Rape Crisis Centers Face Existential Challenges


Most people don’t ever think about the funding streams for rape crisis centers. But right now, that is a luxury we cannot afford.

Rape crisis centers in North Carolina are seeing their funding dry up at an electric pace, causing mayhem within the agencies and a lack of services for victims. Meanwhile, the need for these services remains high, with almost 12,000 survivors seeking support from rape crisis centers across the state last year, according to the NC Council for Women and Youth Involvement.

So, why is funding for sexual assault services in jeopardy?

A collage of letters and symbols on a gray background that spells out #METOO

Bear with me here, as we are getting into the weeds of government funding, but it’s important to understand what is happening:

One of the main sources of federal funding for rape crisis centers is the Crime Victims’ Fund (CVF), a program established by the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA). The CVF is funded by the fines and asset seizures that white collar criminals pay when they are prosecuted by the Department of Justice (DOJ). (Yes, you read that right. In order for crime victims to receive services, someone else has to commit a crime and pay a fine. Wild, right?)

In recent years, the DOJ has prosecuted fewer white collar crimes, opting to make settlement deals. But the fines paid in those settlements went into the general treasury instead of the CVF fund for several years. In 2021, Congress passed the VOCA Fix Act of 2021 in an attempt to move new fines back into the CVF fund. But for years, the agencies dependent on those funds were denied full funding and continue to struggle.

Imagine that you didn’t receive a paycheck for four years, and then your bosses said that they would start paying you again but didn’t reimburse you for the missed wages.

Imagine that you didn’t receive a paycheck for four years, and then your bosses said that they would start paying you again but didn’t reimburse you for the missed wages. That’s the situation that these agencies are in. They have continued to limp along and provide services as best they can, but the depths of yearslong funding cuts, which continue today, are having significant effects.

As a result, the federal funding through VOCA has decreased significantly over the past four years and continues to fall. According to the North Carolina Governor’s Crime Commission, the agency that oversees the dispersal of CVF funds in North Carolina, the fund – which received $103 million in 2018 – will only receive $23 million in 2024. That’s a cut of almost 80% over only six years. Beyond this, from 2016-2022, the fund was raided to fund other initiatives that Congress was supposed to allocate money for, including services and programs mandated by the Violence Against Women Act, further stripping funding from the agencies that depend on it.

At the same time that funding is drying up, rape crisis centers have seen record increases in the last two years in demand for services in both direct client care as well as prevention services.

Here in North Carolina, directors of rape crisis and domestic violence agencies were recently told that the Governor’s Crime Commission will not be releasing funding for new grants. For many organizations, their funding cycle ends in September. Then what? And even if the GCC does decide to fund them, it will be at a much lower level.

I serve on the Board of Directors at the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, and we’re among the many organizations who have done our best to rise to the need our agencies now face by building capacity and partnerships. But those efforts still leave the agency with a huge funding gap. Last year, we had to lay off 50% of our staff. And we are only one agency. Imagine the ripple effects across the country for all the agencies serving survivors of sexual assault and/or domestic violence.

Last year, we had to lay off 50% of our staff.

Because of technicalities in funding streams, some states are reading the writing on the funding wall and beginning to refer to the federal funds as “seed funds”, meaning that the government is abdicating responsibility for funding rape crisis centers and turning the it over to local communities. Some states are telling agencies to close down all services except the hotline. Local coalitions nationwide are beginning to look at consolidation of services on a regional level. This is a scary time for these agencies.

Do we really want to live in a society where survivors of sexual assault have nowhere to turn for support after the attack? Rape crisis centers at a minimum run 24-hour hotlines, dispatch support workers to attend hospital visits where sexual assault exams take place to collect evidence, advocate for survivors in court, and provide counseling and support groups. Without rape crisis centers, survivors are left alone, contributing to long-term mental health issues and even more lack of prosecution.

So what can we do to help support these agencies and the survivors? On a personal level, we can all donate time and money to our local agencies. You can find your local North Carolina agency by entering your county at the NCCASA website.

You can also help us in our advocacy efforts. Over 1500 agencies nationwide recently sent a letter to the Congressional Appropriations Committee asking them to stop making such significant cuts to VOCA funding. You can make your voice heard as well by calling and/or writing to your national representatives in the Senate and House offices and letting them know that you care about this issue. To learn more about the issues and advocacy efforts, you can visit the National Network to End Domestic Violence website.

Victims of sexual assault face a mountain of shaming and continued fear of their perpetrators. Funding rape crisis centers to provide supportive services is the least we can do as a society. We don’t just need emergency funding, we need sustained and dependable funding for rape crisis centers.

Because no one wants to think about sexual assault or domestic violence, survivors have few allies willing to learn about the issues and speak up. If this issue speaks to your heart, I encourage you to make those phone calls and donations in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. And please make sure to let all your friends know too. It takes a village to save ourselves, so let’s do it today!


*An earlier version of this op-ed was published by Carolina Public Press and has been edited and updated for this publication

Anna Lynch is a board member of the Orange County Rape Crisis Center in Chapel Hill, NC. She also serves on the Women AdvaNCe Board of Directors.

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