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How a Government Shutdown Would Affect Survivors of Domestic Violence
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How a Government Shutdown Would Affect Survivors of Domestic Violence

A government shutdown could disrupt grant funding and thus stall essential resources to help survivors of domestic violence, many of whom are women.

Capitol building, with yellow lines on road leading to it
The U.S. Capitol building is seen as Congress remains gridlocked over legislation to continue funding the federal government, September 29, 2013, in Washington. (Getty/Win McNamee)

As Capitol Hill barrels toward a government shutdown, with the House held captive by a small faction of MAGA extremists, it is increasingly unlikely that Congress will reach an agreement on a spending bill by the end of the fiscal year on September 30. Consequently, numerous government programs and services will cease until an agreement is reached or a continuing resolution is passed. If the latter is not passed in a timely fashion, the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), in the U.S. Department of Justice, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could be affected quickly, and depending on the duration and severity of the shutdown, other services from the 900 programs funded through the annual appropriations process could be in danger.

For more background on the annual appropriations process and the many programs that a government shutdown could affect, read the recent CAP column: “What Happens During a Government Shutdown?”

A shutdown would have significant effects on the Office on Violence Against Women

The OVW administers an assortment of grants authorized through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and grant recipients provide services such as transitional housing, 24-hour hotlines for crisis intervention and referral services, and even direct payments to survivors to change the locks on their homes, as well as many other costs incurred because of domestic violence. The United Nations defines domestic violence as a “pattern of behavior in any relationship that is used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner.” In the United States, domestic violence is estimated to affect approximately 10 million people every year. The many services that the OVW provides are essential for the safety and rehabilitation of affected people and the prevention of future violence.

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In fiscal year 2022, the OVW awarded nearly half a billion dollars to 750 grantees across the United States. These funds supported a multitude of efforts. According to the most recent 2020 report to Congress, on average over a six-month reporting period, VAWA-funded discretionary grant recipients provided:

  • Legal services to 26,019 survivors*
  • Crisis intervention services for 31,814 survivors
  • Transitional housing services for 2,760 survivors, 98 percent of whom were women, and 3,864 children
  • Services to 6,624 survivors and family members, 93 percent of whom were female, through grants to Indian Tribal governments, including shelter services to 1,256 survivors and 1,524 family members

On average over the six-month reporting period, grant recipients were able to serve:

  • 9,601 American Indian or Alaska Native survivors
  • 4,222 Asian survivors
  • 15,863 Black or African American survivors
  • 20,147 Latinx or Hispanic survivors
  • 562 Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander survivors
  • 4,722 children or youth survivors ages 0 to 17
  • 5,056 survivors ages 60 or older
  • 8,927 survivors with disabilities
  • 14,047 survivors with limited English proficiency
  • 13,703 survivors who were immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers
  • 28,161 survivors living in rural areas
  • 636 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer survivors

On average over a six-month reporting period, VAWA-funded discretionary grant recipients provided:

26,019 survivors

with legal services

31,814 survivors

with crisis intervention services

2,760 survivors

with transitional housing services

6,624 survivors and family members

with services through grants to Indian Tribal governments

How a shutdown would affect HUD services

Services such as housing assistance for survivors of domestic violence are also funded through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The 2018–2019 shutdown and disruptions in leadership left the Office of Community Planning and Development (CPD) unable to provide the services it outlined in its contingency plan, and many service providers and recipients experienced funding and housing vulnerability that they would not have otherwise. While the CPD is supposed to recall employees to review disbursement requests as needed to “avoid an imminent threat to the safety of human life or property,” disruptions still affected recipients of housing services, including domestic violence survivors.

How are OVW grants funded?

At the start of a new fiscal year, the OVW usually receives a transfer or new appropriation to supplement its funding. OVW grants are funded from no-year appropriations, which means that regardless of when the funds were appropriated, they are authorized for use until they are gone. Therefore, as long as there are unobligated carryover funds, grant activities and the associated administration of these activities may continue under the supervision of the office leadership, who are not subject to furlough as presidential appointees.

According to the current budget appendix of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which houses the OVW, an approximately $76 million unobligated balance should be brought forward on October 1, as should, potentially, an additional $11 million in recoveries.

Even with these no-year appropriations, however, all agencies must provide contingency plans to estimate the most critical essential personnel during a shutdown. The current DOJ contingency plan estimates that OVW staffing will be as low as 15 percent of its typical level.

OVW grantees receive grant funds through the reimbursement process, but when a grant is issued, grantees are not given the funding all at once. Instead, recipients are asked to request funds as they are incurred. As the DOJ explains, “Funds will not be paid in a lump sum, but rather disbursed over time as project costs are incurred or anticipated.”

Comparing a 2023 shutdown with the 2013 shutdown

Although there have been multiple government shutdowns in the past decade, the 2013 government shutdown is likely the most analogous to a potential 2023 shutdown. While there was also a shutdown in the period from 2018 to 2019, it is not as comparable to the current scenario, as VAWA reauthorization had lapsed simultaneously. Now, VAWA is already funded, as it was in the 2013 shutdown, and it is currently reauthorized through FY 2027. That doesn’t mean, however, that the impacts of a shutdown will not be significant.

During the 2013 government shutdown, OVW grantees were not able to request payment or draw down funds through the reimbursement process. This included grantees who were unable to draw funds from the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, which “supports lifesaving services for victims of domestic violence and their children, including emergency shelters, crisis hotlines, counseling, and programs for underserved communities.”

During the 2013 government shutdown, OVW grantees were not able to request payment or draw down funds through the reimbursement process.

A government shutdown could have an outsize impact on domestic violence organizations that rely primarily on federal money. During the 2013 government shutdown, for example, one worker from a domestic violence shelter funded through the Violence Against Women Act explained that if funding was not restored to the DOJ’s Office of Justice Programs, “many of the rural domestic violence shelters (who don’t have wealthy communities to draw from) will not be operational.”

Similarly, American Indian and Alaska Native women, who face high levels of domestic violence, could also be at risk because federal funds often make up a larger part of the budget for shelters on Indian reservations. During the 2013 government shutdown, some organizations serving Native Americans, including the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society, which served the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, lost as much as 90 percent of its funding.

Rape kit processing in Washington, D.C.

Congress must approve the budget for Washington, D.C., through the appropriations process, so some services for survivors of domestic violence—such as the administration of rape kits, which includes services from advocates or case managers—are at risk. It is important to note, however, that domestic violence and rape are not interchangeable: Not all cases of domestic violence include rape, and not all cases of rape are considered domestic violence.

The 2013 government shutdown provides an example of what could happen in 2023. In 2013, the executive director of DC Forensic Nurse Examiners, which administers all adult rape kits and some adolescent kits in Washington, D.C., warned, “If we don’t have funds, no rape kits get done, there’s no medical forensic exam. It would be back to the days of prior to SANE’s [Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program] existence, where it’s essentially an evaluation by a physician and you lose evidence.”

The federal funding situation is dire for these services, which are already backlogged. Contingency funds were used to supplement SANE through the duration of the 2013 shutdown, but those funds had been expected to run out if the shutdown had lasted longer than it did.

If a government shutdown does unfold, agencies will gain a better idea of how long various reserves and unobligated balances will last and how large the effect will be. States have resources they can use to fund programs during a shutdown if they choose to do so, particularly rainy-day or budget stabilization funds. However, various statutes restrict the use of these funds, which would make it more difficult to tap into them in the event of a shutdown.

Conclusion

The longer a government shutdown lasts, the more programs will be affected. But policymakers could avoid this by passing a continuing resolution to prevent people from losing access to services. Certainly, a government shutdown would affect everyone—but it seems like shutting down domestic violence services is a choice some MAGA extremists are willing to make each day that they prevent Congress from passing these appropriations bills.

* This article uses the term “survivors,” while the DOJ and therefore the OVW use the term “victim.” The authors use these terms interchangeably in this analysis.

The authors would like to thank Bobby Kogan, Sabrina Talukder, Maggie Jo Buchanan, and Emily Gee for their guidance on this piece and Isabela Salas-Betsch for her research assistance.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

Authors

Sara Estep

Associate Director

Becca Damante

Former Senior Policy Analyst

Team

Women’s Initiative

The Women’s Initiative develops robust, progressive policies and solutions to ensure all women can participate in the economy and live healthy, productive lives.

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