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.

Tribe gains ability to prosecute non-Indians

Proponents of domestic violence prevention are cheering following the launch of a federal law that will allow tribal courts to prosecute non-Indians who commit domestic violence on tribal land.   

“It’s going to be a really good thing for the tribe,” said Bill Boyum, Chief Justice of the Cherokee Supreme Court.

REACH aims for new shelter

For nearly a year, REACH of Macon County has been helping domestic abuse victims in Jackson County. The group has handled more than 400 cases in Jackson since last July. 

“To be honest with you, we feel like that number should be higher,” Andrea Anderson, the group’s executive director, told the Jackson County commissioners recently.  “We definitely have been talking and trying to figure out how to reach out to more victims.”

Domestic violence and sexual abuse shelter looks to expand in Macon

Fundraising for a $1.3-million shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse is underway in Macon County, with REACH of Macon County hoping to move to a new building by September 2015. 

“This has been a dream from the beginning,” said Jennifer Turner-Lynn, prevention coordinator and incoming assistant director for REACH. “We’ve always wanted to build the shelter here, and we feel the time is right.”

No good deed goes unpunished in state’s domestic violence funding formula

The domestic violence nonprofit REACH of Macon County is facing a more than $80,000 shortfall next year due partly to state budget cuts and partly to repercussions of stepping up to the plate when assault victims in neighboring Jackson County had no one else to turn to.

Neighborly lifeline for domestic violence victims could fray at the edges unless Jackson steps up

Nearly a year has passed since a domestic violence support agency in Jackson County abruptly shut down under financial duress, and so far there’s no sign on the horizon of a new nonprofit to fill the void.

In the meantime, however, the domestic violence agency in Macon County stepped in and picked up the torch on an emergency — and presumably interim — basis.

Cherokee breaks new ground with fines for domestic violence

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is hitting domestic violence abusers in their pocketbooks.

People convicted of domestic violence-related charges must now pay a $1,000 fine, in addition to other penalties handed down by tribal court. Tribal council approved of the measure at its meeting last week.

Reviving domestic violence agency in Jackson could take time

Two months after the domestic violence agency REACH of Jackson County abruptly shut its doors in February, services to domestic violence victims continue to be handled by nonprofits in neighboring counties.

Jackson County commissioners would like to see a local entity fill that void and are likely to begin reviewing their options soon, with a discussion of the issue slated for a county meeting next week.

REACH of Jackson County’s board of directors shut down the agency in February amid questions of financial solvency and internal financial irregularities. REACH failed to remit payroll taxes for three quarters in 2011 to the Internal Revenue Services. Additionally, the organization was hemorrhaging financially. The board of directors fired the agency’s executive director and finance officer, and the seven remaining employees were laidoff.

Commissioner Doug Cody said that he believes Jackson County must move toward having its own agency in place to combat domestic violence and help victims.

“I think we do need a local entity that does what REACH did for us,” Cody said. “Macon County is taking up the slack right now. It’s unfortunate things worked out the way they did.”

Commissioner Mark Jones echoed Cody, calling the demise of REACH a “great disappointment,” and said that he, too, wants something in place soon on a local level.

“I think it is very important,” Jones said. “Our population is too large not to have a facility for servicing victims in immediate need.”

Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said the situation with REACH serves as a warning to people who serve on volunteer boards that they need to be cognizant of what’s happening with the respective agencies. That said, he’s looking toward another agency in Jackson County, too, to help victims of domestic violence.

“I’d like to see REACH back in Jackson County,” Debnam said. “Eventually we’re going to have to set something up. I think it needs a little different structure than last time.”

All calls are currently being handled by REACH of Macon County, which has been provided office space in the Jackson County Department of Social Services building. Ann VanHarlingen, executive director of REACH of Macon County, said there has been a continuity of services. The group is even offering life-skills classes and programming in Jackson County.

“It’s going to take some time for Jackson County (to decide what to do),” she said. “It’s up to the community to see how they want the work to go forward.”

VanHarlingen said starting a new agency up takes 18 months to two years on average, according to state statistics.

State grant funding previously earmarked for REACH of Jackson County has now been made available to REACH of Macon County, said Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten. Since that agency is now providing the services to domestic violence victims, they can receive the funding previously allocated to REACH of Jackson, Wooten explained.

The root of the financial problems for REACH of Jackson County date to 2001 when REACH opened a $1.1-million transitional-housing complex for victims trying to escape abuse. The complex was a questionable financial venture from the get-go: The nine-apartment village could not actually generate the funds to pay the loans, much less keep pace with general repairs and upkeep. The loan amount owed was $840,074.

The REACH village went into foreclosure. Recently control of that housing complex shifted to Mountain Projects, a nonprofit that administers programs to benefit the needy and elderly in Haywood and Jackson counties.

Domestic violence agency shuts without warning amid irregularities

A domestic violence and sexual assault agency serving victims of abuse in Jackson County abruptly shut its doors last week after more than three decades in operation.

REACH of Jackson County has been plagued for two years by an on-going funding crisis, but the sudden closure came amid questions about internal accounting irregularities.

The director and finance director were fired and seven other employees put on furlough.

This leaves victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in Jackson County without a local agency to turn to. They now must rely on help from neighboring counties. 911 calls from victims are being rerouted to Macon County.

“No client will go unserved — none,” said Ann VanHarlingen, executive director of REACH of Macon County. “We are providing room in the shelter, court advocacy, whatever an individual or family from Jackson County needs, we will provide.”

The domestic violence agencies from neighboring Swain and Haywood counties have pledged help as well, including Swain/Qualla SAFE and REACH of Haywood County.

Lisa Barker, the director of SAFE in Swain County, cautioned, however, that Jackson County’s leaders must figure out some other means, long-term, of helping victims living in the community — these small nonprofits all have limited resources and shallow purses, the very crux of the problem that ultimately destroyed REACH of Jackson County.

“It is very important that each county have the services available in that county,” Barker said. She noted that it places additional hardships on victims, who are already in crisis, if they are forced to seek assistance instead of finding help readily available within their home communities.

Children are often caught in the middle of domestic violence. Four-dozen children were among those housed in 2010 in the domestic violence shelter run by REACH of Jackson County.

 

Shutdown came rapidly

Board members of REACH of Jackson County aren’t saying much. In fact, all they’ll say about the matter is contained in a written statement released early Monday by board Treasurer Tommy Dennison.

“Due to uncertainty regarding our financial issues, REACH of Jackson County had to close on Feb. 9,” it stated in part. “We are very saddened that this has occurred but it was the only way we could fully understand the situation. This was a very difficult decision for the board to make.”

The budget for REACH this fiscal year was approximately $400,000, down from $1 million just two years ago. Grants made up most of the budget, but the agency had other sources of revenue, too. Jackson County has been giving REACH $35,000 for operational expenses on an annual basis since 2007.

County Manager Chuck Wooten said he was informed that an auditor is reviewing REACH’s accounting records, and that board members had expressed confusion over the true situation of the agency’s finances.

Here’s what happened: On the morning of Thursday, Feb. 9, there was a REACH board meeting. Later, REACH Board President Rich Peoples came to the agency’s offices just off N.C. 107 and fired REACH Executive Director Kim Roberts-Fer and Finance Director Janice Mason. He furloughed the other employees.

In an extensive interview just after she was fired, Roberts-Fer detailed the events leading up to the terminations. While the agency has been through financial struggles, she said there were adequate funds to keep it running. At the time of the interview, it was not yet clear that the REACH board would totally shutdown the agency.

“I don’t see why, after all we have done, that they would give up now,” Roberts-Fer said. “With or without me, that’s not the point — there are too many women depending on them.”

 

Payroll tax problems

REACH eked out a day-to-day existence. The agency had no piggy bank, and no real bank that was willing to extend credit — REACH was turned down twice when it sought loans. The agency missed payroll at least twice and had its water cut off once for nonpayment of bills.

The financial straw breaking the camel’s back, however, seems to have come when board members learned that REACH owed $47,000 to the Internal Revenue Service. REACH had failed to pay three quarters worth of payroll taxes last year. The amount owed included fines and penalties as well.

Roberts-Fer said there was nothing sinister involved. Partly, the finance director, Janice Mason, didn’t realize she was supposed to remit payroll taxes regularly, according to Roberts-Fer. But, cash flow problems clearly played a major role.

“Her only goal was to keep the agency going. What she was doing was paying when she got the money. But, it kept getting further and further behind, and basically, she didn’t have the money,” Roberts-Fer said.

The IRS showed up. A deal was worked out. REACH would pay $700 to $1,000 a month, Roberts-Fer said, with the expectation that the fines and penalties probably would be waived once the taxes were paid.

“Once I got the information, I shared … with the board and let them know we were in contact with the IRS,” Roberts-Fer said, adding that she went without her own paychecks in November and December to try and help the agency recover financially.

This wasn’t the first accounting issue at REACH.

Mason also failed to properly deposit retirement plan contributions into two employees’ accounts on several occasions, Roberts-Fer said. When employees elect to have part of their take-home pay withheld and put into a retirement plan, the money is supposed to be deposited regularly.

That money was paid back, but the amount of interest involved remain points of contention with the employee and former employee involved, she said.

The motivation again seemed to be plugging cash-flow shortfalls to keep the agency going.

“(The finance director) had been for years charged with paying the bills with no money. She inherited a system; she worked within it,” Roberts-Fer said.

New guidelines were put in place to standardize and regularize the agency’s methods of doing business, she said.

“Everybody makes mistakes. For an organization, the question is, do you respond to the problem? We did,” Roberts-Fer said.

 

REACH’s financial problems longstanding

The financial woes of REACH of Jackson County weren’t a mystery. Exactly one year ago this week, Roberts-Fer warned that the financial situation was so bleak the nonprofit faced the possibility of shutting down.

Before Roberts-Fer took over three years ago, REACH had opened a $1.1-million transitional-housing complex for victims trying to escape abuse back in 2001. It was a questionable financial venture from the get-go: The nine-apartment village, no matter how skillfully operated and managed, would never actually generate the funds to pay the loans, much less keep pace with general repairs and upkeep. The only income to offset the expenses was rent from the tenants, and even if fully rented, it would not pay the mortgages and expenses. The loan amount owed was $840,074.

The REACH village went into foreclosure, and associated costs bled dollars from the agency. Recently control of that housing complex shifted to Mountain Projects, a nonprofit that administers programs to benefit the needy and elderly in Haywood and Jackson counties.

Roberts-Fer said REACH of Jackson County also had been overspending during those years, including dipping into, and ultimately depleting, emergency financial reserves.

Even the agency’s thrift shop had been barely breaking even.

Adding to the difficulties were sky-high insurance payments on the agency’s emergency shelter after Bonnie Woodring, who was seeking protection from an abusive husband, was gunned down by John Raymond “Woody” Woodring in September 2006. He shot her inside the shelter after muscling his way in. Woodring later killed himself.

Additional security measures at the shelter were added in the wake of the shooting, another expense for REACH.

But perhaps most critically, at least when it came to the agency’s financial wellbeing, grants and other funding streams REACH relied upon have virtually dried up. Macon County’s VanHarlingen said her agency also has faced increasing financial constraints because of the overall economic climate.

“It is difficult for everybody,” she said.

In response to the financial crisis, Roberts-Fer had cut the number of employees at the agency and streamlined programs to barebones levels: operating an emergency shelter, offering legal advocacy and maintaining a hotline.

Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten raised the possibility of combining some elements of the individual agencies in the region to offset costs. But, VanHarlingen cautioned that immediate shelter and help needed to be available in individual communities. At one time REACH of Macon County was an extension of the Jackson County agency.

“When we were the Macon outreach for Jackson County, that meant sometimes transporting a client over Cowee on a snowy night,” she said.

The need for help in Jackson County, REACH or no REACH, isn’t likely to disappear.

During fiscal year 2009-10, REACH of Jackson County received more than 400 crisis-line calls, provided emergency shelter for 37 women and 48 children, and was involved in 269 counseling sessions.

Wooten described the need as critical and said he expects REACH’s demise to be a topic of discussion at the Feb. 20 Jackson County Board of Commissioners meeting.

Domestic violence agency pulls through financial crisis

REACH of Jackson County continues to struggle financially, but fears this winter that the agency might actually shut down now seem unlikely.

The “village,” a transitional-housing complex for women escaping domestic violence, was bleeding dollars from the nonprofit organization. The complex has since been taken over by Mountain Projects, and that has certainly helped REACH’s financial outlook, said REACH Executive Director Kim Roberts-Fer.

But even more importantly, she said, REACH is a leaner, meaner, anti-domestic violence fighting machine … or something like that, anyway.

“Sometimes a crisis can get you to rethink, and I think this has put us in a place where we will be even more efficient and effective,” Roberts-Fer said.

The near financial meltdown has taken its toll, however. The projected budget for REACH this fiscal year is $400,000, down from $1 million just two years ago. And the staff is down, too, with nine positions slashed: half of the people who once worked for the nonprofit are gone.

What’s left, Roberts-Fer said, is the core, essential duty that rightfully belongs to an agency such as this: the ability to help victims of domestic violence during times of crisis.

The hotline is manned, the money-raising thrift shop is open, and the workers remaining for the agency are being cross-trained to handle a multitude of services. The days of specializing are over, Roberts-Fer said, and so are nice-but-not-essential services, such as long-term counseling for victims. That’s being farmed out into the community when there’s a need.

The continued viability of the nonprofit hinges on two critical points: continued grant money from a dollars-strapped state, and the ability of REACH to ride out a four- to five-month expected delay in receiving that funding. These days, North Carolina is slow to put the checks in the mail, and agencies that desire solvency have learned to stash money or use lines of credit from banks to ride out the drought that begins with each new fiscal year.

REACH, however, has no piggy bank, and no real bank that is willing to extend credit — the agency went into foreclosure proceedings with the village, subsequently missing payroll twice and even seeing the water cut off for nonpayment of bills. REACH isn’t exactly the kind of customer most banks will open their vaults to.

Money woes or not, the need for the nonprofit’s services are great; however, during fiscal year 2009-10, REACH of Jackson County received more than 400 crisis-line calls, provided emergency shelter for 37 women and 48 children, and was involved in 269 counseling sessions.

Finance Director Janice Mason said the thrift shop isn’t making much money, but that it is holding its own. One positive sign is that donations are up, she said.

Roberts-Fer has warned her staff that she cannot guarantee all the hard times are over, or even that the agency might not again miss payroll. Still, she remains optimistic.

“Progress towards stability has been slow, but there is definite progress,” Roberts-Fer said.

 

REACH fundraiser

A REACH of Jackson County fundraiser is set for Saturday, June 18, from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. at the Country Club of Sapphire Valley. Tickets are $75 per person. The evening includes dinner, drinks, dancing and gaming, with a special appearance by the Gamelan Ensemble. 828.631.4488 ext. 207.

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