It started when Lauren Plymale, a Cabell County assistant prosecutor, reached out to her state senator, Bob Plymale (D-Wayne). Something was off. The VOCA (Victims of Crime Act) funding from the federal government had slowly been decreasing over the past 3 to 4 years, and suddenly, it was gone. These funds provide critical services for victims of sexual and domestic abuse and assault, such as child advocacy centers, rape crisis centers and hotlines, domestic violence shelters, and — of special interest to Plymale — prosecutors and law enforcement officials who specialize in this work. Plymale just needed to know how long the county would be unfunded so they could plan accordingly.
Senator Plymale checked with his staff, who reached out to stakeholders, who confirmed the worst: There was a federal funding interruption, and unless the state stepped in to fill the gap, jobs, programs and lives were at risk.
“We refused to allow these cuts to take effect in West Virginia,” said Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin (D-Greenbrier). “Those who protect women and children from domestic and sexual violence already work with very limited resources. They could not absorb more cuts.”
In just one year, according to the West Virginia State Children’s Advocacy Network, state child advocacy centers served more than 4,600 children experiencing serious physical or sexual abuse. Data from the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services tells us 1 out of every 10 children will be sexually abused, 1 in 12 women will experience attempted or completed rape, and the social pressures of the pandemic have only increased the risk to the most vulnerable.
Congress approved a plan in July 2021 which will more fully fund VOCA in the future by fixing certain loopholes in the federal law and implementing new funding sources for VOCA (such as pre-trial diversion court fees and other alternative sentencing actions); however, these fees will not accumulate enough to sustain current services until 2023.
“We couldn’t wait that long,” said Plymale. “The kids can’t wait that long.”
Senate Democrats, under the leadership of Baldwin, were able to secure full funding to keep them all going.
“In order to get this done, we worked with Governor Justice, Speaker Hanshaw, and Senate President Blair, and I thank them for recognizing the urgency of the situation and acting swiftly. I also want to thank our terrific attorney, Wes Toney, who formerly worked with victims of domestic violence as a prosecutor and understood the gravity of the issue. By all working together, we solved it and protected vulnerable citizens.”
During the October special session, the Legislature passed a supplemental of $4 million to fully fund current VOCA-funded service levels for the remainder of the fiscal year.
“This funding is critical to protecting West Virginia families, and I am glad the Governor approved our request,” said Senator Richard Lindsay (D-Kanawha).
“This takes care of the current fiscal year. We may need to fill this gap one additional year for 2022, but as of 2023 the federal government will take over full funding,” Baldwin explained. “If we do need to fund it one more year, it will be worth every penny to protect victims of abuse. We look forward to a broad coalition of support again next year if it’s needed.”
Senate Democrats have called attention to the underfunding of rape crisis centers, child advocacy centers, and specialized law enforcement for years.
“This has long been a high priority for our caucus, and also a high priority of mine,” said Minority Whip Mike Woelfel (D-Cabell). Since his election to the Senate in 2014, Woelfel has been the lead sponsor of several bills designed to increase the rights of sexual assault victims and provide training and assistance for law enforcement dealing with these cases. Under his watch, bills requiring training for law enforcement officers investigating sexual assault, protecting victims from invasive physical examinations, speeding up the processing time for DNA rape kits, and the Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights have passed the legislature. Woelfel was recognized for his advocacy in 2020 with the Visionary Voice Award recipient from the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services.
Several coalitions (the Sexual Abuse Coalition, Domestic Violence Coalition, Child Advocacy Center Network, and Court Appointed Special Advocates, among others) joined together in support of the recent effort to ensure that we do not lose valuable prosecutors, child abuse advocates, victim shelters, and other victim support services.
“As a caucus, we continue to believe the work of advocacy for crime victims is vitally important,” Baldwin concluded. “We thank all those in law enforcement, the courts, and advocacy for fighting to protect victims each and every day.”