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Crime victims getting stimulus money amid downturn

The government's economic stimulus money isn't just for hard hats, contractors and teachers. It's also keeping battered women's advocates on the job and compensating crime victims for lost wages and uncovered medical costs.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The government's economic stimulus money isn't just for hard hats, contractors and teachers. It's also keeping battered women's advocates on the job and compensating crime victims for lost wages and uncovered medical costs.

The government is spending $225 million in stimulus money on programs that deal with violence against women, and $100 million more to help victims of crime. This comes amid a general decline in private and state funding for such programs. The money is spread among states, territories, American Indian tribes and nonprofit social service providers.

"This is critical survival money to keep emergency crisis shelters open," said Rita Smith, head of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Domestic violence and other programs have been laying off workers as private donations shrink and states including California and Illinois cut their domestic violence budgets.

Advocates are reporting more violence in crimes — even as the FBI says the number of violent crimes declined slightly in 2008 for the second year — and needier victims as support systems fray in the bad economy, said Susan Howley at the National Center for Victims of Crime.

Foundations and big donors are giving less, while some deficit-ridden states have cut aid to the programs, Howley said. Many are laying off workers. Some are even closing their doors for good.

Fighting crime was one of the rationales for the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — but most of the focus has been on police, not victims.

"These funds are a vital component in our effort to not just revive our economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity and security," President Barack Obama said in March. "By keeping police officers on the streets whose jobs were threatened by budget cuts and ensuring states and municipalities have the tools and equipment necessary to fight crime, this money will simultaneously help jump-start the American economy and protect our citizens."

A little over $76,000 in stimulus money helped save the job of Cindy Lyons, an advocate for the Domestic Abuse Project in Minneapolis, for the next two years.

In her office across the street from an American Indian housing project called Little Earth, an area that accounts for nearly one-third of the city's domestic assault calls, Lyons faces a 3-inch stack of police reports.

She helps victims get their locks changed, handles paperwork for protective orders against their abusers and sometimes gets them out of town. She befriends more than 300 victims a year with a bubbly manner that belies the seriousness of their problems.

"Hopefully I can stop somebody from going to the hospital," Lyons said. "Maybe they don't have insurance and then there's more money. And you know, maybe the guy's going to go to jail, and he'll get treatment from Domestic Abuse Project. He won't go back to jail."

Stimulus money is flowing into state and tribal programs for transitional housing for victims, coalitions for domestic violence and sexual assault, crime victim compensation and state programs that fund everything from homicide survivor groups to victim assistance in prosecutors' offices.

Some programs are also tapping into other categories of stimulus funds for law enforcement.

In Ohio, the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center is getting more than $770,000 in stimulus grants. It plans to hire 10 people to add therapy services, staff satellite offices and see more rape victims in hospitals. Executive director Megan O'Bryan said demand is up dramatically in the last year.

In Washington state, a $1 million infusion for the Crime Victims Compensation Program went fast. Mike Ratko, who oversees the program, said it paid about one month's worth of victims' uncovered medical costs and lost wages. He said claims are up because fewer crime victims have health insurance to cover their medical care.

"We're a payer of last resort," Ratko said. "All other options have to be exhausted before they can use our benefits."

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Office of Justice Programs got 72 applications for $2.4 million in stimulus money for violence against women. Officials funded just 12 programs. Cecilia Miller, who administers crime victim services funding, said most of the money will go into paychecks.

"It's saving jobs," she said.

No one knows yet how many jobs. Those who get stimulus funds must begin reporting employment numbers to the federal government in October.