Audit lag costs V.I. justice system millions
Published: August 17, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - Failure to comply with auditing standards and timelines has left the territory without millions of dollars in critical federal funding for the criminal justice system and victims of crime.
The V.I. Law Enforcement Planning Commission, which administers grants from the U.S. Justice Department, is just one of the local grantor agencies affected by the V.I. government being behind schedule in submitting an annual audit report for Fiscal Year 2011 to the federal government, according to Debra Gottlieb, director of the V.I. Office of Management and Budget.
In addition, the Law Enforcement Planning Commission itself has not fully satisfied all the conditions of a March 2012 audit report from the Office of the Inspector General, so grants attached to the Victims of Crime Act cannot be released to service providers, such as the Women's Coalition of St. Croix, the Family Resource Center and V.I. Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, according to LEPC director Victor Browne.
Combining all the grants that have been withheld from non-profits and governmental agencies devoted to crime since 2011, between $4 million and $5 million that could be used to aid victims, staff shelters, enhance policing and prosecution has fallen by the wayside.
Victims services affected
Based on previous years' awards, grants tied to the Violence Against Women Act typically amount to about $600,000, but because the V.I. government is behind in its financial reporting, none of those grants can be released for fiscal years 2012 and 2103, Browne said.
Victims service providers said they had been dealing with delays in funding for the last several years, but this is the first fiscal year that no one could even apply to the Law Enforcement Planning Commission for the federal grants. With the fiscal year drawing to a close, many said it threatens their ability to continuously provide shelter, counseling and support to victims.
The Family Resource Center has expended about $170,000 in grants from the Violence Against Women Act and the Victims of Crime Act from FY 2011 and has been left without a third of its operating budget. The federal monies are used to counsel victims, find them alternate places to stay and operate a victims service hotline, according to Vivian St. Juste, director of the Family Resource Center.
"We are wondering how long we can remain active under these conditions. That's the bottom line," St. Juste said.
Carolyn Forno, the fiscal officer for the Women's Coalition of St. Croix, said the agency counted on $360,000 from grants tied to the two federal programs when drawing up its FY 2013 budget. Having expended similar awards for previous years, the agency has had to leave a counselor position unfilled and is curtailing the emergency assistance program, which puts people up in hotels after they have been assaulted or threatened.
At least $110,00 in federal grants typically is used to support the domestic violence shelter, and without the money, private donations can only sustain the operation for so long, Forno said.
Gail Shearer, executive director of the CASA program, which represents children who have been removed from their families and placed in foster care because of abuse and neglect, said the lack of Victims of Crime Act funds, coupled with a loss of donations from HOVENSA, has led the agency to cut staff and reduce the number of children it could help.
"VOCA funds usually made up about a third of our annual budget and were the most stable source of funding we had. Once it was awarded, it was paid in full so we could rely on it," Shearer said. "Without the VOCA funds, we anticipate further staffing reductions. This would leave abused children who have been placed in foster care, more vulnerable to being revictimized if CASA is not available to monitor these children's lives and to be their voice in having their basic needs identified and addressed."
In years past, when its own or the territory's compliance issues blocked the release of criminal justice grants, the Law Enforcement Planning Commission has sought the release of funds specifically for these non-profit agencies by pursuing waivers from the U.S. Justice Department. The waivers seek to protect the non-profits that receive federal monies from being penalized while the local government and the Law Enforcement Planning Commission work toward agreement, Browne said.
For example, about 40 percent of the grants from FY 2011 for which the Law Enforcement Planning Commission is responsible were released to providers because of the waivers, and the Law Enforcement Planning Commission always prioritizes the non-profit agencies because they deal directly with victims of crime, Browne said.
Forno said she and other service providers had implored Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen and national organizations devoted to women and victims of crime to advocate for more waivers.
Christensen said she has been in contact with the Law Enforcement Planning Commission and the U.S. Justice Department and is confident another waiver will allow for the release of the missing grants.
"The need for the funding is very obvious," Christensen said.
Speaking of the Victims of Crime Act grants being withheld because of Law Enforcement Planning Commission's inability to meet all of the audit requirements, Christensen said: "Since they have been addressing some of the recommendations and have some pending to be closed, I feel confident the Justice Department is going to be able to release some of the funds."
Police and prosecutors
Government House spokesman Jean Greaux Jr. said the pattern of partial release through waivers likely will remain in place as long as the territory is not up to speed in its financial reports, but he said that with the FY 2011 requirements targeted for completion by Aug. 31, the local government is the closest it has been in the last seven years to being fully compliant.
Outside of the grants typically disbursed to non-profits, a similar pot of money earmarked for the police department, courts and the Attorney General's office also is being withheld because of the V.I. government's non-compliance.
For FY 2013, the U.S. Justice Department has allocated $695,981 to the Virgin Islands in Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, or JAG, according to the Justice Department's web site, but Law Enforcement Planning Commission has not received an official award notice for the money, Browne said.
JAG monies have been withheld from the Virgin Islands since FY 2011, Browne said.
According to V.I. Police spokeswoman Melody Rames, during FY 2013 the department was able to make use of $2.5 million in JAG money and $148,000 in Violence Against Women Act grants awarded for FY 2009. The money was used to support nine programs, including police cadets and school security, special operations, crime prevention, domestic violence forensics and information systems programs. All but 4 percent was expended, according to Rames.
"We don't have any problems with sending money back or not expending the funds," she said.
However, Browne pointed out that federal awards have been getting slimmer since 2009 and coming later in the calendar year for reasons other than territorial compliance. The delays and lesser amounts compound the problem for sub-grantee agencies, he said.
Starr Stepp, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs, confirmed that for FY 2013 the awarding of Victims of Crime Act and JAG grants to states and territories had been delayed at the federal level.
"OJP did not issue formula grant program solicitations until Congress approved our final spend plan, which includes allocation figures," Stepp said in an email. "We have now issued the grant solicitations and are in the process of reviewing applications. We expect that all awards will be made by Sept. 30."
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