Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer
KIDS Place is a private nonprofit, nationally accredited child advocacy center serving children in Macon County. Before KIDS Place was established, child abuse victims in Macon County were often shuffled from one place to another. Although caring professionals worked in those agencies, families were forced to go from agency to agency in order to meet the informational needs of those agencies. The places that professionals were meeting to talk with children were not always the best places for children to feel secure enough to tell the truth. They were certainly not child-friendly settings.
KIDS Place exists to make the investigative and judicial process easier for children and to insure that all child abuse victims in Macon County have access to evidence-based therapy, at no cost to the family.
Although KIDS Place receives funding from the county as part of the county’s annual community funding pool grant process, director Alisa Ashe told the Macon County Board of Commissioners last week in the facility’s 30-year history, they have never had to ask commissioners for emergency funds before, but due to factors beyond their control, they are now left with no other choice.
“We were notified last fall that we would be getting a cut of about 30-35% percent from our base funding,” said Ashe. “Our base funding comes from the Victims of Crime Act — that is not taxpayer funding, that is funding that comes through white collar federal crimes and is put into a pot of funding nationally and must be spent to serve victims of crimes. That money has been dwindling over the last four to five years.”
Victim services agencies, including those offered at KIDS Place, are funded primarily by money from the Victims of Crime Act Fund passed in 1984. VOCA is funded by fines from federal convictions and provides significant, core financial resources for victim services agencies to assist and support victims of human trafficking, sexual violence, fraud, DUI crashes, domestic violence and homicide.
During the past four years, fines previously directed to VOCA have decreased significantly due to the Department of Justice’s increasing reliance on deferred prosecution and nonprosecution agreements. Unlike the monetary penalties associated with criminal convictions, the penalties associated with deferred prosecution and nonprosecution agreements are deposited into the General Fund of the Treasury, not the Crime Victims Fund. As a result, the VOCA fund is at an all-time low.
In 2018, North Carolina victim support agencies received more than $100 million from the VOCA fund. As of 2020, the VOCA fund balance stood at more than $6 billion. But in 2021, the state’s VOCA funding dropped nearly 80% to $22 million, and more cuts are anticipated for 2022.
While Ashe has been bracing for a 30-35% cut in funding at KIDS Place, when the facility received the grant a few weeks ago, they found out the funding cut was actually 67%.
For KIDS Place, that meant their base funding of just over $315,000 was cut to be around $100,000. At the same time KIDS Place experienced a drastic cut in their base funding, they also lost a competitive grant of more than $100,000 which allowed the center to provide mental health services to children.
Incidents of domestic violence and abuse have climbed over the past year with many stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic due to closed schools and quarantine orders.
An article in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine reported that police departments across the nation saw significant increases in domestic violence calls and arrests since the onset of the pandemic.
In the past year and a half, KIDS Place has seen the agency’s service numbers double — all while available funds have decreased. Ashe said that legislators are working to address the funding cut and impact to VOCA nationally but that will take two to three years to be corrected for individual agencies like KIDS Place, which is why the emergency help is needed from the county in the interim.
After cutting the center’s budget down to what she referred to as a “bare bones” budget, Ashe said KIDS Place was $110,000 short to cover operating costs, even at significantly reduced levels.
“I think KIDS Place can safely raise $35,000 through some local foundations and just through our local donors,” said Ashe. “So I am asking the county to consider giving us $75,000 to help us meet this bare bones budget.”
KIDS Place, although it operates as a private nonprofit, partners with both the town of Franklin and the county to provide services not otherwise available. The sheriff’s office and the police departments in Macon County work with KIDS Place to provide services to children when needed and if KIDS Place did not exist, it would be the responsibility of those agencies to provide the services. From January through June, KIDS Place has conducted 43 interviews at the request of child protective services and law enforcement. Cost estimates are around $1,200 to conduct an interview and fund a position with the training required. KIDS Place has also completed 21 medical exams — which would have otherwise cost around $2,000 each to complete.
Although KIDS Place partners with the county to provide required services, Commissioner Josh Young expressed concern over providing taxpayer funds to the nonprofit. Young, who noted he was unaware of all KIDS Place did until Ashe made the request last week, said he would like to see the community help fund raise and get the money the organization needs.
Commissioner Paul Higdon also noted that while the services are worthy, “as a manager of county taxpayer dollars, how do I put a vote on this.”
Commissioner Ronnie Beale made the motion to provide KIDS Place with a one-time allocation of $75,000 due to the emergency need. Commissioner Gary Shields seconded the motion.
Higdon and Young supported providing the funding through the county’s
community funding pool and forgo providing funding to any other non-profits this fiscal year.
However, Beale’s motion was to provide the funding out of the county’s fund balance. The Macon County Board of Commissioners voted in favor 3-2 with Higdon and Young voting against it.
Because of the way VOCA is funded, the stability of the fund has long been a source of concern. But in March, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bipartisan VOCA Fix to Sustain the Crime Victims Fund Act of 2021, also known as the VOCA Fix Act.
After passing in the House, the bill stalled in the Senate despite receiving bipartisan support. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has blocked the VOCA Fix twice in the Senate, most recently in June after Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, requested unanimous consent to pass the bill. Both North Carolina senators — Republicans Richard Burr and Thom Tillis — have expressed support for the VOCA Fix.