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As demand surges under a new Utah law, advocates say domestic violence services remain underfunded

By Kyle Dunphey - Utah News Dispatch | Mar 18, 2024

Spenser Heaps, Utah News Dispatch

The Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured at dusk on the last night of the legislative session Friday, March 1, 2024.

Utah’s domestic violence shelters are seeing an unprecedented spike in referrals in the last year, prompting the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition to ask the governor for $8 million in this year’s budget to help with staffing shortages.

But by the end of the legislative session, that request was whittled down to $1 million in annual funding.

“For us, it’s frustrating to see all of the rhetoric around a tight budget year and then to see an income tax cut,” said Erin Jemison, director of public policy for the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition.

“The amount of money that will save an average family compared to the good the legislature can do with that kind of funding is pretty imbalanced in my view. That’s what makes the session kind of disappointing,” she said.

Advocates say that $1 million is still a needed bump in funding, adding to the roughly $12 million divvied up annually among domestic violence organizations. This year’s funding will provide an additional $60,000 to each of the state’s 16 shelters.

But it’s a fraction of what was originally requested. And referrals continue to stream in, spurred by a landmark law passed in 2023 directing all law enforcement agencies to conduct a lethality assessment when responding to victims of intimate partner violence.

A lethality assessment is used to determine how dangerous and potentially deadly conflict in an intimate relationship is — depending on how victims answer the questions, they could be referred to a domestic violence service provider on the spot.

Mandating the lethality assessment opened the floodgates.

Since the law took effect last July, domestic violence shelters around the state have reported a massive uptick in referrals, some well over 100%. Thousands of Utahns experiencing intimate partner violence were able to get help, many of them for the first time.

“The program is working,” said Ashlee Taylor, executive director of The Refuge, a domestic violence service provider based in Utah and Juab counties. “It’s definitely a larger number of referrals than anyone was anticipating.”

According to data from the Utah Department of Public Safety, from July 2023 to this past February there were 7,437 lethality assessments submitted by 144 agencies. About 4,700 of the assessments, or 63%, pointed to a potentially lethal relationship.

The more assessments that police conduct, the more survivors are referred to domestic violence shelters. Data from the Domestic Violence Coalition shows a whopping 113% increase in referrals statewide in the last six months compared to the first six months of 2023. The overwhelming majority of those referrals put survivors in touch with a service program for the first time.

Service providers like The Refuge went from about four referrals each month before the lethality assessment rollout to 43 — that’s a 975% increase, resulting in more referrals in a single month than The Refuge used to see in an entire year.

Each referral means someone experiencing domestic violence was able to access potentially life-saving services. It could be speaking to an advocate via a hotline, receiving therapy or educational programs, getting help navigating the legal system, requesting emergency shelter, or accessing housing resources like temporary rental assistance.

At The Refuge, Taylor said there’s an increase in demand for all of the above.

“We have seen more and more survivors being connected with resources, which is really incredible because we know that they’re out there, but it’s sometimes a hard step to make that connection with a service like ours,” she said.

Like any service, higher demand requires more staffing — an increase in staffing requires more funding. Shelters around the state have felt woefully underfunded for years. Even the historic state appropriation in 2023, where lawmakers gave $12 million annually to shelters, was bittersweet as it coincided with a roughly 50% decrease in federal funding.

That’s why the Domestic Violence Coalition asked for $8 million in the governor’s budget request this year, which would have allowed shelters to bolster staffing to handle the influx.

The governor’s office cut that down to a $2 million request to the legislature, $1 million in one-time funds and $1 million annually.

For weeks, it was unclear whether lawmakers would give that funding a green light. During the final week of the legislative session, advocates were still lobbying lawmakers to approve at least some of the governor’s request. On the second to last day, an updated list of appropriations was released that included $1 million in annual funds to help shelters with staffing needs.

At The Refuge, Taylor said that money allows her to increase the number of on-call advocates.

“Any agency will say there’s always more we could do with additional funding, but these last two sessions have done a lot to provide additional services to victims,” she said.

Still, the feeling remains among some advocates that Utah’s domestic violence services are underfunded.

“The fact that the legislature ended up funding the $1 million ongoing at the very last minute, that makes me give them an ‘A’ grade,” said Jemison. “Where I would give everyone a bad grade is just the fact that we only got the $2 million into the governor’s budget.”

House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, echoed Jemison, telling Utah News Dispatch she didn’t totally agree with the legislature’s budget priorities.

“I really wish we could have gotten more funding when it comes to domestic violence and sexual assault. I feel like we’ve moved forward in those areas, but I also feel like we might be moving backwards … The money we put into Utah Fits All, some of that money could have went into domestic violence and sexual assault services,” she said, referring to Utah’s controversial school choice scholarship program, which in the last two legislative sessions lawmakers have funded to the tune of $82 million.

Utah News Dispatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news source covering government, policy and the issues most impacting the lives of Utahns.


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