Did An “&” Cost a Local Social Service Agency Millions?

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You wouldn't think a character on your keyboard would be such a big deal.

But using one actually cost a local agency that helps battered woman almost $1,000,000.

The character is an ampersand, or this "&."

Hotels, bookstores, and law firms in our region all use them in their titles.

But when "Schuylkill Women in Crisis" in Pottsville, or "SWiC" used an ampersand in applying for federal grants, it cost the agency a chance at roughly a million bucks.

"Without the help of this organization and the help and the people there, I probably wouldn`t have a life," said a woman who only asked to be identified by her first name, "Arianna."

She says SWiC recently helped her escape a violent husband.

He`s now in prison.

"We need this, the women need this, the kids need this," said Arianna.

But because SWiC will likely lose grant money it now receives, some programs that helped Arianna and others are in jeopardy.

There would soon be no money to pay sheriff`s deputies overtime to serve protection orders on nights or weekends. Other police agencies in Schuylkill County will have to pick up the slack.

Money for deputies to escort battered women to and from court is likely to be gone.

The Schuylkill County District Attorney`s Office will lose a full-time prosecutor for domestic violence cases.  Prosecutors handling other crimes will get the added workload.

"A domestic violence victim, may not be able to have the assistance right from the very beginning of a case which is very important for the prosecution of it," said Karen Byrnes Noon, Schuylkill County's District Attorney.

"We really built a strong infrastructure here," added Sally Casey, SWiC's Executive Director.

Casey has tried to keep the programs going when she applied in March for grants from the US Justice Department's Office of Violence Against Women.

When it applied for the grants on-line, SWiC used ampersands on attachments.
If it used the word "and," Casey says the grant applications would have been considered.

Records show she submitted them 11 hours before the deadline and that the federal "Grants.gov" Online system labelled the applications, "error free and ready for upload."

At the time, "Grants.gov" did not list an ampersand as a character that could not be used on an application.

"I really didn`t think that was a problem," said Casey.

Casey says under federal rules, she applied through Schuylkill County. That is why the justice department returned an e-mail not to her but to Schuylkill County`s grant officer asking him to "remove the ampersand and resubmit."

By the time he read the email, the deadline to apply passed.

We asked the US Justice Department`s why it would say "no" to an important grant, over an ampersand.

According to spokeswoman Allison Price, it was "...to ensure that every applicant receives the same treatment....(and) ee follow the rules set forth in solicitations. "

Price added it gives grants to just 37% of agencies that apply.

But Casey notes SWiC has been awarded these grants since 2000, despite the odds.

"But to find out that we`re not even considered over an ampersand, it just doesn`t seem fair," said Casey.

The US Department of Justice spokeswoman followed up with us by saying the agency submitted what it calls a "systems change request" to "grants.gov" to ensure this problem does not happen in the future.

As for the present, "Schuylkill Women in Crisis" is looking how it can function when