Reader's Forum

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, My Sister’s Place domestic violence shelter is routinely full, leaving parents and children trying to escape family violence with nowhere to go. In 2020, we turned away 155 adults and 112 children, largely due to COVID compounding an already urgent need for domestic violence services.

We are grateful for the support we have received locally, from the Athens-Hocking-Vinton 317 Board, the Athens County Foundation, the Osteopathic Heritage Foundation, and others. Without them, these numbers would undoubtedly be much higher.

But in this most critical of times, My Sister’s Place was forced to make staffing and program reductions. We cut our court advocate’s hours in half and the hours of our children’s counselor by 25 percent. We discontinued many therapy offerings, and significantly reduced training options for staff.

We lost an emergency fund we previously used for small needs that made a big difference such as birth certificate fees, moving truck rentals, mattresses, and bus tickets.

All of this is due to a nearly 36 percent cut to my most important funding source – the Victims of Crime Act grant (VOCA). Grants to domestic violence programs in Ohio were cut by $7.7 million in October.

The state Attorney General’s Office has warned another VOCA cut of as much as 34 percent is expected this year. If I am forced in the future to make even more staff or program cuts, our ability to serve clients will significantly decrease.

It was a hopeful sign when in 2019 Ohio became one of 33 states that provide support for their programs. The $1 million budget annual allocation provided grants of $17,800 to 47 residential programs that year and $12,000 grants to 69 programs in 2020.

My Sister’s Place greatly appreciated the funding, which helped offset the more than $58,000 VOCA cut. But it is not enough support for a program that last year received 1,495 crisis calls, sheltered 49 survivors for 2,944 bed nights, provided legal advocacy to 52 survivors, and saw 76 survivors in counseling.

Our programs need a more generous, stable funding source they can count on. Next year, we need a $5 million annual line item, which would bring Ohio’s support for DV programs closer in line with other states. Among the 33 states that provide state domestic violence service support, Ohio’s support is the lowest on a per capita basis. Among our surrounding states, Ohio spends 9 cents per capita, compared to $1 in Michigan, $1.4 in West Virginia, $1.49 in Pennsylvania and $1.5 in Kentucky.

Meanwhile, the need for emergency shelter and support services for Ohio families struggling with domestic violence is greater now than ever. In the past five years, 23 children and seven law enforcement officials were killed by domestic violence abusers. Domestic violence fatalities in Ohio were up by 35 percent from July 2019 through June 2020, according to ODVN’s annual fatality count, and preliminary data shows that domestic violence homicides continue to rise around the country.

Like My Sister’s Place, Ohio’s domestic violence programs are struggling to respond to a spike in the number of families seeking help. Half of the state’s programs reported increases in the number of survivors seeking shelter, calls to the hotline or other requests for services in 2020 compared to 2019, according to a survey the Ohio Domestic Violence Network conducted in January. More than half (57 percent) the programs noted an increase in the severity of violence and injuries reported, including an alarming increase in strangulation.

At My Sister’s Place, flexible funding enables us to creatively problem solve the many barriers to the safe, independent housing survivors need. An increase in line item funding would mean meeting those needs with unique solutions. In addition, we could confidently restore the critical staffing hours we cut, bringing a full range of services to families eager to create full lives, free of abuse.

Ohio’s elected and executive branch officials must be prepared to fully support domestic violence programs on the front lines by supporting an increase in the domestic violence survivor services line item from $2 million to $10 million. Victims in crisis depend on us. Ohio’s domestic violence programs and communities are relying on legislative support to keep families safe.

Editor's note: Cooke is the executive director of My Sister's Place.

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