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Recession threatens domestic violence programs

Crime is down everywhere in Florida. Except in our own homes.

The release of the statewide crime statistics this week by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed the phenomenon revealed locally by Pasco Sheriff Bob White in February. The amount of crime is dropping, but domestic violence is up.

In 2009, Pasco County domestic violence cases — ranging from stalking to homicide — increased 25 percent over the previous year. The Sheriff's Office handled 3,363 domestic violence cases last year, or an average of nine per day. Domestic violence homicides doubled from three to six.

Meanwhile, the overall crime rate in unincorporated Pasco dropped 7.8 percent and the number of homicides was cut in half to 11. It's a similar story across the state. The FDLE reported the crime rate at a 39-year low, but nearly across-the-board increases in domestic violence crimes.

High unemployment and foreclosure rates are likely causes. People who might separate and go their own ways under different economic conditions are staying together for financial reasons. They're simply too poor to break up.

"The woman doesn't have a job, so where is she going to go? Or, with foreclosures, they're staying in the same household because neither has a place to go and the result is increasing domestic violence,'' said Penny Morrill, CEO of Sunrise of Pasco Inc., a domestic violence and sexual assault center.

Unfortunately, as demand for services increases, resources are declining. Like the people they serve, domestic violence shelters are having a hard time paying the bills.

Fewer people are getting married. Fewer are getting divorced, too. That is relevant because a portion of the fees for marriage licenses and dissolutions finances the state's domestic violence trust fund, which now is confronting a $3.8 million deficit. It means less aid for the 42 shelters across the state.

Advocates are hoping for a legislative lift from the state's general revenue budget, but there is a long line of people seeking similar help.

The deficit in the state trust fund coincides with other financial hardships triggered by the recession. Donations to Sunrise are down 70 percent. Business at its thrift store is off 30 percent. Together, private donations and thrift store proceeds account for 17 percent of the agency's $1.4 million budget. Morrill labeled it the extra money that pays the overheads and keeps the lights on. Already the agency has reduced workers' benefits and, for the past three years, frozen salaries for its 35 employees.

Sunrise provides shelter to 250 women and children a year and provides outreach services — counseling, legal advocacy etc. — for up to 800 people annually. It may help a woman obtain a domestic violence injunction, arrange for an attorney and accompany the victim to criminal court proceedings. It's a workload shared by three full-time advocates and two volunteers. Morrill said the agency easily could use two more.

Statewide, the Florida Coalition for Domestic Violence said emergency shelters turned away 7,100 people last year because of no bed space.

It gets worse. Legislative budget writers are targeting circuit court clerks across Florida for a $23 million cut. Locally, that would mean more than $800,000 less for the Pasco County Clerk of Circuit Court and County Comptroller Paula O'Neil. She cut 85 positions in the current year and would have to lay off 23 more under the Senate version of the state budget.

The cuts, O'Neil said in a letter to the Times, "will eliminate our ability to provide many of the vital, often life-saving, services provided every day by the clerk and comptroller's office, including domestic violence protection, child support payments, incapacitated wards needing guardianship, involuntary exams for individuals faced with mental health problems, child custody matters and divorce actions.''

In other words, some of the same clientele that often ends up at Sunrise.

"With the cuts to the clerk, who knows how long it will take to get a domestic violence injunction,'' said Morrill. "This is life-and-death stuff. I don't want to seem overly dramatic, but ours is a life-and-death business.''

Recession threatens domestic violence programs 04/10/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 10, 2010 1:56pm]
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