DA cuts huge chunk of funding from Hearts of Hope

by Patrick Flanagan

Nonprofit plays a vital role in our community by advocating and fighting for the victims of sexual abuse and rape; that's why news that the DA's office had slashed the group's funding came as such a shock.

There’s a certain taboo surrounding advocacy for the sexually assaulted and abused.

One might think any effort at helping victims of rape and sexual molestation would generate overwhelming support from all facets of the community. But that’s just not so.

What prevails is an unspoken fear of being guilty by association, that volunteering or financially contributing to a group fighting for sexual abuse victims could possibly give way to misinterpretation by others that your support somehow indicates some secret past connection to the victims — that you yourself were also once victimized by sexual abuse.

That reality has been something the advocates at Hearts of Hope in Lafayette encounter every year as they set out to raise the funds necessary for continuing their mission in Acadiana.

And that’s why recent news of a major slash in the funding Hearts of Hope receives annually from the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office came as a such a shock. It was the reason for our recent visit to the local nonprofit to learn about its advocacy efforts and what it plans do in the wake of losing such a critical chunk of its operating budget, money that mostly goes to paying salaries.

Headquartered in a non-descript building tucked away in a purposefully ambiguous building in Freetown, Hearts of Hope, in some shape or form, has been fighting for victims of sexual abuse and rape in eight parishes around Acadiana since the early 1980s.

The group consists of 12 full-timers — including a trained forensic interviewer — and about 40 community volunteers responsible for either manning the phones of the Crisis Line or working as emergency room advocates in hospitals across Lafayette and St. Martinville.

Hearts of Hope's Jill Dugas

Originally called Stuller Place, Hearts of Hope traces its roots to the founding of the Sexual Abuse Response Center in the early ‘80s, and a community effort spearheaded by former 15th Judicial District Attorney Mike Harson that led to the creation of the Children’s Advocacy Center in 1995. The two centers were eventually merged into one group that would come to be known as Hearts of Hope. The idea was to use a research-based model for providing sexual abuse response to all victims: children and adults, men and women.

Last year alone, the group responded at hospitals to more than 104 reported cases of sexual assault and abuse. And that’s just the cases reported by hospitals in Lafayette.

At its headquarters, Hearts of Hope is divided into sections, with one side of the building being reserved for children involved in active investigations or court processes. The atmosphere is inviting, with colorful murals covering the walls of the children’s waiting room, adorned by hope-filled messages like “Children should be seen and heard and ... believed.”

The other side of the building is reserved for adult victims of sexual assault.

“We’re one of three in the nation that we know of that houses all three programs under one roof,” says Jill Dugas, who’s been with Hearts of Hope for 17 years, the last six as its executive director. “It’s a great model. We follow the victim from the ER all the way through the end of the court process. We offer counseling, support and followup to make sure their needs are met after it’s all over. Parents, kids, men, women – all can get help from us.”

Since starting the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program (SANE) in 2007, Hearts of Hope has been designated by the Lafayette Parish Coroner’s Office to work alongside the Acadiana Crime Lab, the Louisiana Department of Child and Family Services, the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, local law enforcement and other non-profits as the entity responsible for interviewing victims — conducted by Hearts of Hope's trained, on-staff interviewer within the safe and welcoming confines of the group's Lafayette office — and collecting evidence for rape investigations. The SANE program currently consists of seven nurses — there are about 10 SANE-trained nurses in all of Lafayette, nowhere near the number needed for the center’s goal of non-stop, year-round on-call availability — who underwent the specialized rape training and are contracted with Hearts of Hope to be on 24-hour call twice a month.

Hoping to get to the bottom of the unexpected decision by the DA’s Office to pull the nonprofit’s main funding source, we met with Dugas, who, despite the bad news, maintains a positive face in the midst of what will be an uphill battle between now and the year’s end to generate the necessary dollars to fill the funding hole.

For starters, we wanted to know why the organization was cut. In his run last year to become our new top prosecutor, one of the issues Keith Stutes raised against Harson's administration in the waning days of the campaign was the senseless and arguably preventable death of Skyler Credeur, a young college student whose murder two years ago allegedly at the hands of her stepfather was a prime example of not only being failed by the system, but of how a young child with claims of being molested could so easily slip through the cracks before the existence of groups like Hearts of Hope.

We also wanted to know how much had been cut, and what course of action Dugas would be taking in the coming months to overcome the setback.

Stutes says it's an issue of donating public funds to a non-profit, even though it's a nonprofit that works hand-in-hand with the local criminal justice system in gathering evidence for sexual abuse and rape investigations — a vital component in the prosecution of alleged sexual predators. Instead of going into detail, however, Stutes offered a prepared statement backing his reasoning for the decision to pull the group's funding. (In a followup request, we also asked for an average of the funds the DA's office had been allocating to the nonprofit in recent years; Stutes has yet to get back with us on that.)

Here's Stutes' statement in full:

_You have requested a comment to, as you put it, “the cutting off of funding to Hearts of Hope”. I did reach the conclusion that the Office of the District Attorney could not provide a donation of public funds to Hearts of Hope for salaries of Hearts of Hope employees.

First of all, the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office has had an active role in prosecution and investigative services involving cases investigated by Hearts of Hope in the parishes of Acadia, Lafayette, and Vermilion, on behalf of law enforcement agencies referring those cases to Hearts of Hope. Of course, Hearts of Hope provides valuable services to law enforcement in six Acadiana parishes that these law enforcement agencies would have to expend of their own resources, a substantial savings to these law enforcement agencies. The 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office has provided and will continue to provide Assistant District Attorneys to handle each case investigated by the law enforcement agencies within its jurisdiction and to participate in Multidisciplinary Team coordination by Hearts of Hope, as is part of the general responsibilities and duties of the Office. I have signed the 2015 Children’s Advocacy Center Protocol recognizing these duties to attend MDT case review meetings, to answer legal questions regarding the juvenile and criminal cases we handle, and to provide a victim’s advocate.

However, the question of the expenditure of public funds by the Office of the District Attorney is also clear. La. Const. Art. VII, Sec. 14 (A), prohibits the spending or transfer of public funds to any person, association, or corporation, public or private, except under very limited and specific circumstances. The Louisiana Supreme Court has clearly defined the permissible circumstances for the expenditure or transfer of public funds. The public entity (that is, in this case, the Office of the District Attorney) must have the legal authority to make the expenditure, must have entered into a legal cooperative endeavor agreement, and must show ALL of the following criteria: 1) a public purpose for the expenditure or transfer that comports with the governmental purpose the public entity has legal authority to pursue; 2) that the expenditure or transfer, taken as a whole, does not appear to be gratuitous; and 3) that the public entity has a demonstrable, objective, and reasonable expectation of receiving at least equivalent value in exchange for the expenditure or transfer of public funds. The Louisiana Supreme Court and the Constitution place a strong emphasis on the reciprocal obligations between the parties to ensure that there is not a gratuitous donation of public funds.

Several non-profits, including Hearts of Hope, have made requests to the Office of the District Attorney, particularly for a sizable donation to cover salaries of employees. Though the mission and goals of Hearts of Hope may be considered a noble public purpose, the overall circumstances do not clearly meet the criteria to overcome the constitutional prohibition against the transfer of public funds. First, it does not appear that the Office of the District Attorney has a legal duty or the authority to donate funds for the purpose of paying salaries for employees that are not specifically in the employ of the District Attorney. As such, a donation does appear to be gratuitous. Also, the expectation of an equivalent return for the donation is not reasonably objective. As such, the donation of public funds is prohibited.

Despite this position, I will continue to support the efforts of Hearts of Hope, as the entire community and area should, and to provide the necessary prosecution and investigative resources in the handling of cases referred to Hearts of Hope by local law enforcement.

Thanking you for your interest, I remain,


Keith A. Stutes_

For Dugas, there just isn't time to be stuck in the past — even the very recent past. Instead of focusing on any possible motivations behind the funding cuts, she's looking ahead and planning a strategy for finding a new source of funds to ensure the group’s continued advocacy.

“All I’ll say is we’ve just experienced a large funding cut ... all I’ll say is it was a large amount,” Dugas tells The Independent.

Instead of going into it all, she provided this statement:

Hearts of Hope provides help and healing to survivors of sexual violence and their families. Our agency provides forensic interviews for over 400 children each year and responds to over 100 survivors in emergency rooms. We provide about 877 health counseling sessions and prevention education to over 11,000 attendees in the community annually. The need for our services is evident. We are dedicated and committed to help those in our community who need us. We are always seeking diverse funding sources and are currently celebrating a 20th anniversary with our Children’s Advocacy Center Program. We would like the community to celebrate with us by going to our website to make a $20 donation in honor of the work we do to protect the children in our community.

Dugas was willing to openly discuss the plan for addressing the issue.

For starters, she says, this funding quandary is nothing new.

“We’ve been through this before, and we weather every single one,” says Dugas. “The community always comes forward and things always work themselves out in the end. But, this is unfortunately a cause that’s never-ending; we’ll always be battling something. And so we have to fact that and be willing to always keep fighting because the numbers just don’t lie.”

Those numbers, says Dugas, include appalling statistics like nine of 10 instances of sexual abuse against children go unreported, or that for every known case of a child being sexually abused by a perpetrator, there’s an additional 13 children being abused by that person that will never go reported.

That’s why Hearts of Hope’s survival is so important to our community.

“The more and more we keep advocating, and doing what we’re doing, there’s no doubt that we’ll help uncover more and more of these cases,” says Dugas.

She references the sign in the children’s waiting room, the one about how children should be seen, heard and believed, saying, “It’s a pretty powerful message we put out there. Because with perpetrators there’s so much manipulation and grooming of the child with mental and emotional abuse way before the actual physical abuse ever even comes into the picture. So when a child actually comes forward with claims of being sexually abuse, we must listen; I mean, how would a child even make up something like that?”

For Dugas, the next few months — in addition to all the group’s advocacy efforts — will be spent preserving Hearts of Hope’s mission, and in ensuring survival with a series of fundraisers starting in July (see below for a full list of events planned for between now and December).

“We experience cuts every year,” Dugas explains. “Just a few years back we were hit with some major federal grant cuts; with federal funding you just never know what you’ll be getting from year to year. So we’re always trying to diversify our funding and not rely on just one or two sources. And this is something we need the whole community to help out with. But unfortunately, just the very topic; people can’t fathom hearing what we hear on a daily basis from victims. It makes them put their fingers in their ears if we even tried.”

That, says Dugas, referencing the touchy subject matter, has proven to be one of the biggest roadblocks faced by Hearts of Hope for years: Getting the community’s support, whether through money or volunteering, has problematic over the years.

“Yeah, it’s one of the big problems we’ve always faced, that there’s this certain shame factor associated with sexual abuse advocacy,” she says. “People fear that by publicly supporting this type of advocacy, they’ll be seen by others in the community as having likely shared a similar trauma during their childhood, which makes fundraising that much tougher for groups like Hearts of Hope. This type of advocacy is just required to play by a different set of rules.”

That’s why it’s so important for people to know what Hearts of Hope is, what it does, and who it helps.

The fundraising is tough, the work in general is even tougher, but ultimately it’s a job that must be done, and a mission that must be continued. And for that to happen, it’ll take people from all eight parishes under the group's protective watch.

Here's a list of all the upcoming fundraising events that will do just that:

After receiving Stutes' original response, we followed up with a question about whether other nonprofits also receiving funds from the DA's office during the previous administration have been cut as a result of the new DA's interpretation of the state statute cited in his emailed statement about Hearts of Hope.

We're still waiting to hear back.