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Domestic violence shelter funding cut in Gov. Jeff Landry’s budget plan


Domestic violence shelter funding cut in Gov. Jeff Landry’s budget plan

Feb 25, 2024 | 11:45 am ET
By Julie O'Donoghue
Domestic violence shelter funding cut in Gov. Jeff Landry’s budget plan
Patti Joy Freeman, executive director at Iris Domestic Violence Center, shows one of the new rooms she had hoped to open with additional state funding she received this year. (Julie O'Donoghue/Louisiana Illuminator)

Gov. Jeff Landry’s proposed state budget slashes funding for domestic violence victims by millions of dollars starting July 1, even as the governor says crime victims and public safety are his top priority.

Landry’s plan removes $7 million given out to domestic violence shelters this year from the next state operating budget. If that money disappears, the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence will have to pull back on opening five new shelters and expanding six of 16 existing facilities across the state, executive director Mariah Stidham Wineski said. 

“The new shelters that are opening will shut down,” Wineski said.

Domestic violence is one of the largest public safety issues facing Louisiana. In 2020, the state had the fifth highest female homicide rate in the country. More than half of women victims that year were killed by an intimate partner, according to the Violence Policy Center

It’s unclear why the Landry administration removed funding for domestic violence shelters. The governor’s office has not responded to a question about the change. 

The Louisiana Senate first added the $7 million for shelters in 2023. Wineski and other advocates said lawmakers told them the funding increase would be permanent and baked into family welfare budget for years to come. But this week, state officials in the Landry administration described last year’s allocation as temporary, one-time support. 

“While the $7 million in one-time funding appropriated last year was not included in the FY25 budget, the rest of the funding for domestic violence is intended to remain at the same level this year,” wrote Heidi Rogers Kinchen, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, in an email Sunday.

When Landry took office in January, he stripped down the state spending plan in preparation for a significant state financial downturn next year. He took out money for dozens of programs legislators added in 2023, including for domestic violence shelters, higher education and economic development.

Landry and lawmakers will face annual budget shortfalls of over half a billion dollars after a 0.45% state sales tax expires in 2025. The governor said he wants to start limiting state spending this year to make it easier to deal with smaller, leaner budgets in the future.

Yet Landry isn’t sparing any expense when it comes to other public safety measures he is personally pushing. 

State lawmakers are swiftly moving a package of Landry’s bills through a special session on crime. It is expected to add millions of dollars in prison expenses each year by lengthening the time incarcerated people stay behind bars.  

At the same time, domestic violence shelters face reductions in funding, the governor has also asked lawmakers to approve approximately $10 million more for a new state police troop for New Orleans and $3 million to send Louisiana National Guard members to the Texas border with Mexico in the next four months. 

Landry said he is pushing these changes to benefit crime victims, but advocates for domestic violence shelters wonder why their organizations haven’t been made a budget priority alongside state police and prisons.

“Every single person we are serving is a victim of crime,” said Julie Pellegrin, executive director of The Haven, a domestic violence shelter that serves Terrebonne, Lafourche and Assumption parishes. 

A 2021 investigation by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor concluded the state desperately needed more shelter beds for domestic violence victims. Louisiana’s 16 shelters had a total of 389 spaces, while Louisiana had an average of 2,700 unmet requests for shelter beds every year.

The audit noted no domestic violence shelter exists in central Louisiana, even though Rapides Parish had the 10th highest number of protective orders issued in the state in 2020. 

Wineski was able open a shelter in Iberia Parish after receiving a small boost in federal funding from the state a few years ago. The lastest funding increase was expected to take shelter bed capacity around the state from around 390 to at least 600 slots, she said.

New facilities had been planned or recently opened in Livingston, Lafourche, St. Tammany, Caddo and Avoyelles parishes. The Avoyelles location would have helped fill the shelter gap in central Louisiana. 

“Domestic violence shelters do keep people alive,” Wineski said.

A sign at Iris Domestic Violence Center in Baton Rouge reads "No more silence - end the violence"
Iris Domestic Violence Center in Baton Rouge is one of the domestic violence shelters that received more state funding this year. (Julie O’Donoghue/Louisiana Illuminator)

At The Haven in Houma, Pellegrin used the extra state money to open up shelter beds and provide outreach services to remote portions of the parishes she serves.

A parent can be reluctant to leave an abusive relationship if it means they have to cross parish lines and send their children to a different school, she said. By having more locations, her organization can reach more people.

This year’s funding increase is the first hike in state support The Haven had seen in more than 10 years, Pellegrin said. If Landry cuts that funding in the next cycle, she’ll have to close some of the satellite locations she only recently opened.

The Haven’s emergency shelter operates at near total capacity already.

“When you make that phone call [to get help from a domestic shelter], you may have to wait,” she said. 

In the Baton Rouge region, Iris Domestic Violence Center was using the money this year to expand its shelter capacity and provide children’s programming. 

Construction is already underway on playrooms, study areas and a teen library at Iris. Executive director Patti Joy Freeman also hopes to add a music room with donated instruments for children.

Freeman said programs for children and teens are as important as what is offered to the adult victims. Teenagers in abusive families often take on a lot of responsibility helping raise younger children and need space of their own. 

All children also need counseling to ensure the familial cycle of violence is broken, Freeman said. Those types of resources are crime prevention tools because they help keep domestic violence at bay.

But Freeman won’t have the help to open the new children programs at Iris if state funding for domestic violence shelters gets reduced in the next fiscal cycle. She won’t be able to afford the extra staff and utilities needed to run the program. 

“I have to be a good steward with our money,” she said.

Before coming to Iris, Freeman oversaw domestic violence investigations for the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office. A former law enforcement officer, she considers shelters and their programs to be essential to fighting crime. Some victims feel comfortable coming to a shelter for help long before they are willing to interact with police, she said.

“Why are we wondering why these statistics don’t go down when we only have 16 shelters with wraparound services?” she said.

At least a few legislators disagree with Landry’s decision to remove the funding. Senate President Pro Tempore Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, said it will be a priority for her to get the $7 million for domestic violence shelters back into the budget plan later this spring.

This story was updated Sunday after publication to reflect information the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services provided over the weekend.