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Crime victim advocates unhappy about funding cuts
Minnesota advocates for crime victims are learning how state budget cuts will affect their programs. The programs help battered women and abused children. They provide a variety of services from emergency shelter to help navigating the judicial system. Some service providers and state lawmakers say rural areas were unfairly targeted for cuts. But a state official says the money should go to the metro area, where it's most needed.

Moorhead, Minn. — Crime victims are served by a patchwork of nearly 150 agencies across Minnesota. Those agences receive state funding for services to victims of child abuse, domestic violence, general crime and sexual assault.

State budget cuts mean funding for those programs must be reduced by $733,000.

At Lakes Crisis Center in Detroit Lakes, Vickie McCollum is trying to decide how to cut $64,000 from her budget.

"And not to be overly dramatic, but it's a matter of life and death. In many cases it's life and death," says McCollum. "So you can't turn them away. You're not a bank, you can't close your doors and say, 'It's 5 o'clock, come back tomorrow.' It's going to stretch staff awfully thin." Violence prevention efforts will be the first thing eliminated at Lakes Crisis Center. McCollum also will lose funding for an advocate for abused children. Instead of asking for donations of clothing and other items for crime victims, she's now asking for office supplies.

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Image Rep. Morris Lanning

The Rape and Abuse Crisis Center in Fargo-Moorhead must trim $60,000. The facility is located in Fargo, but also serves counties in west central and northwest Minnesota.

Publicity and advertising will be the first to go, says Director Beth Haseltine. In addition, battered women won't get as much help navigating the sometimes confusing legal system.

Haseltine knows a tighter budget puts limits on how often counselors can see individuals. But she doesn't want to turn anyone away, and that will put a strain on staff.

"If you look at a child who's been raped and you say, 'Well, in the past we've been able to see you as much as you've needed to be seen, and now we can only see you six times.' I ethically just don't feel very good about that," says Haseltine.

The Rape and Abuse Crisis Center will also reduce outreach programs in rural communities, and a project that monitors how the courts handle domestic violence cases may end.

Haseltine worries counselors may not be able to intervene as early as they'd like in domestic violence cases.

"If we aren't able to intervene with those kids as early as we'd like, we're just going to have another generation with the same problem," says Haseltine. "So we may not see entirely the negative effects in the next five years, but down the road, when this next generation is adults, then we're going to see it. Do we want to go there? I don't think so."

In many cases it's life and death, so you can't turn them away. You're not a bank, you can't close your doors and say, 'It's 5 o'clock, come back tomorrow.'
- Vickie McCollum, crisis counselor

Haseltine says she understands Minnesota has a fiscal crisis. But she's upset some agencies got more money in a time of budget cuts.

The Office of Justice Programs at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety set up a formula to distribute crime victim money to judicial districts.

The formula compares each district to the state as a whole in population density, ethnic diversity and reported crime. The formula also considers the amount of funding regions of the state received in the past.

As a result, funding for northwest, southwest and southeast Minnesota was cut by 20 to 25 percent, and funding for many counties around the Twin Cities increased by 25 percent.

Agencies in each district then got together to decide how to divide the money among themselves. Their proposals are being reviewed by the Office of Justice Programs, with final approval expected by the end of the year.

State Rep. Morris Lanning, R-Moorhead, says the formula for distributing funding made cuts in rural areas much worse.

"The way the forumula was figured out, that was not shared equitably across the board," says Lanning. "Some got 20 to 25 percent increases in their funding, and others got decreases of the same amount. They (Office of Justice Programs) need to fix this or we'll have to fix it for them."

Mary Ellison, executive director of the Office of Justice Programs, says she's trying to correct a funding disparity.

"Certainly it's Representative Lanning's right to propose whatever legislation he thinks is fair and reasonable. But that unleashes a bunch of other legislators that will say, 'We've been getting the short end of the stick for years, and we don't want this to change,'" says Ellison.

Rural crime victim programs have been getting a disproportionate share of funding for years, according to Ellison.

"People in the metro areas of the state, which over the past 10 years have been gaining in population, have been saying, 'This is not fair. We have most of the crime and most of the people, yet per capita we don't have nearly the amount of money that you're giving to the rural areas of the state,'" says Ellison.

The budget cuts will significantly reduce the access battered women have to services in many rural areas, says Cyndi Cook, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women. Cook met with crime victim service providers across the state in recent weeks and expects the northwest, southwest and southeast regions of the state will be hardest hit.

"Most of them, as I understand it, will be cutting staff positions, reducing hours, maybe reducing the number of days a week they're open," says Cook. "Some of them have found ways to combine things to save a little bit of money, but for the most part what we'll be seeing is a reduction in services overall." Ellison says she understands there's no good time to cut budgets. She knows some programs will suffer. But she says when money is limited, it should go where it's most needed.

The debate over how crime victim funding should be distributed will likely continue at the Legislature. Service providers say they'll be busy trying to make sure no victims fall through the new cracks in the system.

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