ATLANTA—Georgia is set to eliminate all state money for domestic violence programs, replacing it with federal funds that some advocates say will limit the services shelters for battered women can provide.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have raised questions about the proposal from Gov. Nathan Deal to use some $4.4 million in federal welfare money — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF — to fund domestic violence shelters, according to memos and e-mails obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request.
But the state is pressing forward with the plan anyway. It’s included in budget proposals that have passed both the House and the Senate. The chambers are working out differences in the spending plans before sending them to Deal’s desk for his signature.
“For the state not to invest a single dollar into what are clearly lifesaving services sends a strong signal that these services are not important,” said Nicole Lesser, executive director of the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Lesser said that funding the shelters exclusively with TANF dollars could jeopardize their ability to provide services to women without children under federal TANF eligibility rules. Childless women make up between 30 and 40 percent of women seeking domestic violence services in Georgia, Lesser said.
In memos and emails from February and March, HHS officials asked the state to explain its use of TANF dollars but said they would not know for sure whether they were permissible until they conducted an audit. The state has justified the use of the money by saying it helped meet the TANF goals of preventing and reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancies as well as encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families. HHS weighed in after the Deal administration sought assurances that the use of the money is permissible.
HHS officials did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said the governor will make sure the shelters receive the funds they need.
“We do feel this is a permissible use of TANF funds,” Robinson said. “But no matter what happens, the money will be there for these shelters.”
Shannon Willis, director of Peace Plan, Inc., which offers domestic violence services in Winder, Ga., said she worried she might have to turn single women away.
“We’ve been able to use the funds in the past for women with children, but certainly we are not in the business of maintaining two-parent families where domestic violence is involved,” Willis said.
Alan Essig of the non-partisan Georgia Budget and Policy Institute said the rationale the state is using to justify the use of the TANF funds for the shelters “sounds like a stretch.”
And he said the state appears to be crossing its fingers that by the time federal officials rule on the funds, Georgia’s revenue picture will have improved.
“I think they are trying to be very creative,” Essig said. “Because of the of the budget problems they walking very close to the line and perhaps crossing over it… and that could create problems down the road.”
Deal faced questions about his support for domestic violence victims during last year’s gubernatorial campaign.
The Democratic Party of Georgia ran a scathing attack ad last fall accusing Deal of working to weaken Georgia’s rape shield law while in the state Senate. Deal’s Democratic opponent Roy Barnes unearthed a 1981 vote Deal took against a family violence bill that would have given police power to arrest a spouse in their home without a warrant in domestic violence cases.
Deal fired back that he’d supported the 2005 renewal of the Violence Against Women Act and a rape victim whose attacker he prosecuted a young prosecutor stepped forward in the campaign’s waning days stepped forward to defend Deal’s tough-on-crime record.
Deal went on to defeat Barnes by 10 percentage points in the November general election.