Sometimes, when they’re perfectly safe, it can feel like the nightmare is happening all over again.
Sexual and domestic violence victims suddenly experience the fight, flight or freeze reaction that overcame them during the traumatic event — or events — they experienced, even if it happened decades before.
“It can be really easy to switch back into survival mode even when the danger is over if a trigger that reminds you of that memory — something you see or smell that reminds you — switches it back on, and leads to flashbacks and panic attacks,” said Katie Copty, director of counseling and advocacy with Safe Harbor.
But Copty’s ability to help, and the ability of dozens of other counselors in the Richmond area, could be seriously threatened in the future as the existence of several federal grants and funding streams remains uncertain.
Several nonprofit organizations in the Richmond area that provide support to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence benefited from a boost in federal and state funding last year, including Safe Harbor in Henrico County and the YWCA Richmond, located downtown.
But President Donald Trump’s administration’s view of those grants and funding streams has been, at best, lukewarm and, at worst, abrasive, as national reports have shown he and his team are interested in cutting a substantial portion of grants. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, in the past voted against a vital source of funds for many victim services organizations.
“With a quarter of our funding coming in from the federal government for our domestic and sexual violence services, any cuts to that funding would be a significant loss for us,” said Linda Tissiere, the YWCA’s CEO.
“That could be crippling both to the agency and to the people who need those services the most.”
Safe Harbor and the YWCA benefited last year from a boost in federal funding through the Victims of Crime Act — or VOCA — fund. VOCA was created in 1984 and is funded through penalties paid by criminal offenders, not tax dollars. Periodically, Congress will vote to distribute funds to the states for victim services.
The fund is massive. In 2012 alone, $2.795 billion was deposited into it. Congress allowed for a substantial amount of money to be released to states in 2015, and Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services received $50 million, which then doled it out to various organizations.
“We’re so thankful, but we’re afraid that that big chunk of money will look appealing for other things,” said Cathy Easter, Safe Harbor’s CEO.
Trump only vaguely references VOCA in his budget, and Easter noted that it’s hard to know what his intentions are.
But to further worry organizations that offer services to survivors, several national publications in January reported that Trump’s team is considering eliminating 25 grants controlled by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women.
The grants were created by the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. In 2013, when the act was up for reauthorization, Sessions — who is now in charge of the Department of Justice — voted against it.
In 2016, several Virginia municipalities and the Department of Criminal Justice Services received more than $8 million through Office on Violence Against Women grants.
Safe Harbor receives about $11,000 through the Sexual Assault Services Program, which is administered through the DCJS and was created by the Office on Violence Against Women.
Half of Safe Harbor’s nearly $1.5 million annual budget comes from federal grants, while 14 percent comes from state grants, Easter said.
About 25 percent of the YWCA’s annual budget of about $3.32 million comes from federal funding, Tissiere said.
Safe Harbor and the YWCA offer their services free of charge, which is vital if they are truly going to be able to serve survivors, Tissiere said.
“With domestic violence, for example, one way that an abuser can control and wield power with a survivor is to limit their access to money,” she said. “If we lose the federal money, it would be very difficult for us to make up that loss.”
Last year, Safe Harbor helped 1,400 clients through counseling and case management, along with its court and shelter programs. That does not include its community programs and outreach.
During its 2015-16 fiscal year, the YWCA Richmond received about 4,900 calls through the Greater Richmond Regional Hotline, which it runs for all the sexual and domestic violence agencies in the central Virginia region.
The organization also had close to 450 hospital accompaniment calls for survivors in emergency rooms, rapidly rehoused about 175 adults and children into permanent housing, and provided close to 3,000 hours of counseling.
Tissiere pointed out that no organization providing services to victims of sexual and domestic violence operates alone.
“The YWCA is part of a regional collaborative, and we partner with all of our sister agencies, all the way from the Tri-Cities area out to New Kent, Goochland, Hanover and everywhere in between,” she said.
“No one agency can possibly cover that geographic range with the number of survivors that come to each of us, and it’s just critically important that all of us are able to maintain the quality and quantity of services we provide.”
When Copty started her work with Safe Harbor about four years ago — and before the organization received its boost in federal and state grants — the organization had a wait list for its services of about 6 to 8 weeks.
“That was a problem, especially in the field we work in, having to get the folks who are in crisis in sooner. But everybody who reaches out for services here really does need it,” she said.
In past years, Easter said, Safe Harbor received about $79,000 a year through the VOCA fund, administered through the DCJS. For the current fiscal year, its funding increased to more than $443,000.
“Prior to that, we had a very limited staff, and they were putting in a lot of extra hours,” she said.
With the boost, she said, her organization has added two counselors, a court advocate and a case manager for its emergency shelter to help clients with their educational aspirations as well as job and housing searches.
Since then, the wait list has shrunk to about two weeks, Copty said. And the organization has enhanced training for its counselors as well. Right now, they are receiving training in EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.
“It’s a type of therapy that helps to process traumatic memories,” Copty said. “If they have experienced a sexual assault, it can often feel like that memory is still happening in the present or the danger is still there, through flashbacks, memories and nightmares. EMDR helps to process the memory and file it away in a sort of filing cabinet so it’s not still there in the present.”
Earlier this year, Safe Harbor opened a new shelter devoted to victims of human trafficking, thanks to a $500,000, three-year grant from the Department of Criminal Justice Services.
About 600,000 to 800,000 people — mostly women — are trafficked across international borders every year, and some are trafficked in central Virginia, as the Interstate I-95/64 corridor makes the area easy to access.
That corridor “has led to a significant amount of trafficking in the Richmond area,” Easter said.
“I think there’s, throughout the country, a shocking lack of awareness of what is going on in people’s own backyards,” she added. “If (trafficking victims) were released and truly didn’t have anything else to fall back on, then they often ended up back with their traffickers and they would just disappear.”
And even if the DCJS grant and other federal and state funding streams go away, Safe Harbor will not let the shelter close.
“It’s our goal in the next three years to be able to make up that money if that grant goes away,” Easter said. “It’s going to be a stretch, but we need to be positioned to be ready.”