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Rape crisis (continued)


According to Linsky, he and his House colleagues who co-sponsored his amendment received "some level of assurance from the House leadership" that it would preserve the sexual-assault programs after the language assuring that sexual-assault programs would be funded had been stripped out. But by the time the budget debate on the House floor had ended on May 8 — after members had passed a $59 million prescription-drug program for seniors, among other costly spending measures — the centers were left high and dry. Says Linsky, "It’s unfortunate that rape-crisis centers didn’t rise to the top of the list for the House leadership."

Finneran spokesperson Charles Rasmussen contends that House leaders made "every effort possible" to adequately fund the centers. To hear him tell it, the leadership "did pretty good" at restoring some money for the rape-crisis centers. He notes that the final House budget includes $3.14 million (as opposed to the $11 million suggested by the Romney administration) for line item 4513-1000. Of that, Ways and Means managed to earmark $750,000 for what’s described as "primary care services for women, children, and adolescents." As for the remaining funds, Rasmussen maintains that the "intent was for the rest of that line item" — close to $2.4 million — "to go to the rape-crisis centers. That was the intent of the Ways and Means Committee." Rogers, the Ways and Means chairman, did not return two phone calls from the Phoenix to his office.

It may very well be that House leaders had meant to restore funding for rape-crisis centers and other sexual-assault initiatives. But the effect of the House budget amounts to something else entirely. Nothing in the House budget’s language stipulates that any funds allocated for line item 4513-1000 go specifically toward rape prevention and victim services, as Linsky’s amendment did. Rather, the budget stipulates that the money go toward the DPH "Division of Family Health Services," and that "no funds shall be expended ... for the compensation of state employees or contracted employees," according to the final House budget. That means that the DPH is free to distribute the remaining $2.4 million among its many worthwhile family-health programs, as it’s traditionally done. This fiscal year, for instance, the DPH has appropriated $8.7 million from current line item 4513-1000 funding and divvied it up among family-planning services ($4.4 million), gay-and-lesbian-suicide prevention ($784,000), the state poison-control hot line ($177,000), rape-crisis centers ($2.3 million), the Spanish anti-sexual-assault initiative ($133,000), health care for women and children ($635,000), and services for children’s special-health-care needs ($224,000). Assuming the burden of the House’s cut — a cut of $4 million over FY ’03 — were shared equally among these programs, each would absorb a 70 percent reduction. Thus, when all is said and done, the House has managed to restore only 30 percent of current funding — or $750,000 — to the state’s 21 rape-crisis centers. "The bottom line," Linsky says, "is we didn’t do a very good job funding these programs."

Today, advocates cannot quite fathom their financial predicament. Sure, they know that times are tight, and that many valuable programs have absorbed heavy-duty whacks from the budget ax. They know that the House has produced a much harsher budget than the governor, who’s been accused by Finneran and Rogers of relying on one-time revenues and funding gimmicks. What the advocates seem unable to accept is that House leaders had wiped out sexual-assault programs to begin with. As the adage goes, actions speak louder than words. And these actions show that House leaders don’t view sexual-assault programs as a priority. Says Liz Malia, a Boston representative who helped push for the Linsky amendment, "We all have our own priorities. With the House leadership, there clearly wasn’t a commitment to these programs or an adequate awareness of their value. I disagree."

Cohen sums up the sentiment among advocates best: "I can’t understand what the House leadership was thinking. Was this some power play to make Romney raise taxes? Or do they not get the value of what we do?"

House leaders, for their part, aren’t about to shed light on such questions. When asked why the House budget had initially eliminated sexual-assault programs, Rasmussen replies simply, "I have no idea why funding was eliminated," although he says the $750,000 that eventually was included for rape-crisis centers occurred "under the guidance of the House leadership." So are we to assume that the original Ways and Means budget reflected an oversight on the part of the leadership? "Ways and Means puts out its budget recommendations," Rasmussen says. "Often, they’re accepted by the membership. Sometimes, they’re not." When it came to rape-crisis centers, he adds, "There was enough energy and movement among the membership to change things."

HOUSE LEADERS may try to minimize the motivations behind their funding cuts, but they cannot minimize the impact. At BARCC, for instance, Scaramella figures that if the DPH were to divide the $750,000 in the House budget equally among rape-crisis centers, the state’s largest and oldest center would receive only $38,000 in FY ’04. That equals the salary of one BARCC program coordinator. Put another way, the reduction would mean shutting down vital services. It would mean operating the emergency hot line only during normal business hours — thus leaving some 162 calls per month unanswered. It would mean laying off at least six of BARCC’s 14 staff members. It would mean terminating 10 of the 14 support groups for teen and adult survivors. And it would mean forcing 400 rape victims to navigate the hospital setting — and the traumatic experience of undergoing a rape-kit examination — without a BARCC advocate at their sides. In the end, then, the final House proposal would prove almost as devastating as a complete loss of funding. Says Scaramella, "It’d mean a complete reorganization of what we do."

And that doesn’t even take into account what would happen to the smaller rape-crisis centers across Massachusetts. The RCSGL’s Cohen estimates that the Lowell center would lose approximately $122,000 out of the $172,000 that it receives from the DPH next fiscal year — which, in turn, would gut the center’s 24-hour hot line, its Cambodian-outreach project, two of its staff positions, and its office. All that would survive would be the center’s two clinicians, who, in Cohen’s words, "might be out on a street corner somewhere trying to counsel victims. But that’s about it."

Ultimately, the House proposal threatens to jeopardize the year’s progress toward ending sexual violence. How would the newly founded Commission on Sexual and Domestic Violence fulfill any of the 43 recommendations laid out by the now-defunct Task Force on Sexual Assault and Abuse — one of which, incidentally, demands "adequate funding for comprehensive rape-crisis centers" — if the majority of rape-crisis centers were to collapse? How could commission members press forward if the existing network on which the state relies to help victims were to suffer such a debilitating setback? In an interview with the Phoenix, even Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, who chairs the governor’s commission, contends that proper funding for rape-crisis centers is "really the minimum that we would need in order to move forward on our mandate."

But a collapsing network of rape-crisis centers isn’t necessarily imminent. Last week, advocates were relieved to read the FY ’04 budget proposal of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Unlike its House counterpart, Senate Ways and Means has managed to restore $9.45 million to the DPH line item for family-health services — which, in essence, would maintain current funding for the programs covered by the DPH division. And unlike its House counterpart, the Senate’s proposal includes language in the line item specifying that "funds shall be expended for rape prevention and victim services." Although the committee’s proposal does not designate a dollar amount for rape-crisis centers, the $9.45 million figure anticipates that the DPH would appropriate almost $2.4 million for sexual-assault programs. And because the Senate’s language differs from that in the House’s budget, legislators must hash out a compromise in conference committee, which will produce the final budget next month — giving advocates hope that the House will adopt the Senate version. Advocates find hope, too, in the fact that Governor Romney has vowed to protect sexual-assault programs. As Healey told the Phoenix, "We’re very concerned about the funding issue. It’s something that we’re going to fight for."

For now, at least, the fate of the state’s rape-crisis centers is anybody’s guess. And the fact that these programs have even been placed in such a precarious position goes to show one thing: despite a high-profile year for their cause, people combating sexual violence still must struggle to make their voices heard. Victims, after all, are easily silenced, shamed, and intimidated. As Gallagher, of the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors, points out, "If you want to take money away from victims, it’s easy. We are the people who are least likely to make a stink about it."

Kristen Lombardi can be reached at klombardi[a]

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Issue Date: May 30 - June 5, 2003
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