Women's center deserves funding

By Chris Bateman, The Union Democrat August 13, 2009 10:12 am

“It’s the worst we’ve ever seen it.”

The speaker is Liz Sewell, and she ought to know. Sewell is executive director of Sonora’s Mountain Women’s Resource Center and, by her job’s very nature, she sees a lot of bad.

The center’s mission is to aid, comfort and protect those whose spouses or partners abuse them. Even in the best of times it’s trying but necessary work.

But now, in what are nearly the worst of times, the center and its clients are caught in a vicious spiral which could have a devastating impact on the entire community.

"When economic times get tough, people get tough on each other,” said Sewell. 

Here’s the bottom line: The center’s crisis line calls have more than tripled, while funding for its domestic violence prevention programs has been cut in half due to state budget cuts.

Sewell says $207,000 in California Department of Public Health funding has been lost, forcing employees to work short weeks.

“That’s 53 percent of our domestic violence budget,” said Sewell, adding that most of the center’s 15 employees are now working 32 hours a week rather than 40. And a half dozen staff members who have left over the past year were not replaced.

But, at least so far, the center has not cut services to victims of domestic violence, who include women, children and some men. They are still provided with counseling, legal assistance, support groups and shelter.

“We’re just all working a lot harder,” said Sewell, the center’s executive director for nearly a decade and a volunteer and board member with service dating back to the 1970s.

There’s no guarantee, however, that the center can continue plugging an increasing number of holes in the dike.

“There’s a note of desperation from a lot of our callers that we haven’t heard before,” Sewell said, adding that they have included the newly homeless, the nearly bankrupt and even the suicidal.

“It’s very grim,” said Sewell. And it could get worse.

 Without the services provided by the Mountain Women’s Resource Center, victims may no longer “leave as survivors.” Instead, the cycle of domestic violence would continue.

Law enforcement, social services agencies, courts and hospitals — all of which are already feeling the recession’s grip — would be further impacted.

Although balancing the state budget is a worthy goal, simply slashing funds from domestic violence programs like MWRC’s makes no sense unless the ramifications and consequent social and financial costs of such cuts are also measured.

Sewell is hoping this logic prevails in future budget decisions and is supporting urgency bills introduced by San Francisco Democrat Leland Yee that would, via fund transfers, restore domestic violence funding and allow more flexibility in spending.    

Tuolumne County residents may wonder what they can do to help the center during its hours, weeks and months of need. The answer, says Sewell, is doing what they’ve always done.

“The people of this community have always been incredibly generous with us,” she said, adding that tax-deductible local contributions (mail to MWRC, P.O. Box 1147, Sonora, CA 95370) totaled $75,000 for fiscal 2008-09 and were $100,000 the year before.

But never has help been more needed, Sewell said, than right now.