Nov. 27, 2019 — Siuslaw Outreach Services (SOS) is on the front lines in the battle against domestic violence. The Florence-based support group also assists individuals every day with a wide array of situations that are related to family instability and child safety.
However, according to SOS Executive Director Bob Teter, the organization’s mission — and very existence —is in jeopardy.
“In January, new language was included in the Violence Against Women Act (section 28 CFR 90) and the Family Violence Prevention & Services Act,” he explained. “This new federal mandate is forcing SOS to restructure the way it provides services. Currently, our staff is cross-trained and certified to provide any of the services offered by SOS.”
However, the new language in the two federal acts require that staff be assigned to a specific program, without crossover. It also limits communication within the agency itself.
“In order to push forward and comply with the new federal language, SOS must hire two additional advocates,” said Teter. “In addition to planned grant proposals, it’s been determined we need to raise $25,000 in community donations. This is not a request we take lightly. In all honesty, if we do not reach this goal within the next three months, we will be forced to greatly reduce our services for clients and families in crisis.”
The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is a federal law which originally received bi-partisan sponsorship by then Democratic Sen. Joe Biden and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. The act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on Sept. 13, 1994, and provided $1.6 billion in funding to be directed specifically towards the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women.
VAWA was renewed with bi-partisan support in 2000 and in 2005, with parts of the legislation undergoing meaningful change to accommodate concerns from stakeholders on both sides of the aisle.
However, the act’s 2012 renewal was opposed by conservatives, who objected to extending the legislation’s provisions to same-sex couples. It was eventually reauthorized after an extended legislative battle.
As a result of last year’s government shutdown, VAWA expired on Dec. 21, 2018. The act was briefly resurrected as part of a short-term spending bill in January 2019 but expired one month later. Last April, the House passed a VAWA reauthorization bill, which has yet to be passed by the Senate.
The House and the Senate did agree on updates to the over-arching program the federal government has crafted to deal with domestic violence, the Family Violence Prevention and Services Improvement Act (FVPSA), Senate Bill 2259 — and it is those changes that are directly affecting SOS.
“There are many agencies across the nation that provide housing and utility assistance along with advocacy for victims of violent crimes,” Teter said. “However, all those agencies have separated those departments — in staffing and many times even location — for years. SOS has looked at this as being unnecessary in rural communities. Now we are forced to be like every other agency that provides the services we do.”
Based on 2018 statistics alone, the need for support services in the Florence area for victims of domestic violence is clear — and more than a little unsettling. The number of women and children assisted by SOS each year is in the thousands, with many of those having no other option when confronted by violence, homelessness or exploitation.
“In 2018, our current staff of 3.5 advocates responded to over 7,000 requests for service, including emergency shelter requests, immediate basic-need assessment, crisis intervention, community referrals, follow-up contacts, safety planning and transportation. Other direct service programs in Oregon that handle this volume typically have triple the staff,” Teter said.
The uncertainty surrounding any modification to the bill that is passed by the Senate, and the newly updated FVPSA, have caused Teter to begin to plan for a way to continue to operate.
SOS is primarily a volunteer powered operation and the new requirements will mean major changes — and limitations — to the number of tasks that are currently being taken care of by a small group of dedicated individuals.
At the heart of the issue is that SOS relies on four major sources for funding: Lane County Human services Commission, Oregon Department of Justice, Oregon Department of Human Services and U.S. Office of Violence Against Women. The new language in the two federal acts means meeting requirements that create a conflict between Lane County funding and funds from the departments of justice and human services and the U.S. Office of Violence.
“In order to comply with this new language and continue to provide advocacy for victims and services to families in crisis, we must expand our program capacity and increase staffing,” Teter said. “If we do not comply with this new mandate, we risk losing up to 40 percent of our funding. If that were to happen, SOS would have to close its doors.”
Teter also reported that the SOS Board of Directors has been meeting with federal, state and county officials over the past three months to try to work around this new language and mitigate the effect it will have on services.
SOS will continue to work with all involved agencies to implement a change to the new requirements, Teter said, but that may take longer than he would like. He remains concerned that unless a new funding option is discovered the impact on the individuals helped at SOS will be drastic.
“At SOS, our focus has always been in assisting clients to find solutions to their situation and provide them with the means and strength to overcome personal barriers. In doing so, SOS has worked hard to ensure your donations go to clients and families with the highest need and best hope of sustainability,” Teter said. “Because of our strong fiscal oversight and diverse programming, SOS has been recognized by Lane County, the Oregon Department of Justice and the Office of Violence Against Women as one of the most comprehensive, cost-efficient and effective programs in the nation. With that said, we never thought we would be in the situation we are currently facing.”
To find out more about SOS or to volunteer, call 541-997-2816 or visit florencesos.org.