Supporting Domestic Violence Survivors Means Protecting Their Options

A drop in Victims of Crime Act funding limits domestic violence survivors’ options—including shelter and housing access, legal representation, counseling and more.

In the U.S., 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced some form of physical violence by an intimate partner. (FG Trade / Getty Images)

For years, I’ve partnered with hundreds of survivors of domestic violence and their families as they considered a path to achieve safety, independence and freedom, each in their own way. Together, we explored all available options: Maybe it involved obtaining a divorce or separation, beginning to save cash and creating a go-bag, or securing access to benefits like rental assistance and food stamps to facilitate independence.

A central tenet of trauma-informed legal services involves restoring the power of self determination to survivors—working with them to reclaim autonomy so they can identify what is best for them, while remaining responsive to their needs as they may change over time. Ensuring survivors have that power is instrumental, not only in their pursuit of safety, independence and freedom, but in their overall healing, too.

This is especially true for survivors we serve at the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG). These are individuals already facing the traumas of poverty, the immigration system, or any number of other circumstances as they intersect with and compound the abuse.

What It Means to Be Trauma Informed

Ideally, survivors would have more options in pursuing justice.

Two things can be true at once: First, we can and must aspire to a future in which survivors have options beyond the civil and criminal legal systems; and second, given the systems we currently have, our government leaders must protect the options that do exist.

Those existing options are largely funded by the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) which, since its inception in 1984, has supported survivors all over the country by funding services that assist with shelter and housing access, legal representation, counseling and more via the Crime Victims Fund. This funding—the single largest source supporting New York’s crime victims—is vital to organizations like NYLAG, as our Domestic Violence Law Unit relies on VOCA grant funding to reach more survivors with our services, offering them options they might not otherwise be able to access.

What’s at Stake for Survivors

Federal crime forfeitures support VOCA grants to state and local crime victim service providers, but with those funds declining over time, so has available VOCA funding. And while the U.S. Department of Justice is working on a solution to this problem, any action they take won’t restart that crucial funding flow to individual states for years.

Over the last five years alone, New York’s funding declined by 61 percent, or $121.6 million, of which the state covered only 23 percent in the last two fiscal years.

A drop in VOCA funding significantly hinders service providers’ ability to carry out our work, and in turn, limits survivors’ access to options as they determine how to meet their needs. Bringing this full circle, that loss of choices for survivors limits their ability to pursue safety, independence and freedom, in partnership with trauma-informed service providers.

Seeing the impending consequences of this continued decline in funding, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) proposed $120 million in her executive budget for fiscal year 2025 to prevent reductions in current VOCA-funded contracts, and a multi-year commitment of $100 million to mitigate potential future reductions.

States across the country facing this gap have an opportunity to do the same, maintaining the funding via state budgets. In fact, governors and state legislatures nationwide owe it to survivors to fill the gap and maintain the options VOCA makes available to them, including expert, trauma-informed civil legal services.

Supporting Survivors Means Protecting—and Expanding—Their Options

I’ve seen firsthand what’s possible when survivors have real access to options in determining their next steps: They can reclaim the power to make decisions for themselves, from finding new housing to securing orders of protection and more, prioritizing their safety and well-being on their own terms.

Every survivor deserves the ability to pursue the outcomes they seek, and for NYLAG and other service providers across the country, VOCA funding ensures survivors have that opportunity when they come through our doors. While we advocate for a future in which those options expand to facilitate greater autonomy and healing for survivors, protecting the options currently available is of the utmost importance.

Our coalition of service providers and advocates throughout New York called on Gov. Hochul to protect those options for survivors by filling the VOCA funding gap, and she delivered. All governors and state legislatures committed to supporting survivors should do the same.

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Lisa Rivera is the president and CEO of the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG). She is a career public interest attorney who has spent over 20 years working with and advocating for survivors of domestic violence. After law school, Rivera worked at the National District Attorney’s Association, where she assisted in developing trainings on domestic violence, sexual assault, and forensic evidence. She also co-directed the Domestic Violence Clinical Center in conjunction with St. John’s University School of Law, where she was an adjunct professor.