Although money is always tight at the shelter run by the Council on Domestic Abuse in Terre Haute, the nonprofit can usually juggle its finances enough to keep the facility stocked with household items such as toilet paper and shampoo, provide the wide range of services domestic violence survivors need, and even supplement the donated food with better quality meats and fresh produce.
The juggling is not easy. Disconnect notices often arrive in the mail because the organization does not have the funds to pay the utility bills on time, donations of towels are sought after clients transition from the shelter and take the linens for their new homes, and the $35,000 line of credit is constantly being tapped.
However, this year the situation at CODA shifted from stressful to “extremely terrifying,” according to executive director Sarah Campbell.
The reason: a much longer-than-ordinary delay in the state and federal grant funding funneled through the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute. Domestic violence agencies such as CODA depend on victim services grants to support general operating expenses such as staff salaries and programming to help clients break free from their abusers.
A delay of a few months is not unusual, but since late summer 2018, the slowdown has extended to the point where some shelters are just now receiving payments for expenses they incurred last October.
Compounding the money crunch is that the funding always arrives to the nonprofits in arrears. The organizations are awarded a given amount, which they draw upon by submitting financial reports either monthly or quarterly to ICJI. Agencies’ checkbooks are often stretched since they only receive reimbursements for bills they have already paid and payrolls they have covered.
At CODA, the roughly $100,000 appropriation from the federal Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) grant, which was to cover costs tallied in October, November and December 2018, did not arrive the following February as typical. The nonprofit was able to get the money in early April after the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence intervened at the ICJI, but the hiccup in funding nearly forced CODA to unplug its crisis hotline, stop the case management and victim advocate services, and close the shelter.
When the bank accounts emptied, Campbell said, the 20 staff members voluntarily held off cashing their paychecks for five days while the board president sought a loan against her home, other board members prepared to take personal loans to cover expenses and a donation paid the $1,000 reconnect fee to get the power turned back on.
The worst was averted with the arrival of some grant money in what Campbell called a “miraculous day.”
Still, even though the grant money is being dispersed, service providers are continuing to suffer the consequences of the delay. Some have dipped into cash reserves and endowments, others have laid off staff and a few have closed outright. Replenishing the bank accounts and bringing back employees will divert resources from clients, while reopening a shelter likely will have to be done with only private dollars, which are difficult to raise, especially in smaller communities.
Turning Point Domestic Violence Services, based in Columbus, counts on nearly $1 million in VOCA funding for its annual budget, which is just over $2.7 million. While waiting for the October reimbursement of about $300,000, which finally came in May, the agency remained afloat by pulling money from its reserves and, for the first time, tapping into its line of credit.
However, as Turning Point President Lisa Shafran explained, the grant money will not cover the complete impact of the delay.
“The real bottom line is that it’s next to impossible for our staff and team workers to provide crisis services when they have their own crisis of not knowing if they’re going to get their next paycheck,” Shafran said. The grant money “won’t replace the amount of time the staff and I spent on this issue when it could have been used much more constructively. We’ll never get reimbursed for that.”
Domestic violence shelters and service providers draw mostly from the victim services money administered by ICJI. According to its fiscal year 2018 annual report, the institute administered more than $69 million in victim assistance funds from nine different funding streams into roughly 450 grants.
Will Wingfield, spokesman for ICJI, said processing the grant applications and reimbursement requests was becoming more costly and more difficult because the institute’s software systems were nearing the end of their usefulness. With the old software, ICJI had a tough time meeting the evolving grant requirements of state and federal governments, and it was having to walk paper contracts to the Indiana Department of Administration, State Budget Agency and Office of the Attorney General to get the documents reviewed and signed.
To make the process faster and more efficient, the institute launched two new electronic systems to handle grant management and electronic contracting in August 2018. IntelliGrants, the grant management system customized for Indiana, is being used by other states to administer the same federal monies, Wingfield said, and the electronic contracting system can communicate with other agencies in state government.
However, problems with the implementation of these systems has choked the flow of grant money to domestic violence programs. Wingfield would not detail the specific complications, but he acknowledged the launch has been troublesome.
“With any new system there are growing pains and we have certainly encountered those,” he said. “We’ve been doing everything in our power to expedite contracts and provide payment.”
The Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence is not as dependent on money from ICJI, receiving $746,572 every two years. Yet the bulk of that funding supports the nonprofit’s work in recruiting and training attorneys around the state who represent domestic abuse survivors in court for a modest fee.
The legal assistance includes securing protective orders, filing for divorce and getting child support. All of these are key to survivors’ economic stability, which is linked to their ability to break free of the abuser.
Although her agency has not been as hurt, Laura Berry, ICADV executive director, knows well the impact the delay in appropriations has caused domestic violence programs across Indiana. The hardships placed on the nonprofits and their employees have diverted attention from the survivors who desperately need help.
“This shouldn’t have happened, and we shouldn’t be closing programs,” Berry said, adding ICJI should have had the forethought in rolling out the new systems to have a backup plan if things did not function. “We’re at the point that it’s dire.”
After more than two decades providing beds and services for domestic violence survivors, the Adams Wells Crisis Center in Decatur closed its doors this month. The shelter burned through $80,000 in its savings account and almost exhausted its line of credit waiting for its reimbursement from ICJI. At a meeting that included “a lot of tears,” the board made the decision to relocate the residents to other shelters, lay off staff and cease operations.
The shelter received just shy of $300,000 annually from ICJI, which constituted about 65 percent of its yearly budget, said Barry Humble, president of the Adams Wells’ board. He and the other board members hope the closure is temporary, but reopening the 62-bed facility will probably have to be done with an even more restricted funding stream since it will not be able to claim any ICJI money for the period it is shut down.
Humble believes the institute should have gone to the Legislature and requested funding to carry the grantees until the electronic systems were fixed.
“When you’re sitting on $2 billion in a rainy-day fund and your government is the sole cause of why we don’t get money, then it seems to me to be a rainy day,” Humble said. This situation “seems to be hurting the most vulnerable people who’ve already been traumatized.”
Wingfield countered that dipping into the state’s surplus was unnecessary because the problem was not cash flow. The money was available, but ICJI had to ensure the requests for reimbursements met state and federal requirements.
Also, Wingfield said, since October, ICJI has distributed $13.15 million in victim services’ grant monies. The institute is “very close” if not caught up, on processing reimbursements, he said.
In Evansville, Kristie Byrns, executive director of the Albion Fellows Bacon Center, is hopeful the crisis is beginning to end.
ICJI funding covers 58 percent of her agency’s $1.3 million yearly budget. Albion served more than 400 people last year through its shelter, as well as through its direct services, legal advocacy and crisis response for victims of domestic abuse, stalking and human trafficking. During the first 16 days of May 2019, the center received more than 20 calls.
The YWCA Northeast Indiana in Fort Wayne made room in its 66-bed shelter to take some of the residents when Adams Wells closed. Paula Hughes-Schuh, CEO, said the ICJI funding is critical because it largely pays for the employees who work directly with the survivors. Having a well-trained, knowledgeable staff is irreplaceable in helping and encouraging clients to become self-sufficient.
To date, Hughes-Schuh is not holding her breath that the YWCA will receive its $300,000 reimbursement or that ICJI will get caught up quickly. She believes the grant system still has many problems, but she does not blame the institute’s staff for the mess.
“They are good people who are overwhelmed by the situation,” she said. “This was a system breakdown.”•