Advocacy centers for children facing cuts

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Proposed budget cuts by Gov. Matt Blunt have child advocacy centers across the state and in Southeast Missouri worried about their ability to provide services.

The governor has proposed cutting all state funding -- $1.89 million -- to Missouri's 15 child advocacy centers, which includes the SEMO Network Against Sexual Violence in Cape Girardeau. The advocacy centers receive both public and private funding. Their mission is to bring police, social workers, medical professionals and prosecutors together quickly to help solve cases of sexual and physical abuse against children.

Tammy Gwaltney, director of SEMO NASV, said the cuts would reduce her organization's $400,000 annual budget by about 32 percent, affecting staffing and services. The SEMO NASV is the largest center of its kind in the state, according to the Missouri governor's office.

A satellite office of NASV in Kennett, Mo., could be shut down, hindering services for victims in the Bootheel, and waiting periods could be greatly increased, Gwaltney said.

"If we have a child that needs to be seen, that child is usually seen that same week," she said. "We may be looking at a couple weeks, three weeks waiting period to get that child in, and at that point you're going to lose critical evidence if there's evidence to be found."

Detective Karen Buchheit of the Cape Girardeau County Sheriff's Department said diminished services at the center would be "tragic." "It would hurt our investigations, and it would hurt how far we've gone in terms of protecting our children."

Buchheit said NASV offers victims a safe, comfortable environment in which they can be interviewed by specialists.Outreach programs in prevention and education that provide services to about 7,000 school-age children a year in the area would also have to be cut, Gwaltney said.

The governor's office said the cuts wouldn't completely eliminate government funding because the governor proposes using an $800,000 federal grant to restore part of the money. Blunt's office also points out the need to balance the budget without raising taxes and the fact that the centers receive other sources of funding which could be expanded.

"The governor feels very strongly that these are valuable programs," said spokesperson Jessica Robinson. "There are limited resources, and tough decisions have to be made."

Jay Wood, executive director of the Missouri Network of Child Advocacy Centers, said the budget cuts could shut down seven of the state's 15 centers.

But Robinson said the federal grant money should be able to keep those centers open.

Before the centers were created, bringing the important parties together to prosecute child abuse cases was often difficult, said Gwaltney. Critical evidence was lost, hindering the prosecution of abusers.

"We've heard from juvenile officers and child welfare workers who say we can't go back to doing things the way it was done before," said Gwaltney. "You're really taking the victim back to a darker time. The perpetrators will be the winners."

Wood said the Missouri House Budget Committee has kept the funding for the centers in the budget, which was debated Wednesday, thanks in part to support from Southeast Missouri legislators. But the Senate likely will cut the funding from the budget it approves later this week, he said.

335-6611, extension 182

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