April 16, 2009

Domestic Violence and TANF

[UPDATE: The Washington Post editorialized today on the Inspector General’s report on the Banita Jacks case. Their recommendation for “a system that would allow various parts of the social support network to share information” is a good addition to the ideas below. --ed]

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and sadly, domestic violence has been prominent in recent news. Unfortunately, these heartbreaking stories are just the tip of the iceberg.

Mayor Fenty had this to say: "There is really a need for more education and more involvement regarding the issue of domestic violence on the police level, the social service level and the community level." Indeed.

Domestic violence affects all communities and all kinds of people, but victims/survivors who have low incomes also have limited options. Financial resources can enable people to cut all ties to the abuser, removing themselves and their children from any locations—home, school, work, place of worship, etc.—where they could be stalked. Those without financial resources must rely on family, and if not family then the shelter system and other safety net programs; lack of housing options and inadequate income make it very difficult to escape a violent situation.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is a critical source of support for low-income mothers fleeing domestic violence. DC’s TANF intake process includes a screening for domestic violence, so that people at risk can be connected to domestic violence counseling. TANF work participation requirements can also be waived to give recipients enough time to go to court and counseling, and get a new job.

SOME and the DC Fiscal Policy Institute are in the process of publishing research that shows, unfortunately, that TANF recipients are not taking advantage of these opportunities. We know from a survey by the Urban Institute that 21 percent of DC TANF recipients reported experiencing threats or physical violence in the last year (and 42 percent in their lifetimes). Applied to current enrollment, this amounts to about 2,650 people. But only 81 people received domestic violence services in FY 2008, and only one TANF recipient was granted an exemption for work activities. Out of 2,650.

So, what can the city do?

  • One problem is that people simply don’t know that the services exist. A stronger assessment and referral process would help connect people with the services that they need on the front end—substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, domestic violence services, educational opportunities, etc.

  • As Greg wrote last week, TANF recipients need sufficient income to be healthy and safe. Benefits should increase to keep pace with the cost of living.

  • Housing is obviously a critical issue. A new nonprofit, the District Alliance for Safe Housing (DASH), has done some great research on housing for survivors and gotten city funding for programs to respond to the need.

In many ways we have a head start in DC: we have progressive programs and policies, and an attentive executive, agency, and Council. It will take all of us working together to make sure TANF recipients have the support and tools they need to stay on the path to safety.

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