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Cuts to Domestic Violence Shelters Hurt

By Laurel Morales

Flagstaff, AZ – Crisis phone lines are jammed and beds are full at domestic violence shelters across Arizona. Lay offs and other economic pressures make for more incidents of abuse, and often times they're more severe. And as Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales reports, the state has cut funding to domestic violence shelters at a time when their services are needed most.

AMBY: women's shelter

Every year thousands of women and children call Flagstaff's Northland Family Help Center home; or at least a temporary home. On this afternoon one woman with wavy blond hair sits at the end of a long communal dining table eating potato chips and staring blankly at the floor. Another young woman supervises her three girls who play make-believe. In this fantasy they're all princesses.

SFX: (girls playing) Princesses!

Their mom Amy, who didn't want to use her real name, has been at the shelter for two months.

AMY: The most important thing for me right now is my kids are happy. They have a smile on their face.

Amy called the police when her husband came home drunk and violent. She rests her hands on her protruding belly. She's due to have her fourth daughter in April.

AMY: I come from an abusive family there's like a lot of verbal, sexual and physical abuse So I don't want that to happen to my children and I have all girls.

Amy plans to move to the valley after her fourth daughter is born to start over. Director Sonja Burkhalter says she was lucky to get into the shelter.

BURKHALTER: We already turn women away because we don't have the space. And my prediction is that that will continue and it will get more challenging.

Because of state budget cuts to Department of Economic Security programs, Burkhalter has had to cut the number of hours her staff works. That means one person is doing the job of two or three.

In total state lawmakers cut 150 million dollars from DES programs this fiscal year, including Child Protective Services, programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities, and elderly care.

Vivien Mann manages the shelter. She says the staff must answer crisis calls and at the same time make sure the traumatized families here are taken care of.

MANN: Sometimes we'll get a hotline call and a lady might have to hang up four, five, six times because it's not safe to talk and if someone needs their meds then who do you serve? Somebody's going to suffer whether it's the person on the phone or the person in the shelter.

Mann and Burkhalter agree the timing for funding cuts couldn't be worse.

BURKHALTER: Folks who never thought they would be unemployed who would ever need social services or government services are in a position where they're actually having to contemplate that.

Burkhalter believes because of the stigma women will initially delay seeking help. But then she expects a surge of women needing shelter.

BURKHALTER: Someone who comes to shelter has exhausted all of their available resources. They got nothin' left.

Burkhalter fears as the demand for domestic violence services goes up, state funding will be cut again in a few months. The state legislature is trying to close a 3 billion dollar budget gap for the next fiscal year.

Governor Jan Brewer is worried about victims of domestic violence but says she has a plan. It includes a billion dollars from a new tax, a billion in federal stimulus dollars and an additional billion dollars cut from programs like the shelters.

BREWER: I am concerned. Things get tough at home and then things get more violent. It's not only perpetrated against the wife but also against the children. It's painful and it's heartbreaking. But I can assure you those budget reductions will probably be back on the table again.

Brewer says without a tax increase she fears deeper cuts not only to shelters but also to education and public safety.

But she's had a tough time convincing lawmakers - both Democrat and Republican -- to accept her plan. Representative Tom Chabin believes there's more that could be done to save DES programs right now.

CHABIN: We should figure out, and we haven't taken the time to do this the governor hasn't taken the time to do this, figure out how the stimulus package can be utilized to cover for these cuts in this fiscal year. This is very clearly a defining moment for Arizona all of us.

The shelter directors worry about starting out next fiscal year at a deficit. And if there is a surge, as Burkhalter predicts, DES says they won't be able to meet all the needs of those most vulnerable in northern Arizona.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.