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When Hennepin County opened the Domestic Abuse Service Center in 1994, it was a pioneering attempt to create a one-stop shop for victims of emotional, physical, or sexual violence. A victim walking through the center's door would find cops, court officials, and community advocates—a guarantee that the courageous act of just showing up would yield results, and fast.
Nearly 15 years later, the center's focus and the needs of its walk-ins are unchanged. The people who show up at the center have been "threatened, coerced, bullied, and beaten," says Carol Arthur, executive director of the Domestic Abuse Project. "You want to help as quickly as possible."
That just got much harder. The state Legislature passed major cuts to state courts last session, which have trickled down to the Domestic Abuse Service Center: Its budget has just been slashed in half, by roughly $200,000. Of seven full-time staff members, three will have to go. One of the center's most important services, assisting victims looking to file an order of protection or restraining order, will no longer be offered on Mondays and Fridays. Even before the cutbacks, advocates say victims arriving at the center were finding longer lines and often waiting a week for an appointment to file for protection.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who helped get the center off the ground, says he's "really disappointed—this is one of the most important things we do here."
Arthur says organizations like hers, which work in an informal partnership with the center and are also struggling with limited resources, are scrambling to salvage critical services for victims. Her organization helped 350 women get orders of protection last year. In the first three months of 2008, it had already filed 126 orders. "With the current economy, foreclosures, and job losses, there are lots of stressors. Whenever things get tough, domestic violence escalates. We anticipate things will get worse—how are we going to make this up?"
Near the end of the legislative session last month, Republican Sen. Warren Limmer and DFL Sen. Leo Foley sat at a conference table in the state Capitol trading pained winces as they discussed the judiciary budget.
The two men—and the rest of the Judiciary Budget Division members seated with them—were deciding how much funding to trim from the state courts, and how much from other criminal justice departments.
"It's like being asked which child you love the most," Limmer said.
Foley, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, added: "We have one of the finest court systems in the country, and we're getting to the point where—are we going to have any justice at all?"
Governor Pawlenty proposed cutting $7 million from the state's district courts this year. That figure was whittled in committee to $2.25 million.
"Judicial funding continues to fall by the wayside," says Limmer. "Other priorities are invented every session. The courts are not a squeaky wheel like other special interests. They are easily overlooked, and funds go around them. I'm a fiscal conservative, but this is a basic foundation to governing."
The Fourth Judicial District, which serves Hennepin County exclusively, was one of the hardest hit. Its share of the cuts is $420,000, but there were major reductions last year, too. All told, the district has taken a $2 million hit in the last year and a half.
"Ninety percent of our budget is people," says Fourth District Administrator Mark Thompson. The district has already eliminated 20 full-time positions and has instituted a hiring freeze, even though it has 60 job vacancies.
"You get what you pay for," says Thompson.
Fourth District Chief Judge Lucy Weiland, who holds considerable sway over how the district-wide cuts are apportioned, gets short of breath listing the services that have been reduced to save money: "Supervised visitation in family court, counter service on Wednesday afternoons, the arbitration program. I'm without a law clerk! No place is immune."
Victims' advocates who work with the Domestic Abuse Service Center are arguing that it should be exempt from cuts—and they've taken their case directly to Judge Weiland. Marna Anderson, executive director of WATCH, a Hennepin County nonprofit that monitors hearings in cases of violence against women and children, was one of a handful of advocates who met with Weiland once word of the cutbacks got out. "This is not just an inconvenience," Anderson says. "It's very likely cases will be further delayed."
When cases are held up, victims tend to soften their legal complaints. "You start to minimize the violence," Anderson says. "He's being nice now or he had a bad day or he was drunk. And if you have children in common, you might just need to get on with daily life." All that translates to a weaker case.
The decision to cut center staff is painful but necessary, Weiland says. But she also applies a manager's logic: "We are looking to see, Can they work more efficiently? Can they manage the work with fewer staff? There may be one person added back if it turns out another person is necessary to meet their needs."
Of the three positions being eliminated, one is an intake person and two are petition writers who help victims draft effective requests for orders of protection, a notoriously difficult task for a person consumed by the emotional maelstrom of abuse. Some have suggested using technology to help solve the personnel shortage—something like a fill-in-the-blanks computer program in place of trained petition writers. Anderson is suspicious of such fixes. "I don't think that's the kind of system we want."
As of now, however, the system is in danger of choking. Hennepin County has 25 percent of the state's population, and the center writes nearly 50 percent of the orders processed in the state. In 2007, it wrote 3,385 orders of protection and harassment restraining orders and fielded nearly 24,000 calls. The Fourth District will swear in a new chief judge to succeed Weiland in July. Arthur, Anderson, and other victims' advocates plan to make their case all over again.
"We understand cuts have to be made," Arthur says, "but victim safety has got to be primary. A victim who has to go back to their abuser is very likely to be abused again. A domestic assault victim is much more likely to be targeted again than a robbery victim or the victim of any other crime. If you intervene, you know you're going to make a difference."
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