Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Morning Sentinel Staff
Maine is one of the country's safest places to live -- one of the five most crime-free in the United States, in fact.
But for too many people in Maine, there is no safe harbor. In 2012, for the second year in a row, Maine police recorded more domestic assaults than they did the year before. While the overall crime rate dropped, domestic violence was one of only two crime categories that increased.
Greater awareness is driving most of the increase in reports. Everyone from victim advocates to Gov. Paul LePage has been working to raise the profile of the problem. Thanks to their work, more victims now feel comfortable stepping forward to report domestic violence.
But these efforts will be for nothing if victims can't find support after being abused. It's a frighteningly likely scenario under current economic conditions. Maine's domestic violence resource centers are reeling from increased demand and decreased state and federal funding, and serious problems lie ahead if lawmakers don't make these critical services a high priority.
Southern Maine has seen some true innovations in reaching out to victims. For example, the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office and several local police departments pair Family Crisis Services staff with police during patrols. This allows advocates from the Portland agency to touch base with an abuse victim at the scene of the assault and to offer follow-up home-based services such as support and safety planning.
Programs like this one could lose ground, though, if current budget trends continue. The state of Maine picks up about 23 percent of the cost of domestic violence services -- compared to the 60 percent federal share -- so the across-the-board federal spending cuts called for under sequestration are having a great impact. Domestic violence resource centers are weathering cuts of 10 to 20 percent by laying off staff or cutting back on prevention services. Meanwhile, hotline calls are increasing and requests for short- and long-term shelter going unfulfilled.
Agencies can't count on state help, either. None of the spending plans being weighed in Augusta proposes making up for the loss of federal funds.
Both the state and the federal governments are taking a risk by failing to fund domestic violence services. Maine spends about $1.8 billion a year, to cover the costs of domestic violence and sexual assault, factoring in special education, law enforcement, mental health, corrections and other government expenses and the cost to employers in lost productivity. These expenses will only grow if support and prevention services go underfunded.
Ordinary Mainers have become more willing to speak out against domestic violence, "to say to their neighbor, 'What are you doing? That is not OK,' " Lois Galgay Reckitt, executive director of Family Crisis Services, told the Portland Press Herald.
Now it's time for state and federal lawmakers to show equal courage. If they don't, people who have already endured a great deal will be victims again.