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Sonoma County advocates criticize lack of funding for domestic violence programs in state budget

State and local advocates for survivors of domestic and sexual abuse are criticizing the budget signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last week for failing to fund violence prevention and education programs.

Dedicated funding for such programs is especially critical in light of the mental health fallout from the pandemic, advocates say.

Shortly after Newsom signed the $308 billion budget into law late Thursday, statewide groups such as the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence and ValorUS pointed out that a line item for $15 million in one-time funding for prevention programs was missing. That funding had previously been approved for two years and is set to run out in 2024.

Of that amount, Sonoma County’s Verity, which provides services to sexual assault victims, received $300,000 to help fund its $500,000 prevention programs. The rest comes from federal and private dollars.

“It’s not like it’s a ton of money,” said Christine Castillo, Verity’s executive director. “We’re the sole agency that does sexual assault prevention education (in Sonoma County).”

Verity’s prevention program funds three staff members who work with youth in schools and in juvenile detention, as well as parents and educators. They target such issues as teen assault and child abuse.

“Almost all of May and June, our staff were making presentations around what is sexual assault, what are some of the things that constitute it,” Castillo said. “It really educates people about their language and behavior.”

Castillo said each presentation includes an open invitation for youth to privately discuss any concerns they have, making it clear that staff are mandated reporters. Often, she added, that leads to a young person coming forward to report abuse.

The budget signed last week includes $20.6 million for shelter-based domestic violence services, which support survivors after violence has taken place, said Jessica Merrill, a spokeswoman for California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. She said roughly 100 rape crisis centers across the state receive a total of $45,000 — about $450 each — from the state’s general fund.

Newsom’s media office could not be reached for comment Wednesday morning.

Prevention advocates agree that funding services for survivors after the violence has occurred is critical and should be a priority. Funding, in fact, should be increased, they say. But preventing sexual and domestic violence before it happens should also be a priority and should have a guaranteed funding.

The vast majority of funding for domestic sexual violence comes from the federal government and is mostly administered through the state, said Krista Colon, public policy director of the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence. These funds are heavily skewed to survivor services and crisis response.

It’s often difficult to demonstrate the benefit of prevention education, she said.

“We can easily envision what it is to answer a hotline call or to meet a survivor at the emergency room after they've been sexually assaulted, or to provide counseling or emergency shelter,” Colon said. “Prevention takes longer to see the outcome of it. Sometimes it’s really hard to demonstrate that we stopped something from ever happening.”

Merrill said the state’s investment in domestic violence, largely supplemented by federal funding, has been flat for a decade. The state has no dedicated funding toward sexual and domestic violence prevention, though there are some federal funding streams for domestic and sexual violence prevention filtered through the state Office of Emergency Services.

Aside from $15 million in ongoing funding, advocates are seeking $25.5 million to support culturally-responsive victim service providers for underserved communities, including non-shelter based programs.

Tracy Lamb, executive director of NEWS-Domestic Violence & Sexual Abuse Services, said the emotional and psychological fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic have made ongoing, dedicated funds for prevention services more important than ever.

Lamb said that a one-time, $150,000 grant from the state helps fund a prevention program called YOUth Matter, which operates out of wellness centers at middle and high schools throughout Napa County.

The program includes a domestic violence counselor who provides coaching and support to help young people recognize abuse and unhealthy relationships with parents, adults and other youth. Because it is located in wellness centers, YOUth Matter staff can make referrals for such things as licensed therapy, she said.

“The youth in our community are definitely suffering and COVID has added another layer of that,” she said. “When you're seeing all of this horrible acting out that people are doing in the community, resources like this are important to preventing and recognizing the warning signs of mental illness and things before it becomes a situation that becomes horrific in the community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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