WOMEN
03/17/2017 04:25 pm ET

Trump’s Budget Would Be Devastating To Poor Victims Of Domestic Abuse

Cuts to everything from free legal aid to heating assistance would hurt those most vulnerable.

Advocates working with victims of domestic violence reacted with alarm to President Donald Trump’s first budget blueprint, warning that his proposed cuts could have a devastating impact on vulnerable women across the country.

“The President’s ‘skinny budget’ gives us an idea of where we are headed in regards to supports and safety for women and children of this nation,” said Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “This administration is demonstrating ― early on ― their disregard for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.”

On Thursday, Trump presented his first official budget proposal, calling for a $54 billion spike in defense spending and immigration enforcement at the expense of programs supporting poor and elderly Americans.

His plan includes a proposed 18 percent cut to the Department of Health and Human Services and a 4 percent cut to the Department of Justice.

Both departments support programs that serve victims of domestic violence, including the Violence Against Women Act, which funds specialized services, training for law enforcement, and prevention and education, and the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act, which is the main federal funding source for domestic violence shelters.

Monica McLaughlin, deputy director of public policy at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, estimated that if the cuts were applied across the board (as opposed to targeting programs individually), approximately 260,000 fewer victims would be able to access shelters and supportive services each year.

“We had to be relatively simplistic in our analysis,” she said, “but we are trying to understand what this could look like.”

Domestic abuse is widely prevalent in the United States, with one in four women estimated to become victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Around three women a day are murdered by someone they dated or married.

Trump also wants to cut a number of other programs that support domestic violence victims living in poverty, McLaughlin said, such as the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps individuals struggling with heating costs.

When you are a person who is experiencing domestic violence and you also live in poverty, you are on the edge,” McLaughlin said. “If you get heat assistance, that might be why you can pay the rent, and the apartment is what keeps you safe.”

Without help, victims may return to their abuser if there is nowhere else for them to safely go, she added. 

One of the biggest concerns among advocates is Trump’s plan to eliminate funding for Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit that provides free civil legal assistance for low-income Americans. More than 70 percent of its clients are women, and almost a third of cases closed by local programs involve family law.

Martha Bergmark, the former president of the nonprofit, said that cutting funding would amount to “abandoning women who are trapped in abusive relationships.” Currently, lawyers assist victims in obtaining protective orders, custody and child support. That kind of practical support makes it far easier for victims to have the security and stability to seek safety, she explained.

“Legal help is often the key to escaping dangerous situations,” she said.

Studies have found that access to legal aid can have a profound effect on reducing domestic violence. As a practical matter, victims who have an attorney when applying for a protective order are more likely to be granted one, and experience less violence as a result. According to one study, civil legal aid may be even more effective than shelters or counseling services in helping victims stay safe.

“There is real research to back up the idea that leaving women without legal help is really unforgivable, and a violation of our nation’s promise of justice for all,” Bergmark said.

It’s also desperately needed: Legal representation was the second most commonly requested service that domestic violence organizations were not able to provide in 2015, according to an annual census conducted by the National Network to End Domestic Violence. (The first was housing.)

For Jen Jepsen, a domestic violence victim in Illinois, free civil legal aid made all the difference.

In 2013, she left her boyfriend of 14 years, fleeing to North Dakota with their two children. When she returned, six weeks later, she found that he had filed for sole custody. She was unemployed and had no money for a lawyer, she said.

“I was scared, because I felt like without legal representation, I could lose them,” she told The Huffington Post recently. “It was my word against him. The way it looked, I fled with the kids, and I was the crazy one. I felt like no one was going to believe me.”

She contacted Prairie State Legal Services, an organization funded by Legal Services Corporation that offers free legal services for low-income people. They provided her with an attorney who educated her on the process and her rights. Ultimately, she said, she won custody of the children, and her former partner was ordered to go to domestic violence counseling.

“These services are important,” she said. “It meant the world to me.”

Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, said such programs need more funding, not less. 

“Victims of domestic violence are fleeing for their lives,” she said. “Our nation is in no position to cut funding for these vital programs.”

CONVERSATIONS