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Q&A: Wagner champions legislation to fund victim services

Last month, the U.S. House passed legislation meant to support and increase grant funding to a bevy of victim service programs. 

The VOCA Fix to Sustain the Crime Victims Fund Act has been a labor of love for U.S. Congresswoman Ann Wagner this year and advocates are hoping to see action taken quickly on it. The legislation funds service grants that help survivors of domestic, sexual, and child abuse as well as other crimes. 

“It is a crisis if even one victim can’t get the essential services they need due to decreased funding, and I am grateful we were able to take immediate action to get these victims the services and funding they need to move forward,” Wagner said. “I am hopeful the VOCA Fix Act will be signed into law without delay so this vital funding source is replenished and the thousands of Americans who rely on it have confidence they will have our help in their time of need.”

As the legislation has moved to the U.S. Senate, The Missouri Times asked Wagner about just what the legislation does and how it would help Missourians. Below is a conversation between Wagner (AW) and The Missouri Times (TMT) with answers edited for clarity only. 

TMT: From the Debbie Smith Act to the VOCA Fix to Sustain the Crime Victims Fund, you’ve championed several causes to help survivors. What has given you that drive to focus on these issues? 

AW: As a mom, a grandma, and a lawmaker, I believe I have a moral obligation to fight for survivors of horrific crimes like trafficking, rape, domestic and sexual assault, and child abuse. Violent criminals must pay for their abhorrent crimes and provide just compensation to the victims whose lives they have upended. Too often, victims of these traumatic crimes are overlooked and underserved. In my home state of Missouri, I’ve met with many survivors and listened to their painful stories. They need help to rebuild their lives and find justice, and that’s exactly what I came to Congress to do.

It is a crisis if even one victim can’t get the essential services they need due to decreased funding. We have to stand up for the powerless and provide a voice for the voiceless — and that means making criminals pay for their abhorrent actions.

TMT: How would this specific bill help victims, especially in Missouri? 

AW: VOCA grants are the primary source of support for programs dedicated to survivors of domestic abuse, sexual assault, trafficking, child abuse, and other traumatic crimes. This year, these programs are facing catastrophic cuts, potentially leaving thousands of Americans unable to access life-saving services. And the timing could not be worse! The pandemic has put women and children at an increased risk of abuse and domestic violence. We simply cannot leave victims without support in this frightening and dangerous time. 

From November 2019 through September this year, Missouri will have distributed well over $80 million in VOCA funds to organizations that serve victims of serious crimes. These funds are being used to help tens of thousands of Missourians navigate the court system as they find justice; access victim advocates, compensation, and trauma-informed care; and meet the costs of medical bills and funeral services. If Congress does not act swiftly to stabilize this funding, many of these organizations will have to scale back their essential services. Some programs will be eliminated entirely. My bill will ensure that the most vulnerable Missourians can continue to access the services they need to rebuild their lives while the criminals that harmed them are being brought to justice.

TMT: If this bill does not pass, how much of a cut to VOCA funds can we expect to see in Missouri? 

AW: In Missouri, we are expecting about a 25 percent cut to VOCA funds in the upcoming year if this bill is not signed into law. Missouri law enforcement and victim service providers need Congress to enact this legislation so they can protect and care for their communities.  A funding cut this large will have devastating effects on victims throughout Missouri who need our help.  My team and I are using every resource at our disposal to make sure my legislation makes it through the Senate and becomes law so victims are not left out to dry.  

TMT: Are these grants taxpayer-funded? 

AW: VOCA grants are NOT taxpayer-funded! They are paid for out of the Crime Victims Fund, which is funded by federal criminal monetary penalties. Unfortunately, the Department of Justice is increasingly seeking non-prosecution and deferred-prosecution agreements instead of prosecuting federal crimes. As a result, money that would otherwise serve victims is being deposited into the General Treasury instead of the Crime Victims Fund. My legislation simply ensures that criminal settlements from federal non-prosecution and deferred prosecution agreements can be used to support victims, just as they could if these cases were prosecuted.

TMT: How are VOCA grants used? What are some examples? 

AW: VOCA grants enable thousands of victim service providers to offer critical services, including medical care, mental health care, and victim advocacy, to those who have suffered serious crimes. For example, I have long championed the work of Children’s Advocacy Centers, or CACs, a network of more than 900 care centers where child victims of abuse get comprehensive care while working with prosecutors and law enforcement to hold offenders accountable. In 2019, CACs provided forensic interviews, medical evaluations, evidence-based mental health care, and victim advocacy services to more than 338,000 children to help them heal from the trauma of abuse. CACs rely on VOCA funds to help these kids and families. That’s why stable VOCA funding is so critical. For every $1 million in VOCA funding cut from CACs, 242 child abuse victims will go without help. VOCA grants help real people who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time as well as those who have survived tragic and traumatic situations. 

TMT: Have we seen a decrease in these grants in recent years? What else can we do to help bolster these programs to continue providing aid to survivors? 

AW: We have seen significant cuts over the last few years, and I am seriously concerned that VOCA grant recipients will face an even more dire situation in the coming years. VOCA funding is dropping so quickly that, according to the Justice Department’s Office for Victims of Crime, the money available for grants will be approximately $1.9 billion by the end of this year. That is $700 million less than DOJ awarded in VOCA grants last year.  And if this year’s VOCA grant funding, which has seen devastating cuts the past two years, maintains at similar levels this year, the fund will be completely exhausted by FY23.

In addition to stabilizing funding for VOCA grants, the VOCA Fix to Sustain the Crime Victims Fund Act will make much-needed improvements to victim compensation and services. These include bolstering state victim compensation funds, allowing states to request a no-cost extension from the attorney general to ensure states can thoughtfully and effectively distribute victim service grants without being penalized, and providing flexibility to promote victim cooperation with law enforcement.

TMT: I know this was a bipartisan effort. Who did you work with on this legislation and how was that working relationship? 

AW: The bill is both bipartisan and bicameral, and we worked in lockstep with our Senate counterparts to ensure this critical legislation has the best chance of becoming law. In the House, we’ve worked very closely with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler and Representatives Brian Fitzpatrick, Sheila Jackson Lee, Mary Gay Scanlon, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Debbie Dingell, and John Moolenaar. It is led in the Senate by Senator Lindsey Graham and Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin as well as Senators Tammy Baldwin, Chuck Grassley, Dianne Feinstein, John Cornyn, Amy Klobuchar, and Lisa Murkowski. Each and every one of these members of Congress are working tirelessly to ensure victims of crime can continue to access services. The VOCA Fix to Sustain the Crime Victims Fund Act has truly been a team effort, and I am so grateful that we’ve got such a strong team of representatives and senators working to get the bill across the finish line.   

My efforts here are extremely similar to my work on the Debbie Smith Act to fund rape kit testing.  I identified a problem here in Missouri and worked with my colleagues to get that critical legislation across the finish line and signed into law by President Trump. It was solely as a result of my efforts to get the Debbie Smith Act signed into law that Missouri was able to step up its work on the issue to bring justice to victims of rape and assault. The Debbie Smith Act gave millions of dollars to Missouri to end the rape kit backlog and help victims, and the VOCA Fix Act will solve a similar problem here in Missouri.  I am proud to be able to address both of these issues for victims of traumatic crimes and will continue to work on problems like these so our communities here in Missouri have the resources they need.