Sexual assault center faces financial crisis, possible closure
May 5, 2012 at 12:05 a.m.
Updated May 6, 2012 at 12:06 a.m.
The largest sexual assault crisis center in the Crossroads may be forced to close.
Because of a clerical error in submitting its funding applications, Hope of South Texas has lost its Crime Victims Compensation grant funding through the Texas Attorney General's Office, said executive director Julie Flessner.
Jim Cole, treasurer of the organization's board of directors, said the center will have to shut its doors if it does not get additional funding. "We've got to replace that income," he said. "We have a fund balance, but it will be exhausted."
The organization applied for three grants, totaling about $160,000 a year for two years. It was allocated a total of $167,843 in crime victims compensation grant funds in 2011, according to the Texas Attorney General's Crime Victims Services Division annual report.
The Hope of South Texas' annual budget is about $390,000.
The need for financial assistance is immediate, Flessner said.
"We need money to keep the lights on and a roof over our head," she said, adding that open staff positions will not be filled unless funding is restored.
Cole said the organization is attempting to recoup some of the lost revenue.
"We are making application for additional funds from United Way and approaching city and county governments for additional funding. We've got to get support locally," Cole said. "We provide significant services, and there is really no one to take our place."
Hope of South Texas, founded in 1986, serves six counties in the Golden Crescent region.
It operates a 24-hour crisis intervention hotline and includes a children's advocacy center.
Hope staff members accompany sexual assault victims and their families to the hospital, to court and law enforcement agencies.
When Billy Joe Harris, the so-called Twilight Rapist, was on trial in Edna, Hope staff members were in the courtroom every day a victim had to be in court, too.
"They do a great job. They are caring, conscientious people," said Jackson County District Attorney Bobby Bell. "They provide a vital service to crime victims."
The agency also provides short-term crisis intervention for adults and children and emotional support to victims and their friends and relatives.
The agency's Children's Advocacy Center provides a place for forensic interviews and takes on cases whether the children are crime victims or witnesses to a crime.
"One thing we focus on is a joint investigation between Child Protective Services and law enforcement," Flessner said. "It is much less traumatic for the child to get that interview done as quickly as possible by both agencies together talking to the kids one time and one time only."
Hope staff also provide assistance filing for crime victims' compensation.
About 300 clients a year are served by the Hope of South Texas sexual assault crisis center.
The clerical error in the organization's three grant applications, which caused rejection from the AG's Office, was a simple one.
"When we filed our application, we didn't send extra copies. Instead of calling and saying, 'Hey, we didn't get the extra copies,' they said we aren't getting any funding," Cole said.
"Of course, this was quite a shock. In our size organization, it's a huge hit."
Flessner said the applications were submitted in March 2011. The three grant applications were for state and federal funds for the sexual assault crisis center and state grant funds for victims assistance.
"We got notification in August that we were denied funding because of the lack of three copies that were to be included in the application," Flessner said.
They had submitted only the original application.
The letter also said the decision was final and offered no appeal process.
Tom Kelley, of the AG's Press Office, said the grant rejection was consistent with policy.
"The pre-screening portion of the application process is a critical hurdle that must be cleared before applicants can proceed," Kelley said.
He added that of the 499 grant applications submitted, 21 failed to follow the written instructions.
"The application pre-screening criteria has remained pretty consistent over the last two application grant cycles," Kelley said. "Before 2008, two Internal Audit Division reports cited multiple findings against the Crime Victim Services Division regarding inconsistency with the pre-screening, scoring and selection processes." Specifically, there were findings that some grant recipients were given special exceptions when they failed to meet the basic requirements published in the applications kits, Kelley explained.
Flessner said the fault is all hers.
"I am absolutely to blame," said Flessner, fighting back tears even nine months after the stunning news.
After learning the grant applications had been denied, Flessner tried to resign, but the Hope board refused to accept it.
The grant application snafu could have been a precursor to what may be coming with grants awarded through the Compensation to Victims of Crime Fund, a revenue stream that is drying up.
In April, First Assistant Attorney General Daniel Hodge told two legislative committees that revenues to the fund - about 65 percent comes from court fines and fees - have dropped 3 percent since 2008, according to the Associated Press.
Hodge said the fund, which paid out $75.5 million last year, would have only $2.7 million left at the end of fiscal year 2013.
A month earlier, the AG's Office had notified nonprofit agencies that a shortfall in the fund will force the state legislature to look for alternative funding after fiscal year 2013. It also said the funding in 2013 would stay at the current level.
State Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, and Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, recognize the need to find a solution to the funding problem.
"The Crime Victims Compensation Fund is an extremely important resource for some of our most vulnerable citizens," Morrison said. "A significant factor impacting the fund has been a decrease in the paying of court fines and fees."
Pete Winckler, legislative aide to Hegar, said the senator, who sits on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, is well aware of the situation with the fund.
"There are a lot of eyes on it," Winckler said. "It will probably come down to a compromise between committees from both the House and the Senate to come up with a bill to address the problem."
Winckler said there have been some suggestions that the grant programs should be put on the chopping block and payments to crime victims be the only focus of the fund, but Hegar doesn't care for that scenario.
"I don't expect that to happen," Winckler said. "We need to pay crime victims first, but these are also some very deserving programs. To see funding end would be very problematic. Who would fill the gap?"
He said the solution will be difficult, but raising fees may be an answer.
Hope of South Texas isn't the only area nonprofit agency affected by cutbacks in crime-victims funding.
Mid-Coast Family Services also receives some crime-victims grant funds. About 16 percent, or $50,000 of its $315,000 family violence budget, is from the crime-victims fund.
"That amount partially funds two staff members who work directly with victims of domestic violence," said chief executive officer Ginny Stafford.
Stafford also pointed out that Victoria has a system to assist crime victims that includes multiple agencies.
"Victoria has a system that works. Crime Victims Advocates from the police department, sheriff's office and the DA's office are often on the crime scene from beginning to end, helping victims get through trauma, which resulted as no fault of their own."
Mid-Coast Family Services and Hope of South Texas are used when the crime is domestic violence or sexual assault in nature.
Maria Flores, executive director of The Harbor Children's Alliance and Victim Center in Port Lavaca, said the organization has already seen a decline in revenue from the crime victims' grants, but has been mostly affected by a cut in the federal grant amount.
"This grant is mostly used for salaries, travel, supplies and training," she said. The organization already has begun looking for funding elsewhere.
Victoria County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Terry Simons hopes legislators come up with a solution.
"The position is mandated under state law. The county has employees at the district attorney's office as well as the sheriff's office who are mandated for victim's liaison," Simons said.
"If the grant funding diminishes, the county will have to make up the difference. We hope that the state does not turn this into an unfunded mandate."
Flessner said the opportunity to reapply for grants during the second year of the funding is unlikely.
"In year's past, there have been opportunities to re-apply for that second year, but not this time," Flessner said.
Cole said he hopes Victoria and the surrounding communities that Hope of South Texas serves will step up to assist the agency.
"One thing that can be done is to make contributions, which we always gladly accept.
"Also, talk to people you know in government to encourage them to make us part of their budgets," he said. "We are in a pickle."