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Leaders plot the future of domestic violence advocacy in Jackson

fr jacksonreachIt’s been two-and-a-half years since cash flow problems forced Jackson County’s domestic violence and sexual abuse resource center to close its doors, and REACH of Jackson County has remained a dead organization ever since.

Awareness of the need for such resources in Jackson County, however, has not. After the Jackson County organization closed down, REACH of Macon County — “Resources, Education, Assistance, Counseling and Housing,” the nonprofit’s five main functions — jumped in as a stop-gap to make sure domestic violence victims in Jackson County had somewhere to turn. 

“We’ve definitely seen our numbers continue to grow in Jackson County for the clients served,” said Andrea Anderson, executive director of REACH of Macon County. “I think part of it is initially there was some confusion after the other agency had to close down.”

Now, about a third of Macon’s clients are from Jackson County, and REACH is hoping that a recently opened office in Sylva, use donated by the county, will further increase accessibility. 

But the overall future of domestic violence resources in Jackson County is uncertain. The core question is whether the Macon organization will continue to expand its service in Jackson County or if Jackson will start its own organization.

 

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Stretched resources

The Jackson County Domestic Violence Task Force is working to find an answer. The group formed immediately after REACH of Jackson went dark to chart the future of domestic violence assistance in the county and is hoping to settle on a permanent direction — expand services through REACH of Macon or launch a new nonprofit — by the beginning of 2016. 

“I have no qualms or problems with the effort and quality of service that REACH of Macon County is providing,” said Bob Cochran, director of Jackson County’s department social services and an instrumental founding member of the task force. “It’s just a matter of stretched resources between two counties.”

REACH of Macon is based in Franklin. Its employees work out of that office, and that’s where its shelter is located. While the new office in Sylva is a big step forward, everyone agrees it’s not enough to supply the need. Advocates are always available by appointment, but the office’s only guaranteed hours are from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Compared to Macon’s, the Jackson volunteer force is small. 

“What we have is an agency that is primarily located in one county and comes over to a second county and provides services,” said Marilyn Chamberlain, a board member and anthropology and sociology professor at Western Carolina University who has studied domestic violence issues extensively. “There is not one person overseeing this county yet. So there isn’t a person that eight hours a day, all they do is Jackson County.”

That boils down to a funding issue. Hiring professional staff is expensive, so while there are multiple staff members at REACH who do some work in Jackson County, there’s no single person whose work is focused solely on that county. Which brings the conversation back full circle: is the best way for Jackson County to have that kind of focused service to start its own REACH agency or to team up with Macon for the long term? 

 

Gathering community input

For the task force, the first step in answering that question was to find out what the community wants, as they’ll be the ones giving time, money and support to whatever organization winds up shouldering the load. So far, they’ve got about 400 responses to a survey distributed to workers at some of the county’s biggest employers. 

“Overwhelmingly, the respondents would like to have an agency in Jackson County that’s devoted to Jackson County,” said Chamberlain, who designed the survey. “They are also quite supportive. At least a third of the respondents at this point indicated that they’re willing to help in some way, whether that’s volunteering or educating people or fundraising.”

That’s good news, because next to money, volunteer support will be the most important ingredient to building a successful agency. The new office in Sylva could prove a good test run as to whether Jackson residents will carry out the intentions scribbled on their survey forms. 

“The use of that facility needs to be increased for people in Jackson County, by people in Jackson County,” Chamberlain said. “We are to some extent still relying on Macon County to run and spearhead all of this.”

Though its hours are limited, the office provides all the services REACH offers in Macon County — except for a shelter. Victims can get help with safety planning, crisis intervention, court processes and finding educational opportunities. They can also get help finding work, housing and daycare. The crisis hotline is always open. 

But for victims who need a safe place to stay, driving to Franklin is still the only option. That can be a problem, especially for women who have jobs, have children who are in school or don’t have a car. 

“I was dealing with a woman back in December who was in a domestic violence situation and had employment here (in Jackson County) and really needed that employment to keep her head above water,” Cochran said, “but the only option was for her to go over to Franklin, and she chose not to.”

Instead, she stayed with her son’s girlfriend, a “compromised” situation that was essentially sofa surfing, Cochran said. 

“I think we just have had better accommodations in the past, and that’s what we are trying to regain for the future,” he said. 

REACH of Macon tries to help where it can. The organization has applied for a small grant to pay for motel rooms to accommodate Jackson County women when the Franklin shelter is full, and it refers clients to the Swain and Haywood shelters when that seems a better option. But the fact is, Anderson said, “We definitely don’t get enough funding to fully fund the need in Jackson County.”

 

Looking toward the long term

So back to the question. Should Jackson County break off and start its own organization, or should REACH of Macon expand to more completely serve the two counties? 

“We just are beginning to figure out which is the best, most easily funded and the path that allows services to be provided continuously,” Chamberlain said. 

Each option has its challenges. 

“The one is a matter of creating a structure that’s not yet there, and the other is recreating the structure that is there because that structure would have to make some changes to accommodate a second county,” Chamberlain said. 

Structure and funding go hand-in-hand. 

REACH of Macon County has a legacy and a structure in place through which to direct the funds it receives. If Jackson started its own organization, it would have the challenge of finding funding while simultaneously building the structure and the networks to provide the services. And Macon County would have to reconfigure its own budget, because in addition to saving on the cost of serving Jackson, it would lose the state funding it’s currently receiving for services offered to Jackson as well as other funding streams, like the $50,000 the Jackson County budget allocates to the organization. 

On the other hand, the region could lose state dollars if the two counties joined forces. 

“If you have a multi-county operation, you get significantly less than you would for two counties because they assume there will be efficiencies,” Cochran said, “and there should be, but they shouldn’t punish counties for having efficiencies.”

Part of the task force’s work will involve looking for successful examples of multi-county partnerships. 

So far, Cochran said, that search is coming up short. The Orange-Durham Coalition for Battered Women used to serve two counties, but the partnership broke up in 2001. Same for REACH in Cherokee and Clay counties, which used to operate as a single organization but are now separate entities. Watauga and Avery counties do have a joint domestic violence agency, but Cochran said his research indicates it might not be going that well. 

“My understanding is that Avery is still struggling and Watauga is carrying the lions’ share of the responsibly, so that does not bode well,” he said. 

The task force hasn’t ruled out the option of a joint agency, Cochran said, but he can see the potential for trouble. And of course, it wouldn’t be completely Jackson’s choice to make. 

“A lot of it will be REACH of Macon County’s board and how they feel about that long-term,” Cochran said. 

According to Anderson, feedback from Jackson County is likely to inform the answer to that question. 

“We don’t necessarily have a hard line about ‘No, we would not continue long term providing services’ nor do we have a hard line of ‘Yes, we want to continue,’” she said. “It’s more about what the community wants.”

 

 

By the numbers

In fiscal year 2014, about one-third of REACH of Macon County’s services went to Jackson County residents, a share that Executive Director Andrea Anderson expects to see increase as more people learn what services are offered and how to access them. 

                                                          Jackson      Macon

Individuals served                                  270            628

Afterhours hotline calls                          307            622

Family groups using the shelter              39              84

Nights of shelter provided                    1,290         2,037

 

Lend a hand

If Jackson County is ever to regain comprehensive service for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, volunteers and supporters will have to step up to make it happen. Consider one of these ways to pitch in:

• Become an advocate. REACH of Macon County will hold a two-day volunteer training 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Friday, July 31, and Friday, Aug. 7, at the Jackson County Public Library. The training will prepare volunteers to work with clients in Jackson County. RSVPs are requested. 

• Help make a home. REACH just broke ground on a new shelter in Franklin, expected to be open in the early months of 2016. They’ll be looking for plenty of donations as the months unfold to furnish the shelter and add some homey touches. Donations are also needed to keep day-to-day supplies on hand. A current wish list is on the left sidebar of REACH’s website.

• Give money. Financial contributions are always appreciated, and stay tuned for a dine-out fundraiser planned for October, when Jackson County restaurants will donate a portion of all sales on a given night to REACH.  

• Serve on the task force. The Jackson County Domestic Violence Task Force is largely composed of agency directors with heavy responsibilities outside of task force meetings. People with a passion for helping domestic violence victims and time to do so are needed. 

www.reachofmaconcounty.org or 828.369.5544.

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