hand on shoulder

The fight for VOCA funding: an investment in prevention, healing, and justice for child survivors

25th March 2024


  • Denise Edwards
    Denise Edwards

    Government Affairs Director at National Children's Alliance

  • Mia Mazer
    Mia Mazer

    Policy & Advocacy Officer,
    Together for Girls

Together for Girls and its partners are advocating for steady funding for the Crime Victims Fund and continued access to crucial services for survivors. These resources are vitally important to achieve the three pillars of change - prevention, healing, and justice - to bring an end to the crisis of childhood sexual violence.

In the United States, at least 1 in 7 children have experienced violence or neglect in the past year*. An estimated 600,000 children were victims of violence and neglect in 2021, the most recent year for which national data is available and likely an underestimate due to effects of the COVID-19 pandemic**.

Violence and neglect in childhood, including sexual violence, are adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that can have long term impacts on health, opportunity, and wellbeing. Survivors and families often experience devastating physical, psychological, emotional, and financial consequences due to the trauma of violence. However, direct services – such as evidence-based counseling and therapy services – can help children and families recover from trauma and avoid harmful short- and long-term effects. Such treatment and advocacy services across the U.S. are funded in large part through the Crime Victims Fund (CVF), established by the Victims of Crime Act of 1984 to provide federal support to state and local programs that assist victims of crime.

The CVF is dangerously low, and at risk of continued significant reductions in funding, threatening service providers’ ability to lend critical support and making it more difficult for victims and survivors to get the help they need. As members of the Keep Kids Safe Movement, a survivor- and child-centered movement calling for holistic federal action and systemic change to keep kids safe from sexual violence, the National Alliance for Children, Together for Girls, and other member organizations are advocating for steady funding for the Crime Victims Fund and continued access to crucial services for survivors. These resources are vitally important to achieve the three pillars of change - prevention, healing, and justice - to bring an end to the crisis of childhood sexual violence.

The Crime Victims Fund and Children’s Advocacy Centers

The Crime Victims Fund (CVF) was established by the United States Congress in 1984 through the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) to provide funding for state victim compensation and assistance programs. The passage of this legislation was a historic win that recognized the importance of protecting victims’ rights by not only establishing a statutory basis for protections but also providing funding for services. These funds, which are generated by criminal fines and penalties collected in federal court, support services to over six million victims of all types of crimes annually, through almost 6,500 direct service organizations. Congress disburses money from the CVF through the annual appropriations process, and the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) oversees the fund and distributes the money in the form of formula grants to states and territories.

Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs) are among the direct service organizations that receive funding from the CVF. They provide crucial assistance by coordinating the investigation, treatment, and prosecution of child abuse cases using a child-focused approach and a multidisciplinary team of experts to hold offenders accountable and help children heal. CACs offer a wide range of services including therapy, medical exams, courtroom preparation, victim advocacy, case management, abuse prevention education, and more. Each year, CACs serve over 380,000 child victims of abuse.

CACs are essential partners in addressing the harmful effects of child abuse and neglect and lessening its long-term consequences. While neglect is the most common form of abuse nationally, childhood sexual violence is a significant public health problem in the U.S. About 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 20 boys in the United States experience childhood sexual violence. In 2023, CACs investigated over 2360,600 cases involving sexual abuse allegations, approximately 62% of all cases handled. While not all of these cases resulted in a disclosure, charges, or a conviction, these numbers are an indication that the scale of childhood sexual violence in the US may be even larger than what is reflected by national statistics.

What are CACs

The VOCA Fix to replenish funds

Since its establishment, the amounts deposited into the CVF have fluctuated considerably from year to year and have sometimes decreased based on the cases that the Department of Justice successfully prosecutes. Obligation caps on the amount of CVF funds made available for distribution were established and implemented to reduce the effects of fluctuating deposits and to ensure the stability of funds for crime victims' programs and activities.

In Fiscal Years 2015-2018, Congress released substantially larger sums from the CVF from years prior, due in large part to Congress’s policy change to release the deposits that flowed into the CVF in each specific year instead of keeping them in reserve. However, beginning in 2019 the funds released annually have steadily decreased as a result of lower deposits and a decline in the CVF balance as well as a lack of predictability as to when proceeds from CVF funding sources would be deposited. This decrease in funds was caused in part by increased reliance by the United States Department of Justice on deferred and non-prosecution agreements in white-collar criminal cases. In 2019, victim service organizations saw a reduction in the amount of VOCA funds released to states by 25%, followed by an additional 35% reduction in 2020 posing a serious threat to the provision of victim services.

To stabilize the CVF, the VOCA Fix to Sustain the Crime Victims Fund Act of 2021 was passed by Congress and signed into law. The legislation amended VOCA to deposit penalties and fines from non-prosecution and deferred prosecution agreements into the Crime Victims Fund (CVF). This bill will replenish the CVF with billions of dollars in funding over time. This structural change to the law was a critical first step to sustaining the long-term health of the CVF. Without this structural fix to the CVF, CACs stood to lose their single largest source of funding - between $150 and $200 million annually in VOCA funding. While the VOCA Fix Act is beginning to increase deposits to the CVF, which should help restore funds to local programs and reduce gaps in survivor services, it has yet to generate sufficient funding to resolve the Fund’s historically low balance leaving the fate of CACs and desperately needed services in question.

A voice from the ground

Together for Girls spoke with Denise Edwards, Director of Government Affairs at the National Alliance for Children, the national association and accrediting body for Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs), to provide insight into the current fight for adequate funding for the Crime Victims Fund and what it means for service providers and survivors. Established in 1988, NCA has been providing support, technical assistance, and quality assurance for CACs, while serving as a voice for child victims of abuse for more than 25 years.

Can you tell us how VOCA impacts the work that CACs do?

Denise: VOCA, or the Victims of Crime Act, is a funding source for providers that directly serve victims of crime. For Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs), these dollars are used for forensic interviews, medical exams, mental health therapy, etc. The purpose of VOCA is to provide funding to help those who have been victims of crime – heal. The dollars can’t be used for the investigation of crimes; however, both law enforcement and prosecutors highlight that to do their jobs, they need help from those who have been victimized by the crimes. Thus, VOCA dollars are not only key to helping victims and survivors heal, but these dollars are also critical to just about every aspect of the criminal justice system.

How does VOCA help sustain the work that NCA does to support CACs?

Denise: VOCA is one of the primary sources of funding for CACs and is critical to whether a CAC can serve communities. VOCA flows through the states; thus NCA does not receive any funding from VOCA. But, as the national association and accrediting body for CACs, we know that CACs need VOCA to be able to serve kids and their families – thus advocating for a fully funded and financially stable VOCA program is key to the long-term needs of our CAC members. VOCA is NCA’s number one advocacy priority.

What are CACs

Where do things stand currently with VOCA and funds to the Crime Victims Fund?

Denise: Currently, the final Fiscal Year 2024 budget saw a reduction of more than $600 million in VOCA grant funding for the coming year, which is estimated to be a more than 30% cut to VOCA funding over last year’s levels. But, it is important to note that State VOCA offices can and likely will cut more than just 30% because they are looking at the levels in the CVF. Once the current allocation is used – the fund will essentially be at $0, and future years could be more volatile. Thus, States will hold back significant funding in case the cuts in future years are higher than the current levels.

What are the consequences or risks of funding cuts to VOCA?

Denise: The short answer: VOCA funding cuts mean reduced or the elimination of CAC services. Either with reduced staffing – so fewer people to provide services such as forensic interviews, medical exams, and therapists – which in turn means longer wait times, or potentially the closure of the CAC itself. When a CAC closes, that puts pressure on CACs that might be close by to pick up the caseload; however, they too are likely stretched too thin. Ultimately it means kids that have been abused will not have access to services with fewer tools to help them heal. (Domestic violence shelters and Rape Crisis Centers are in similar positions regarding the impact of VOCA.)

What are the implications for children and survivors specifically?

Denise: Children and survivors need the chance to heal and the elimination of VOCA puts that in jeopardy. Without forensic interviews, cases are not as likely to move forward – meaning that any potential justice that could be achieved through the criminal justice system is not likely. But more importantly, the kids, survivors, and families that come through our centers want to heal – and without VOCA, the availability of services, especially mental health services, that can help them heal drops dramatically.

How can advocates for ending violence against children get involved to support the VOCA?

Denise: VOCA advocacy is truly an all-hands-on-deck effort. This program is supported by all aspects of the criminal justice system because it focuses on those that are the victims of crime. It is not about a criminal justice outcome, it is about real people, especially real kids, and helping them heal from a crime that was committed against them. Advocates can and should talk to everyone to get their support – federal lawmakers, Administration officials, governors, state lawmakers, etc. Every voice weighing in makes a difference!

The road ahead

To achieve a world where children live free from violence, we know that we must invest in:

  • Prevention: Prevention efforts must be taken to scale to protect today’s children and every generation to come.

  • Healing: Children must have access to culturally appropriate, child- and survivor-centered services so they can begin to heal.

  • Justice: Children must have access to fair child- and survivor-centered justice.

CACs and the services they provide are investments in these three pillars of action necessary to create lasting change and an end to abuse and sexual violence against children. Without adequate funding for the Crime Victims Fund and VOCA grants, potentially hundreds of thousands of victims of child abuse nationwide will lose access to lifesaving and life-sustaining victim services provided by CACs.

Congress must allocate adequate funding for the CVF for Fiscal Year 2025 and avoid continued catastrophic cuts to programming. Congress must also work to find long-term funding options for VOCA in order to maintain steady and predictable funding for this vital program and the child- and survivor-centered services in funds, in turn investing in children’s futures and their communities.

To join the movement to end sexual violence against children and adolescents and call for prevention, healing, and justice connect here with the Keep Kids Safe Movement.