deserve so much more.