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Shaheen visits health center in Berlin

BERLIN — U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) has been instrumental in getting the Senate to allocate funding for survivors of domestic and sexual abuse and last Thursday she visited Coos County Family Health Service’s Response to Domestic and Sexual Violence Crisis Center in Berlin.

For an hour, the senator spoke with local advocates about the increased funding and asked what was working and what is needed.

Shaheen thanked Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier for joining the discussion.

Shaheen said President Joe Biden signed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act earlier this year, providing federal resources and technical support for programs that help victims. Congress had allowed the reauthorization to expire for three years.

“Ensuring New Hampshire’s domestic and sexual violence programs have the funding they need has always been a top priority for me as a senior appropriator. I’ll continue partnering with local organizations to support survivors as we work toward our collective goal of ultimately ending domestic and sexual violence,” Shaheen said.

“Coos County Family Health Services/Response Program is grateful to be funded through VAWA (the Violence Against Women Act). Increasing services to survivors has been an impactful addition to the important work that is being done supporting survivors and their families. Increased access to mental health, housing flex funds and legal access has significantly impacted survivors in their time of crucial need,” said Deborah Haynes-Kenney, response program director.

Shaheen said the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated rates of domestic violence and sexual assault while adding barriers for survivors to access services. She noted that the reauthorization increased the funding levels and asked if advocates had the flexibility they need.

Joi Smith, program director for the N.H. Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, said with the cost of living increasing, advocates are having trouble helping survivors find a way to become self-sustaining. She said there is a shortage of housing and rental properties, forcing people to stay in shelters for extended periods of time because there is no real estate for them to move into that is within their budget.

Shaheen asked if the housing problem stemmed from landlords who are reluctant to rent to survivors. Smith said there are some landlords that don’t want to rent to survivors but said the program also has some amazing landlords who go above and beyond to help survivors. She said the tough part for many survivors is the cost of rent is more than they can afford. Plus, transportation can also be an issue.

Smith said providing flexibility with funding provides them opportunities.

“So, I think being able to have it be as flexible as possible, it gives us so many different opportunities, because each program has unique needs,” she said.

Ruth Heintz, N.H. Legal Assistance managing attorney of the Berlin office, said the addition of Attorney Peggy Brick to the office has been great. She noted the Berlin office serves all of Coos County and most of both Grafton and Carroll Counties.

It is a huge land mass area but Heintz noted there are not many attorneys available to do pro bono work making legal assistance the primary attorney for domestic violence survivors on domestic violence petitions and on parenting and divorce cases. Shaheen has sponsored a bill to expand pro bono legal resources for domestic violence survivors.

In light of the recent mass shootings, especially the school massacre at Uvalde, Texas, CCHFS CEO Ken Gordon asked Shaheen whether she felt the Senate would pass meaningful gun safety reform. The senator said she didn’t know but acknowledged there is a bipartisan group in Congress working to see if there are areas of agreement. Shaheen said she supports background checks, allowing judges to take guns away from people in domestic violence situations, and looking at the minimum age to purchase a gun.

“But it’s not clear to me yet what it’s going to take in order to see some action in Congress,” she said.

As chair of the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee which funds programs in the Office on Violence Against Women, Shaheen has led efforts in the Senate to boost services and programs for survivors of domestic and sexual violence — especially through the pandemic. As a senior appropriator, Shaheen has secured the highest funding level ever for VAWA programs for five consecutive years. The FY 2022 government funding legislation also included a bipartisan bill to modernize and reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act by aiding domestic violence prevention and support organizations, protecting survivors and promoting safer communities for women and families. Last year, she reintroduced bipartisan legislation with Sen. Grassley (R-Iowa) to build on her legislation that is now law, the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act, by incentivizing states to pass legislation that guarantees the survivors rights included in the federal legislation. She also introduced a bill to reauthorize legislation to expand pro bono legal resources for victims and survivors.