Bureaucratic red tape halts money to address ND human trafficking
BISMARCK - Bureaucratic red tape has held up $1.25 million in state grant funding to help victims of human trafficking. State legislators set aside the grant dollars in the 2015 session, but none of that money has been distributed to victim servi...
BISMARCK – Bureaucratic red tape has held up $1.25 million in state grant funding to help victims of human trafficking.
State legislators set aside the grant dollars in the 2015 session, but none of that money has been distributed to victim service providers more than 13 months after it was made available.
Windie Lazenko, a victim advocate and CEO of 4her North Dakota, was among the service providers awarded grants in January.
But in May, Lazenko and the other service providers learned they had to meet another administrative hurdle before they’d be eligible to be reimbursed for expenses.
Lazenko, a sex trafficking survivor who moved to North Dakota in 2013 in response to a rise in human trafficking that followed the state’s oil boom, relies on donations and speaking fees to support her work.
She’s been counting on the nearly $110,000 in state grant money as the downturn in oil activity has prompted a decline in donations but has not slowed down the number of victims seeking her help.
“We don’t have time to waste,” said Lazenko, who spoke to a social welfare conference in Medora this week. “The problem here in North Dakota is bad enough that we need rapid response.”
The Legislature unanimously supported the grants for human trafficking victim services, and even added $250,000 on top of the $1 million originally requested. Legislators also attached an emergency clause, which meant the funds were available immediately when the governor signed the bill in April 2015.
“We worked really hard to get them those dollars,” said Rep. Jessica Haak, D-Jamestown, one of the bill’s sponsors and member of the attorney general’s Human Trafficking Commission. “We want to see those dollars go where they’re supposed to go.”
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said service providers should be assured the dollars are still there and will be awarded once the agencies complete the additional grant requirements.
“The money will be there, just like we recommended and approved,” Stenehjem said.
Although the awards were approved in January, the grants required a second look after a critical audit of the Department of Trust Lands.
The review found that the grants can’t be awarded directly to service providers, but need to go through a city, county or other political subdivision for accounting purposes.
Grant recipients learned in mid-May about this extra hurdle, which includes presenting the grant to a city or county commission and submitting the meeting minutes to the state.
The same hurdle also has delayed $250,000 for sexual assault nurse examiner programs around the state, including Grand Forks and Jamestown.
Trust Lands Commissioner Lance Gaebe said the agency is working to comply with the findings of the audit.
“The money is still being delivered, we just need to make sure we write the checks to a city or county instead,” Gaebe said.
Some agencies have submitted the additional paperwork and others are still working to secure a political subdivision.
Janelle Moos, executive director of CAWS North Dakota, the statewide sexual and domestic violence coalition, called the additional grant requirement a “minor glitch.”
Moos said she doesn’t think the hurdle has delayed agencies from hiring staff and serving victims because nonprofits are accustomed to being funded by grants and having to wait for reimbursements.
“I think we’ve made significant strides in building the infrastructure and have really phenomenal staff on the ground at Youthworks as well as at the crisis shelters in Williston and Bismarck and Fargo,” Moos said. “I’ve think we’ve grown leaps and bounds since the last legislative session.”
In Williston, the Family Crisis Shelter hired a new staff member in January to serve human trafficking victims, anticipating that grant dollars would be available to pay her salary.
Director Lana Bonnet said she submitted paperwork in April to be reimbursed but has not yet received any of the $79,000 the program was awarded.
Now Bonnet is on the agenda for the Williston City Commission meeting on Tuesday to request that the city receive the grant dollars on behalf of the shelter. Then the grant application goes back to the Board of University and School Lands for another OK before the shelter can receive any money.
In the meantime, the domestic violence program has been able to pay the staff salary.
“We wrote the grant, we submitted it in a timely fashion and now we are jumping through hoops again,” Bonnet said.
This delay in funding is in addition to the $2 million in grants that had been awarded to domestic violence shelters in Williston, Dickinson and Minot for building projects but were suspended in February because oil tax revenue fell short.
But unlike those dollars, the grants for human trafficking services were mandated by legislators and the funding is available.
When Lazenko learned in January she was awarded a grant, she immediately lined up national experts to speak during a training event she hosted in Bismarck. News of the extra grant requirement came days before the event, and Lazenko is still working to jump through the new hoops so she can get reimbursed for her expenses.
In addition to the training, the grant dollars are also supposed to pay a salary for Lazenko to continue her street outreach to victims.
“I just want to get to work without these hindrances,” Lazenko said.