By Kendall McGee | April 21, 2021 at 6:30 PM EDT – Updated April 21 at 7:28 PM
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – A bill to save a federal fund that helps victims of crime is in the hands of the US Senate after already passing in the House.
Families, children and justice organizations alike have relied on funding from the Victim of Crime Act (VOCA) for decades now, but the fund is beginning to run dry.
The money supports advocacy centers, pays victims’ medical bills, funeral costs, and helps victims navigate the criminal justice system.
VOCA is fed, not by tax dollars, but on fees and fines collected from criminals. Once the DOJ collects the funds after a conviction, a set amount is dispersed to each state.
In the last several years though, the DOJ has settled more cases in non-traditional ways, with more deferred prosecutions or non-prosecution agreements. Because of the way the law is written, in those cases, the fees and fines are directed to the general fund, and not the VOCA.
It’s just one reason the fund hasn’t been replenishing at the same rate it has in years past. As a result, federal grants to victim services have decreased in the past several years.
The fund is running low and drastic cuts are expected, unless something changes.
That’s why advocates are pushing for legislators to pass the VOCA Fix Act.
People who work with victims firsthand have been fighting for change for years and fear what could happen if a fix isn’t passed soon.
“VOCA truly is the lifeblood for funding children’s advocacy centers and helping us be able to do the work we need to do. And if it goes away, centers will close and I’d say that that’s not just for children’s advocacy centers but for other victims service providers. Without that funding stream, there will not be services there and when a child discloses they’ve been abused, they need those resources and we don’t want to have a situation where a child has experienced abuse and then there’s no place for them to go,” said Denise Edwards, director of government affairs for the National Children’s Alliance.
It’s a national issue but it has faces you may know in our region. Workers in the DA’s office say this funding is the reason they’re able to help victims.
”We are frontline workers is what I like to call us,” said victim services coordinator Jalen Howard.
Howard is the first person you’d meet in the courtroom if someone stole from you and you needed help. He’s on the team you’d call if you lost a child and needed to pay for a funeral, or needed to know when your attacker in a domestic violence case would be released from jail.
The New Hanover and Pender County DA’s office victim services coordinators hold the hands of countless victims, but they’re the ones that could be in trouble if changes aren’t made to VOCA. The district has six coordinators that are all funded through a VOCA grant that’s up for renewal in September.
“The people behind the district attorney’s reports and the police reports are the first contact for these victims and make sure the victims have a voice in our courthouse. They are the ones that we’re talking about, that the jobs could be eliminated if we don’t get this funding through,” explained DA Ben David.
Its not just the state’s 150 victim services coordinators at stake. Services like child advocacy centers that examine and interview abused children also heavily rely on the funds.
“Either we need to make this change, which is with non-tax dollars, or we’ve got two other not-so-great options: either finding the money somewhere else through tax dollars or spending cuts; or, you do without,” said Edwards.
The pandemic has only made things more dire with an anticipated surge in reports of abuse and a growing court backlog. But as the rest of the country turns the corner for a better tomorrow, those who help victims hope they come along for the ride and a resolution is found soon.
“We are here to pick up the pieces,” said victim services coordinator Patty Swank. “There’s a great need in all the aspects of things that these grants are funding, so we want to make it known that the role that we play in the court system, we’re here for a community and we’re here for the victims and it’s vital.”
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