A regular Source column, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events developing beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.
Several local charities have been cut off from federal funding and their representatives say they don’t exactly know why or whether the grants will ever be restored. They are clear on one point, however: If things don’t turn around very soon, their organizations will have to cease those programs.
At issue are U.S. Department of Justice grants to the territory, especially so-called VAWA (Violence Against Women Act) and VOCA (Victims of Crime Act) grants for which the V.I. Law Enforcement Planning Commission has oversight. The commission channels those and numerous other Justice grants to V.I. government agencies including the Police Department, the Bureau of Corrections, the Courts, as well as to local nonprofits.
Problems go back several years, following reports of serious discrepancies with substantial amounts of LEPC grants.
One of Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s first appointments in January was a new director of LEPC, Franz Christian Jr.
“Since I’ve been here, the staff and I have been working very, very hard to get these matters cleared up,” Christian said last week. “This matter should be cleared up very shortly.”
He said a federal DOJ report had cited 25 problems, including questions about internal controls, delays in spending grant monies, whether some expenditures were allowable or documented, and missing or inadequate financial reports.
The Justice findings were issued in 2011. They followed a 2010 audit by the Virgin Islands Inspector General that found LEPC had allowed federal grant money to be comingled with other funds and to flow into an unrelated government account from which more than $1 million was embezzled.
Responding to the DOJ report, former Gov. John deJongh Jr. issued a press release in April 2012 saying his administration had resolved the issues to the satisfaction of the Justice Department.
But Christian said the process of getting DOJ acceptance of corrections is lengthy and a few items remain unresolved. He declined to detail them, but said he recently wrote to Justice officials about how they have been resolved and he’s confident that Justice will accept the resolutions.
There was no response last week to several messages left with a DOJ spokeswoman seeking to clarify the status of the grants.
Funding began to dry up for nonprofits in 2012.
Gail Shearer, executive director of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates of the Virgin Islands), said her agency received VOCA funds for years, about $93,000 annually. The agency trains volunteers and advocates for traumatized children who encounter the legal system.
But in Fiscal Year 2012, CASA got no VOCA money, Shearer said. In 2013, it received an amount equal to about half the usual award, but that was from old funds that were reprogrammed. In FY14 there was no money. As for current year’s funds, “They’re (LEPC) not even sending a request for us to apply for them.”
Shearer said she was told by local officials that the federal government was withholding grants until the local government supplied audits of past funding. But she has heard that Justice has released some VOCA money.
“Where is the money going?” she asked.
The story was similar for the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix.
In a 12-month period stretching between 2010 and 2011, the organization received $215,000 in VOCA money, said Carolyn Forno, assistant director and the woman in charge of financial records. In FY13, the grant was half that, $107,500, and that’s the last VOCA money the group has seen. The group had been getting annual VOCA grants since the 1990s.
The Women’s Coalition also receives VAWA grants, which Forno said used to run between $110,000 to $150,000 a year. The group received $110,624 in calendar year 2012 and $117,000 for the 12 months between March 2014 and February 2015, but nothing in 2013. They don’t know whether or when they’ll receive VAWA funds again.
“We’re going on two, three years now on this piecemeal granting,” Forno said. She’s concerned that some government agencies or departments aren’t furnishing the required records to LEPC.
“If they’re not keeping records, that’s a problem for all of us,” she said. If some aren’t spending the funds they receive, that’s also a problem.
The coalition’s counterpart for St. Thomas-St. John, the Family Resource Center, used to get about $110,000 annually through VOCA and about $150,000 a year through VAWA, said executive director Vivian St. Juste.
“Since 2012, we haven’t had VOCA funds,” except for some reprogrammed funds, St. Juste said. “We haven’t had VAWA since 2013.”
The agency operates a number of programs, including counseling and raising awareness about domestic violence. Its signature program is a 20-bed facility that serves as a safe shelter for battered women and children. It also serves battered men and sometimes houses individuals in safe hotels. Currently, St. Juste said, there are six individuals in the shelter, but the numbers fluctuate widely. The center also offers anger management for abusers and regular workshops, Men Terminating Violence and Women Terminating Violence.
St. Juste said the center used money it raised through donations to make up the difference in the federal funding and so far has been able to continue to operate all its programs, but it’s about tapped out.
“If we don’t get money soon, we will soon have to close the safe house and eliminate the termination of violence program,” she said.
St. Juste said she has approached federal officials to suggest that they fund the center directly, but the officials say that the V.I. government has elected to have LEPC be the grant designee and to handle distributing money to sub-grantees.
“They (LEPC) have all our reports,” she said. “They haven’t said to us that they need anything (more) from us.”
The situation is not good for Legal Services of the Virgin Islands either.
“It’s put us in a bad way,” said executive director Richard Austin.
He said Legal Services had been getting a total of about $150,000 annually for VOCA and VAWA combined, but in recent years the amount has been steadily decreasing.
“It’s always been declining, and I don’t know why,” he said. But he’s beginning to wonder if some of the federal funding is going to V.I. government agencies “to try to fill loose holes.”
Austin said Legal Services got no 2015 VOCA or VAWA funding and it doesn’t look like anything will be forthcoming for FY 2016.
“We’ve had no notice that RFPs are going to come out,” he said.
The LEPC issues formal Requests for Proposals to nonprofits to apply for grants.
“We’re to the point now where we’re just going to take it off of our budget,” he said. “We’re fortunate that we’re not as cash poor as some of the other nonprofits,” he said, and so are able to continue to offer legal services to people who can’t afford them – just not as much.
“What it really means is there’s going to be a cutback in service,” he said. “If you have less, you’re going to do less.”
Hopes are fading that nonprofits might be reimbursed for past federal monies they expected but did not receive.