On March 21, Lisa Lilja, executive director of Window Victim Services, which provides advocacy services for crime victims across Carlton, Pine and Kanabec counties, received a letter saying the state would not renew the grant currently funding 90 percent of Window's budget.
This means the nonprofit organization with offices in Carlton, Hinckley and Mora would have to close its doors for good after the grant expires Sept. 30.
Unless, Lilja said, the Crime Victim Grant team of the Minnesota Office of Justice Programs reverses its decision, or her and her team can find another way to continue providing its advocacy services. The Window staff is committed to exploring both options.
In an emailed statement to the Pine Journal, OJP director Kate Weeks said Window is not eligible for grant renewal as its board of directors and leadership "do not have the critical administrative, accounting and financial systems in place to properly manage grant funds."
Lilja, who does most of the financial work, disagrees. In fact, she said, Window hired an assistant to the executive director who started on March 1 to eventually assist Lilja with the time-demanding finance work. It was an effort Window made in order to meet one of the special conditions OJP asked of the program in September.
Weeks said OJP issued the special conditions because progress had not been made after a meeting in May of 2017 between OJP, Window staff and its board of directors that addressed financial management concerns.
"We responded with a detailed work plan as to how we intended to address all of these issues well within the time they requested," Lilja said of the special conditions.
On Oct. 15, Window received another letter from OJP saying their plan wasn't good enough. Lilja responded with a second letter, in which she explained why she believed they were complying with what had been requested of Window. Lilja said she never got a response letter.
Then in February, after a meeting between OJP and Window, in which Lilja and other staff provided a presentation on all their services, Lilja received an additional list of complaints.
"So we developed another work plan that we submitted to them," Lilja said. "This was submitted to them on Feb. 25. The meeting was on Feb. 22. We heard nothing back about this, and the next thing that we heard was on March 21, that Window will not be eligible for grant renewal."
"And I would really like to point out that there has never been an allegation of fraud or embezzlement or misuse of funds," Lilja said.
Where Window's money came from
In 1984, the U.S. Congress passed the Victims of Crimes Act in order to provide federal funding to local programs, such as Window, that serve victims of crime. Taxpayers do not provide this funding; instead, the money comes from fines federal criminals pay.
OJP administers that money in the state of Minnesota through the Crime Victims Grant. In October 2017, Window applied for, and received, a five-year competitive grant, though the program is expected to apply for renewal every two years, Lilja said.
"What OJP has done is to say that we're not eligible, even though they've said, 'You won this competitive cycle; you should know you're good for five years,'" Lilja said, "basically giving us six months to figure out what we're going to do."
Window provides a range of services to crime victims, including a 24/7 crisis line, sexual assault nurse examiner program, support groups, court advocacy services, finding safe homes for women who have experienced domestic abuse, assisting in filing restraining orders and many other free services.
Window also provides support for family and friends of crime victims, said Erica Heesaker, program manager at Window, who has sat in hospital waiting rooms with friends and family of sexual assault survivors.
"It just doesn't affect one person," Heesaker said. "It trickles down into our communities."
Heesaker said in Carlton County, there's no other existing programs that provide all these services. The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa offers some similar services for band members.
Window has been serving crime victims for the past 33 years and reaches nearly 2,000 people each year. The sexual assault nurse examiner program has served more people in Carlton County than the other two counties, with a total of 34 calls received between April 2016 and February 2019.
"There is a distinct possibility that there's going to be a lapse of services for a time. I can't predict how long that will be," Lilja said.
In the next couple weeks, Weeks said OJP will issue a request for proposal for services in the three counties.