Women’s shelters likely to cut beds

In Baton Rouge, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s latest round of state budget cuts are forcing shelter director Audrey Wascome to contemplate cutting the number of beds for battered women and children by a third.

The reductions will hit shelters for domestic violence victims across the state, including the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children in the New Orleans area. The Metropolitan Center’s executive director, Dale Standifer, said Thursday the cuts will erode funding for an emergency shelter that gives women a place to sleep when they have nowhere else to go.

Standifer fears more cuts are coming.

“I appreciate what our governor is trying to do, but it’s always our vulnerable who get tapped,” she said.

Weak state tax collections, coupled with education expenses, forced the governor to whittle this year’s $25 billion state operating budget by $166 million.

After back-to-back years of cuts, the governor trimmed areas of the budget normally left untouched.

Funding for family violence prevention and intervention programs was cut by $998,413, a 16 percent reduction in total dollars through the contracts the state holds with shelters and other domestic violence prevention providers.

Other reductions impacted hospice services, health care providers, dental benefits for pregnant women and contract services for the poor, the mentally ill and the drug-addicted.

In Louisiana, funding for domestic violence prevention flows through the state Department of Children and Family Services.

The agency’s leader, Suzy Sonnier, said she is uncertain how individual shelters will handle the cuts.

“There’s no doubt these are good programs,” she said. “These decisions are extremely difficult to make.”

Wascome is interim director at the Capital Area Family Violence Intervention Center, which serves East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Iberville, Ascension, East Feliciana, West Feliciana and Pointe Coupee parishes.

“The shelter is a place of last resort. If they’re coming to us, it’s because they have no place else to go,” Wascome said.

In announcing the reductions, the Jindal administration said the state is moving away from costly residential care for domestic violence victims in favor of short-term hotel stays and family care.

Wascome said victims often lack the money to pay for a hotel room or do not want to leave an electronic trail by using a credit card. Asking them to stay with family the batterer knows is dangerous, she said.

She said she cannot pay for hotel stays when she is contemplating closing beds at a shelter that stays full. Already, she said, she turns away an average of five women a day.

Sonnier said short-term hotel stays are an alternative that shelters can pursue. Sending victims to a hotel would cut down on the need for around-the-clock staff at shelters, she said.

The funding cuts to domestic violence programs affect 18 providers and the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

For 2010, the Violence Policy Center ranked Louisiana fourth in the nation in the number of women murdered by men in single victim-single offender homicides. Between Jan. 1, 2010, and Oct. 31, 2012, domestic violence was blamed for the deaths of nearly 200 people across Louisiana, according to the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

The day the governor’s budget cuts came down, Wascome said she walked through the Baton Rouge shelter and saw three women with broken arms.

The shelter, which currently is at capacity with 22 women and 18 children, will lose $127,200, roughly 20 percent of its overall funding.

At the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children in the New Orleans area, the cut amounts to $60,000, a little less than 10 percent of overall funding, Standifer said.

Standifer said she will cut expenses tied to the center’s emergency shelter.

A dozen people currently are sleeping at Metropolitan’s emergency shelter. The capacity is 15 people.

The shelters are designed as temporary havens for women and children who otherwise might end up as homicide statistics.

In a study of women killed by men, the Violence Policy Center found that 66 percent of the applicable cases in Louisiana in 2010 involved guns. Seventy percent of the victims who knew their attackers were wives, common-law wives, ex-wives or girlfriends of the accused offenders.

Sonnier said Louisiana is looking at how other states handle domestic violence cases. Ohio, she said, relies on a coordinated community response to jail offenders, allowing the victims to remain in their homes.

Beth Meeks, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the state’s shelters already operate on very little money. She said 13 shelters likely will cut staff.

Meeks said offenders need swift consequences that remove them from their homes, ensuring safety for the victims and reducing shelters’ costs.

“We’re really in a very precarious situation where another round of cuts is going to destabilize the entire system,” Meeks said.

Wascome said she likely will shut down one side of the Baton Rouge shelter after taking in 534 women and 311 children last year.

“I can’t put into words how devastating it is,” Wascome said, referring to the cuts.