The Governor's Domestic Violence Task Force has discovered that the Mississippi Department of Health has withheld almost $600,000 from the state's domestic-violence shelters over the past two years.
The task force, headed by Sandy Middleton, executive director of the Center for Violence Prevention in Pearl, announced its preliminary findings this morning at the state capitol. The 25-member task force was the brainchild of Gov. Phil Bryant. The Legislature passed a bill, SB2631, during the 2013 session to formalize its structure. Among its members are lawmakers, representatives from the state attorney general's office and judges who hear domestic-violence cases.
As one of its first actions, the task force set out to understand the domestic-violence "lay of the land" in Mississippi so that it could recommend specific actions to improve the outcome for victims. The task force released a report of those findings today.
"Some of the report's findings were alarming," Middleton said at a news conference today. A sizable amount of funding from the state is under the auspices of the Mississippi State Department of Health, which is tasked with setting aside money from certain fees in domestic-violence cases to support shelter's operations; however, the task force found that the agency has shown a remarkable lack of accountability for the funds, leaving shelters begging for money that is rightfully theirs.
"In response to a letter from the Task Force requesting information from FY 2011 and FY 2012 regarding this fund, MSDH admitted that the total amount of funds deposited into the Victims of Domestic Violence Fund for FY 2011 was $768,593.95; however, the amount disbursed to eligible shelters was only $377,566.11," the report states. "Furthermore, for FY 2012, the total amount of funds deposited into the Victims of Domestic Violence Fund was $797,731.59, while the amount disbursed to eligible shelters was only $469,806.69. For the two years in question, this results in a total of $591,519.21 of funds intended to support domestic violence victim services which were not distributed."
Middleton said that the money shelters did not receive could have been used to completely fund one shelter for a year. Alternately, it could have paid a dozen sexual assault nurse examiners, aka SANE—a group of specially trained nurses who assist rape victims; an agency focusing on preventing human trafficking in the state; or additional batterers' intervention programs, or BIPs. BIPs have proven very effective in lowering recidivism of batterers, with a near zero re-offending rate for the men and women who completed the program.
The Department of Health simply ignored its mandate, Middleton said.
At this time, it is not clear whether the funds withheld can be recovered from the department, and how much additional money meant for domestic violence shelters is missing from years prior to 2011.
Bryant, who also spoke during the press conference, related that his experience with domestic violence when he was a Hinds County deputy sheriff prompted him to begin studying the issue in 1997 during his tenure as state auditor. The task force findings this year show that many of the same problems persist today.
"It is our time now to help prevent this violence," Bryant said, adding, "This is an important issue that everyone in Mississippi should be concerned about."
To read the full report, which outlines the specific areas the task force intends to tackle, visit the Center for Violence Prevention's website.