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Iowa AG Seeks Funding for Abuse Shelter Changes

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller is seeking $6 million from the Legislature as part of changes in how the state helps domestic abuse victims.

Miller asked a judiciary subcommittee last week for the money as his agency, which oversees domestic abuse and sexual assault programs, works to reduce its emphasis on shelters seen as underused and expensive.

The agency wants to close up to 12 of the 20 shelters the state now operates. Money saved by that move would go toward hiring 98 more advocates, adding to the 271 people who now help victims.

Advocates would focus more on helping people find permanent housing and support.

Miller said the state must find a way to manage its system more effectively because there is no guarantee how much federal funding states will get this year as Congress struggles with budget questions.

Miller said about 40 percent of the state victims services money goes toward shelters that serve only 11 percent of victims.

"We're spending that much money on one service that wasn't being used," Miller said. "It made sense to consolidate."

Miller wants $4 million to hire the additional advocates and $2 million to assist local programs as they collaborate to form six regions, each with one or two shelters. As part of the plan, fewer victims would be placed in traditional shelters and more would instead be given vouchers for temporary housing in a local hotel or helped with finding permanent housing.

Some lawmakers and shelter administrators said they worry the change could be hard on women in rural areas, where there are few housing options.

Sen. Tom Courtney, D-Burlington, said he was concerned that in some rural areas, an abuser could pinpoint the location of a victim in a town with only one hotel. He said closing shelters would also put services further out of reach for rural victims.

"We're going to be sorry for this," Courtney said.

A domestic abuse shelter in Burlington is already anticipating the loss of all state and federal funding and is working with the local YMCA to find community support to keep the seven-bedroom center open.

Ruby McGraw, the Burlington shelter director, acknowledged the shelter isn't always full and requires six of the 11 employees to staff it, but she said hotels are not a comparable alternative to a secure shelter with a fully stocked kitchen and space for children to play.

Laurie Schipper, executive director of Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said she supports the proposed changes.

"The rest of the nation is facing the same things. We're proud that Iowa is being proactive in the face of this financial crisis and getting a strategic plan in place to make sure no areas are left uncovered," she said.

Schipper said the current system doesn't adequately serve victims who don't seek shelter care. And when funding gets cut, advocates can be forced to spend more time staffing shelters.

Without the demands of shelters, advocates can more effectively reach out to victims individually, she said.

Beth Barnhill, executive director of the coalition's sexual assault program, said more emphasis needs to be given to the highest risk group, who are from 13 to 24 years old.

"With all our resources focused on the shelter we can't get advocates out in the schools, youth organizations, colleges and community groups," Barnhill said.

Schipper said Iowa's redesign is modeled after a pilot study in Portland, Ore., which showed domestically abused women fared better both mentally and physically if they were directed into permanent housing rather than shelter services.

On Thursday, members of the attorney general's crime victim assistance division will release the full results of a pilot program conducted at Waypoint, an organization in Cedar Rapids.

Waypoint ended their traditional shelter and started reorganizing in 2008.

Michael Shaw, who helps run domestic and sexual assault services at Waypoint, said the nonprofit changed its approach by offering solutions based on the victims' needs, even if they didn't require shelter services.

The number of victims Waypoint was able to serve under the new model increased 250 percent.

He said in 2008 it cost $1,558 on average to shelter a person and $558 to offer outreach services.

"Resources were being disproportionately used to maintain the traditional shelter model and weren't available to support women in the ways they were asking," Shaw said. "We're not about telling women what to do, but supporting them in what they need."

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