For the first time yesterday, the offices of Rhode Island’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Program were closed. Continuous budget cuts over the past five years has resulted in a 70 percent decrease in funding for the program and forced the doors to close one day each week.
“It’s going to have a significant impact,” said Melissa Leahey, manager of advocacy for the program. “[Seeking help] is usually not a split-minute decision.”
Leahey, whose office is located in the Noel Judicial Complex, explained that since offices will now be closed on Mondays, individuals seeking help might not be able to find it. She said that if individuals finally make the decision to get out of their situation, come to the office and see it closed, they become discouraged.
“If they don’t see those resources available, they could walk out the door and never come back,” said Leahey.
Judy Earle, executive director of the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center, a member agency of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence that runs the Court Advocacy Program, said the advocacy program provides support and advocacy for victims of domestic abuse as they go through proceedings, including pressing criminal charges, testifying in court or obtaining restraining orders.
“Our presence is very important in the court room,” said Earle, who helps victims connect with the advocates who work in the state-funded program. “We provide them with what they need during a very difficult time.”
Earle said that there are four branches of the program serving four courthouses across the state: Garrahy, Noel [Kent County], McGrath and Murray. She said the office that operates out of the Noel serves 40 percent of the state’s population, helping with cases from 15 cities and towns.
The Court Advocacy Program began in the late 1980s, and has suffered from budget cuts in recent years. Five years ago, the program used to operate on a budget of $425,000. This year, the proposed state budget is allotting $129,094 for the program.
“We are being asked to do all of the same work in the courthouses for 70 percent less,” said Earle, who added that as funds have decreased, the number of cases has only grown. Earle estimates the program provides support for 1,600 to 1,800 cases each year in Kent County alone, and that does not include the clients they provide non-legal services for.
“It adds up,” said Earle. “Yet we have such a strong commitment to victims and what we do. Non-profits are being asked to do so much more with so much less.”
Sadly, she says they are just not able to provide service five days a week with their current funding; Monday was chosen as the day to be closed because two of the four courthouses do not hear cases on that day. However, Kent County does and Earle said this change will affect both cases being heard and victims coming in on their own.
“Any day was going to affect some cities and towns,” said Earle. “We picked the day that would affect the least.”
Closures began yesterday, but last Friday, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence hosted a rally along with member agencies to urge the General Assembly to restore the program’s funding to the full $425,000. Earle knew the funding would not be restored quickly, but has hope that the office doors will be open on Mondays again soon.
“We are anxious to restore service,” said Earle.
When reached for comment, Larry Berman, spokesman for Speaker Gordon Fox, said the Speaker and the House Finance Committee are aware of the program’s desire for funding and it is “an issue that will be included in budget deliberations right now.”
“It’s something we’ve heard from, from advocates, and it’s under consideration,” said Berman. “It’s under discussion and the funding level will be determined in the next few weeks.”
Earle is hopeful the funding will come through. According to Earle, even with state funding, 65 percent of the necessary funds to support the program need to be raised through grants or fundraisers. She says each courthouse is given as much as possible. Funds are divided based on the population of the areas covered.
“As quickly as they restore funding, we can restore services,” said Earle.