Domestic violence group feels tighter budget pinch

CARSON CITY -- Though Nevada had the unfortunate distinction of being tops in the number of domestic violence deaths per capita in 2005, federal grant money to provide civil legal assistance to victims of the crime was not approved this year.

This is straining an already underfunded support network, officials said Friday.

Valerie Cooney, executive director of Volunteer Attorneys for Rural Nevadans, said the group was surprised to learn last week that the state was not funded for about $425,000 in a civil legal assistance grant for this year from the U.S. Department of Justice.

"They didn't give a reason for the denial," she said. "They do have more requests for money than they have available."

But the denial, which came weeks after funding was supposed to have been made available to the eligible states, came as a surprise, Cooney said.

Nevada has received the grant, which is used to provide legal assistance to domestic violence victims in Clark, Washoe and rural Nevada, every year except one since 2000, she said.

Without advance warning, Clark and Washoe legal services, and especially the rural group represented by Cooney, have been left high and dry, she said.

The rural group, called VARN, is especially hard hit because it has no reserves and no other sources of funding, she said. The grant would have provided about $65,000 to provide assistance to domestic violence victims in 12 rural counties, she said.

Without some other source of funding to get the group through the year to the next grant cycle, Cooney said 35 of her cases, which can involve child custody and other issues, are in jeopardy.

"I will be working for no paycheck," she said.

Given Nevada's ranking of No. 1 for domestic violence deaths per capita in 2005, according to data released recently by the Washington, D.C.-based Violence Policy Center, the failure to win funding is mystifying, she said.

"It's ludicrous," Cooney said.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is also in the dark as to why no funding was provided.

Spokesman Jon Summers said in a statement issued Thursday: "Our office has been working with (Assembly) Speaker (Barbara) Buckley to locate additional funding. Unfortunately, the Justice Department has not yet told us why the funding has been cut, but we're hoping to find out later this month."

Cooney said that when Nevada was denied funding in 2004, "bridge" money to get through to the next grant cycle was found. The grant was funded again in 2005 and 2006.

Now, emergency funding must be found again or cases in progress could be in jeopardy, she said.

Buckley, who is executive director of Clark County Legal Services in addition to her leadership position in the Legislature, called the failure to win funding "extremely disturbing."

"There was absolutely no warning," she said. "With the high rate of domestic violence in our state and our ranking, it is inconceivable to me the feds could decide not to fund Nevada."

Efforts to get an answer from the Justice Department have been unsuccessful, she said.

Clark County Legal Services has the equivalent of four and a half attorneys working on cases and representing domestic violence victims right now, she said.

"To have this happen with no warning is just unbelievable," Buckley said.

Both the Nevada State Bar and the Nevada Law Foundation will be approached to see whether any funding is available for the program for the next year, she said.

Buckley said there has to be a better way of disbursing funds so that such unexpected hardships are avoided.

"Don't do it without warning," she said. "What are we going to do with the hundreds of cases that are midstream right now where people are counting on us for help."