Guest Commentary VOCA Fix Act
Nearly everyone knows someone whose life was suddenly and unexpectedly turned upside down in an instant because they became the victim of a crime. And each year, victim services agencies across the Delaware and Lehigh Valleys and around the country provide support, counseling, advocacy, crisis intervention and education to millions of children and adults who have been victims of violent crimes including but not limited to sexual assault, domestic violence, murder and mass violence. The impact of these agencies is immeasurable and every dollar of funding they receive matters significantly.
Victim services agencies, including those in Southeastern PA, are funded primarily by non-tax dollars from the Victim of Crime Act Fund (VOCA), passed in 1984. VOCA is currently funded by fines from federal convictions and provides significant, core financial resources for victim services agencies to assist and support victims of human trafficking, sexual violence, fraud, DUI crashes, domestic violence and homicide. Because of VOCA, virtually any victim of a crime is eligible to receive comprehensive services ranging from state-of-the-art counseling, advocacy and support through the criminal justice system, SANE services, emergency shelter and support in accessing victim compensation.
Organizations funded by VOCA are in the business of healing and saving lives each and every day, and even throughout the pandemic, their doors never closed. They offer a wide range of services to survivors and their families in a trauma-informed manner and without the support of victim services agencies, many victims would be unable to access the physical, emotional, psychological and financial services that are available to them.
Sadly, during the past 4 years, fines previously directed to VOCA have decreased significantly due to the Department of Justice’s increasing reliance on deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements (DPAs/NPAs). Unlike the monetary penalties associated with criminal convictions, the penalties associated with DPAs/NPAs are deposited into the General Fund of the Treasury, not the Crime Victims Fund (CVF). As a result, VOCA is at risk of bankruptcy.
There is a solution. A bipartisan bill titled the VOCA Fix Act, was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in March 2021, with 57 Senate co-sponsors and overwhelming bipartisan support. It is currently awaiting action in the Senate. Passing the VOCA Fix Act could rectify the current funding issues and improve the long-term viability of VOCA and all the organizations across the U.S. that rely on VOCA funding. The VOCA Fix Act will correct the current funding discrepancy by mandating that those monetary penalties associated with DPAs/NPAs get deposited into the CVF instead of the General Fund. The legislation will also increase funding for state victim compensation programs and includes other provisions outlined in a letter of support, signed by 1,710 national, regional, state, Tribal, and local organizations and government agencies and sent to Congress on May 5, 2021.
Another key function of VOCA is to help survivors navigate the legal system. There are often many barriers to reporting crimes, navigating the criminal justice system and holding perpetrators accountable. Whether it is financial reasons, safety concerns, or just the impact of the trauma that victims have suffered, they need support - support that is provided by VOCA-funded organizations to help empower them to overcome their trauma and be able to live, work and worship safely and comfortably in their communities.
Without the VOCA Fix, tens of thousands of crime victims in the Delaware and Lehigh Valleys, whether child victims of sexual abuse, survivors of a family member who has been murdered, or elders who have been the victim of fraud – would have nowhere to turn to receive the specialized services that NOVA and other victim services agencies are only able to provide because of VOCA funds. Trauma from victimization can have a lasting and devastating impact on victims and their families, including poor academic and work outcomes, homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse. The ripple effect on the community is devastating and can lead to loss of jobs and the elimination of essential services.
Senator Toomey has blocked the bipartisan VOCA Fix Act twice from passing, most recently on June 17, 2021. With only one opportunity remaining opportunity, we are asking Pennsylvania residents to call Sen. Toomey on July 14 – VOCA Rally Day - to tell him to be the champion he has always been for VOCA, and to vote to pass the VOCA Fix Act with no amendments. This bill will help protect our communities and support crime victims in their most desperate hours of need. Without the passage of the VOCA Fix legislation, thousands of children, adults and the elderly in the Delaware Valley will not receive the services they need --- beginning as soon as October 2021.
Additionally, the Victim Compensation Assistance Program that provides reimbursement for medical and other expenses incurred by victims will be grossly reduced, if not eliminated, and funds typically provided to local law enforcement and district attorneys for investigations and criminal charges will also be dramatically reduced.
Penelope Ettinger, MSc., Executive Director, Network of Victim Assistance (NOVA)
Rachel Copen, Acting Co-Executive Director, WOAR Philadelphia
Lois Keller, MS, LPC, Executive Director, Crime Victims Council of the Lehigh Valley, Inc.
Karen Hosler Kispert, PhD she/her, Executive Director, Delaware County Victim Assistance Center
Catharine Kessack, Executive Director, VAST (Valley Against Sex Trafficking)
Maria Macaluso, Executive Director, Women's Center of Montgomery County
Mary Onama, LMSW, Executive Director, Victim Services Center of Montgomery County
Lori Sywensky, Executive Director, Turning Point of Lehigh Valley
Christine Zaccarelli, Esquire, Chief Executive Officer, The Crime Victims’ Center of Chester County, Inc.