February 25, 2022

With limited funding, New Mexico sexual assault programming looks ahead 

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

With federal funding cuts expected by the next fiscal year, New Mexico sexual assault programming is considering how the shortage could impact the future.

The New Mexico Crime Victims Reparation Commission receives $4 million in recurring funding from the state to provide money to local sexual assault services. This year, the commission and the New Mexico Coalition for Sexual Assault Programs asked for $5 million in additional funding from the Legislature to fill gaps in services, improve salaries and prepare for the anticipated loss in federal dollars.

But, the coalition did not receive all the money it asked for from the New Mexico legislature. In addition to the recurring $4 million, the legislature appropriated about $3.8 million in funding. Alexandria Taylor, director of sexual assault services for the coalition, told NM Political Report that of the $3.8 million, $1 million is not recurring and $800,000 will be in the form of  supplemental funding to come from individual legislators who disperse the money directly into their own communities’ sexual assault programming.

Taylor said the reason for the decrease in federal money is due to a decrease in the federal Victim of Crime Act [VOCA], which is funded by fees collected in the prosecution of white-collar crimes. During the previous presidential administration, the Department of Justice frequently sought other remedies, which meant that the settlement money from those crimes went elsewhere, according to national media. This caused the VOCA fund to decrease significantly, Taylor said.

This will impact more than sexual assault services as VOCA funds help victims of all crimes, including victims of drunk driving incidents and homicides.

For sexual assault programming in New Mexico, the Fiscal Year 2023 reduction in VOCA funds will decrease by $2.8 million, Taylor said.

Taylor said there are many conversations yet to happen to decide exactly how the coalition, which works closely with the sexual assault programs across the state, will contend with the decrease in federal funding in FY2023.

“I think we’re going to feel the impact of not being able to not expand services as we’d been asking for,” she said. “We’re going to feel that impact. There’s no way to look at a decrease in federal funding and be able to do everything we asked for if we’d gotten the $5 million.”

The situation now

New Mexico ranks 7th in the nation for sexual assault and rape is the most-costly crime, Taylor said.

Only six of New Mexico’s 33 counties have the three components that, combined, represent the full array of victim programming: sexual assault services, a sexual assault nurse examiner and a children’s advocacy center, Taylor said. Because of the lack in services and funding gaps, victims often have to wait for up to three hours to see a nurse specifically trained to examine them and up to 18 months for counseling, especially in rural areas.

Related: New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs requests $5 million in funding

Taylor said sexual assault in New Mexico is in a “crisis” and that any survivor will, in the immediate aftermath, experience acute emotional distress that can lead to anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD].

“We need to get to them as soon as possible,” Taylor said.

Part of the reason for the additional funding request was to try to address some of these issues. Now it’s uncertain if the coalition can.

Taylor said that one problem is that sexual assault and other issues, such as the rate of suicide and the rate of women who are incarcerated are often connected but these issues aren’t considered in a “holistic” way by policy makers. Victims of sexual assault have an increased risk for suicidality, substance abuse disorders and homelessness. Taylor said 63 percent of incarcerated women in New Mexico prisons have identified as victims of sexual assault at some point in their lives.

“If we address sexual assault we might be addressing many other issues downstream. If we can prevent sexual assault, we can address many more issues,” she said.

Another aspect to sexual assault services is that every year, programs in New Mexico serve about 12,000 victims but a victim can still be dealing with a crime that occurred 30 or 40 years ago.

“Sexual assault is not a one-time incident. There are not 12,000 victims per year and the next year we start the count all over again. We’re still serving victims from 30 years ago. From 40 years ago, just-disclosing victims. The rate and impact over one’s life course remains. We’re serving people across their lifespan,” she said.

One of the specific funding appropriations out of the $5 million ask was $200,000 for research about the need for sexual assault services on Tribal lands. Native American and Black women are four times more likely to be the victims of sexual assault, Taylor said.

She said that in the northwest region of the state, where many Tribal lands are located, sexual assault services have some of the longest wait times for counseling for sexual assault for the entire state.

Taylor said another reason for the additional funding request from the state this year is because SANEs [Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners] are operating on the same $1 million in recurring funds the program has received since the Legislature began appropriating funds for it in 2003.

That means that some sexual assault programs can’t afford to have on-call SANEs or pay for their travel time, Taylor said.

“We have to bring dignity and respect into our field and honor our professionals for the work they’re doing so we can keep good people and really serve survivors,” Taylor said.

When survivors of sexual assault receive the aid they need, including trauma-informed counseling, in a timely manner, it affects their outcomes and that can include reporting an incident and pursuing justice, Taylor said. The majority of sexual assault cases go unreported.

“If they’re able to get counseling right away, they’re more likely to have greater self determination. That may include reporting but they have more control over their lives in making that decision,” Taylor said.

A child victim of sexual abuse will lose, on average, $241,600 over their lifetime due to the life-long trauma it causes. An adult victim will pay $122,561 in medical costs, lost wages, property loss and other related issues that can be caused by the trauma, Taylor said.

“The risk for negative outcomes, such as mental health issues, substance abuse issues, suicide ideality, loss of wages and educational attainment, it’s great,” Taylor said. “There is a study that talks about the cost over the lifespan of a victim of child sexual abuse. We should seek to intervene whether the survivor is still a child or an adult.”

Human trafficking

In addition, sexual assault services include victims of human trafficking. Taylor said the two issues cannot be separated out.

“When we’re talking about sex trafficking, we’re talking about sexual assault,” she said.

Taylor said children can be sex trafficked and what sexual assault providers see when it comes to serving traffic survivors is “a different level of intensity of resources.”

“They take more time, they need more case management, more systems navigation and more support,” Taylor said.

She said New Mexico sexual assault providers are seeing clients who have been trafficked. A sexual assault nurse examiner who spoke with NM Political Report during the session said there has been an increase in human trafficking victims and an increased awareness of it in the field.

Related: Sexual assault nurse examiner shortage impacts victims and families

Next year

Taylor said the coalition is looking ahead to the 2023 Legislature and hopes there will be a bill to address affirmative consent in the public schools and that it will become a priority. She said that young people in New Mexico are driving this change and that youth activists are “demanding a cultural shift.”

State House Rep. Liz Thomson, a Democrat from Albuquerque, sponsored a bill to address affirmative consent in the schools in this past session but the bill was not on the governor’s call list so it was not heard.  

Thomson said during a press conference at the beginning of the Legislature that a similar bill has been introduced in previous sessions but it ran out of time and faced opposition from some who are uncomfortable with sexual activity being discussed in public educational institutions.

Related: Legislators, coalition seek funding to address ‘crisis’ of sexual assault

An affirmative consent law would make explicit that consent is “voluntary, mutual and can be withdrawn at any time.” Advocates have said creating these guidelines would make consensual sexual activity easeir to navigate and would help to decrease sexual assault among young people.

“We have young people in high school demanding this change happen and affirmative consent be taught in the schools. They are leading us now,” Taylor said.