Clean Slate to offer women in this region a second chance

A halfway house to help women who have been released from jail after serving time for minor offenses or other “life challenges” is opening in Sylva.

The transitional housing, called Clean Slate, will serve women from Jackson, Haywood, Swain and Macon counties, plus the Cherokee Indian Reservation. The group hopes at some point to open a second halfway house in Franklin.

Timing on the Sylva house’s opening comes as REACH, the anti-domestic violence coalition in Jackson County, has been forced to let its transitional housing for women go into foreclosure, raising questions about the funding for — and the financial sustainability of — Clean Slate.

Organizer Alice Mason said unlike the funding secured to pay for the REACH village, however, Clean Slate is the result of individual donations and money given by a variety of faith-based organizations. The REACH village, by contrast, is a $1.1 million project paid for through federal and state loans, which the agency has been unable to pay.

Last week, the Clean Slate coalition (11 people on this day) gathered at the house in Sylva to develop bylaws, discuss liability insurance and take care of other opening details. The group is now screening applicants for the house, a two-floor, multi-bedroom structure which, when fully fixed up, could shelter up to 11 women.

“This could really help fill a need in the community,” coalition member Kristy Case said of the project.

Case, as housing coordinator for the southern region of Smoky Mountain Center, knows firsthand the difficulties of finding shelter and transitional housing for women and others in need. Smoky Mountain Center is the state agency tasked with helping those with mental health, developmental disability and substance abuse issues in North Carolina’s 15 westernmost counties.

Even individuals without the stigmas of having served jail time are struggling in this poor economy to find jobs and housing, Case said, much less women with criminal records or other issues Clean Slate plans to help.

The overarching hope of Clean Slate is to reduce recidivism (habitual relapse into criminal behavior) and addictive behavior.

Women accepted into Clean Slate will pay rent, coalition member Terri Sanger emphasized. The women will be encouraged, and helped, to find jobs. Additionally, Southwestern Community College’s campus is located fairly close to the house (the coalition asked that the location not be identified for safety reasons).

Like Case, Sanger became involved because she saw a direct tie to the work she does: Sanger is the More at Four director for Smart Start Region A Partnership for Children.

“Most of these women have children, and I’m concerned about those children,” Sanger said.

Children will not live at the house, but parenting skills will be taught to mothers there who need assistance. Other classes, too, will be offered, Mason said, and women who participate in Clean Slate will be required to commit to a program designed to “help them accomplish their dreams and goals and to become a contributing member of their community.”

The Rev. Mason, deacon of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Cullowhee, became interested in creating transitional housing for women who have served time after she began work as a chaplain in Jackson County’s jail.

“Many of the women, after their discharge, had to return back to the same destructive environment they had come from,” Mason wrote in a story she penned about the genesis of Clean Slate. “Others wanted desperately to begin new lives, to find employment and a peaceful place to live. After their release, always with no discharge planning, and usually with no warning, some called on me for advice and help in finding a place to live.”

Frustrated by her inability to fully help these women who seemed so sincere in their desires to live different lives than before, Mason began work to build a coalition and open Clean Slate.

 

Want to be involved?

Clean Slate is currently in search of a house mother to oversee the house at night. There is no pay, but rent will be free and eventually a stipend might be offered. Additionally, a multitude of volunteer opportunities are available, such as helping with tutoring, entertainment or general support in areas in which you are trained and proficient. Possibilities are: teaching computer skills, keeping a budget, checkbook and credit card management, preparing a resume, cooking, crafts and so on.

Help is also needed to transport women to and from self-improvement classes, Al-Anon and AA meetings, doctors and dentists. Work groups will be formed, too, to help with fundraising and marketing, and more.

Contact the Rev. Alice Mason at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Suspicious death of 15-month-old prompts SBI to seize Swain DSS computers

The State Bureau of Investigation raided Swain County Department of Social Services Tuesday, hauling off computers and records in an investigation allegedly tied to the death of Aubrey Littlejohn, a 15-month-old baby who died Jan. 10.

Littlejohn was brought to a hospital emergency room at 3:30 a.m. that day, according to an affidavit filed to establish probable cause by the Swain County Sheriff’s Department. The 15-month-old’s left arm was fractured, and she had a bruise on her forehead. Interviews of people staying at the residence, a singlewide trailer at 187 Kenneth Cooper Road off U.S. 19 between Cherokee and Bryson City, revealed the baby had been left strapped in a car seat for about 12 hours.

“During that time period, Aubrey was not removed from the car seat, given food or drink except for some bites from a hotdog and sips of a soda around 5 p.m. that evening. Aubrey’s diaper was not changed during this time period,” the affidavit stated.

When the baby was admitted to the hospital, she was dressed only in a t-shirt and a urine-soaked, feces-filled diaper.

“Infant was limp and very cold to the touch, skin color dusky blue,” according to the affidavit, which noted law enforcement interviews indicated “abuse and neglect” contributed to the baby’s death.

DSS workers had repeatedly been called to the home where the baby lived over the past year, but failed to remove her, The Smoky Mountain News was told.

That’s what angers David Wijewikrama, an attorney in Waynesville.

“The Departments of Social Services across the state have had needless deaths occur multiple times a year because officials involved fail to follow up and do their jobs in the necessary manner,” Wijewickrama said.

The child had been living with her great-aunt, Ladybird Powell, because the child’s mother, Jasmine Littlejohn, was in jail on unrelated drug charges, he said. While they are members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Aubrey Littlejohn lived off the reservation in Swain County. That’s why Swain County DSS was the agency tasked with investigating claims of abuse.

According to Veronica Callahan, next door neighbor of Ladybird Powell, there were often lots of cars and trucks at Powell’s trailer at all hours of the night. Callahan said that children were outside the home as late as 2 a.m., and just this past fall several children were sleeping in a tent in the trailer’s backyard. Callahan said Powell would lock the children out of the house and not allow them back in.

She said sheriff’s deputies and DSS workers were at the house repeatedly responding to complaints.

“It’s horrifying,” said Callahan. “A baby has no voice. I really hope this doesn’t get washed away.”

Tuesday, Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, declined to comment directly on the investigation, but did say: “we remain committed to following through to ensure justice is served in this case.”

Additionally, Hicks said the tribe had hired a private investigator to help provide “a more comprehensive level of information in this case.”  

Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran said his department is investigating the child’s death, but has not yet determined what if any charges might be filed against her caregivers. District Attorney Mike Bonfoey also confirmed the existence of an investigation, but declined to comment further. State and local DSS officials failed to return phone calls requesting comment before press time.

Wijewickrama has been retained by the child’s mother, who, he said, is devastated by her baby’s death while in the care of a relative. She retained him in a civil capacity to look into possible negligence by DSS.

“She’s sad. She is devastated. She wants to see if there is a law that can be passed that forces DSS to immediately remove children if there are visible signs of abuse,” Wijewickrama said. “What makes me angry is that DSS went to the house of Ladybird (Powell) and removed other children. They knew she was abusive but failed to remove 15-month-old Aubrey and provide her a safe placement.”

Staff writer Quintin Ellison contributed to this report.

Decades of helping domestic violence victims could end

The financial situation facing REACH of Jackson County is so bleak the nonprofit is facing the possibility of shutting down, leaving women and children who live in abusive relationships nowhere locally to turn for help.

The nation’s economic downturn, coupled with what seems to have been terrible business decisions by the agency itself, have threatened to end the 32-year history of REACH.

The nonprofit in November 2001 opened a $1.1-million transitional-housing complex for victims trying to escape abuse. The “village,” as it’s dubbed, is now in foreclosure. Associated costs continue to bleed dollars although REACH is no longer making loan payments.

A couple of caveats: First, the current executive director of REACH, and the board members who oversee the agency, were not the ones making the decisions that helped land this anti-domestic abuse group in such dire straits.

Secondly, who can in good conscience flatly assert the prior board’s desire to build the village was a bad one? The federal government and state government approved the concept, local leaders joined in the general celebration when ribbon-cutting time came, newspapers across the region published articles and editorials that were supportive and full of acclaim; not one reporter, including this one, ever attempted to crunch the numbers themselves.

And, indeed, maybe the blame lies with nobody, but instead is the inevitable result of an impersonal crashing economy. Hard times certainly brought down bigger prey than this one small nonprofit group: whole housing developments went under. Banks went under. During the last election, Democratic control of the state and nation went under. Now, REACH, too, might go under.

The facts are these: If the people of Jackson County want the anti-domestic violence agency to continue operations, three things must happen. Wallets must open, volunteers must step forward, and the agency must successfully and completely reinvent itself.

 

Hunkering down

There is a certain bunker-mentality feel when you visit the administrative offices of REACH of Jackson County these days. Executive Director Kim Roberts-Fer and the agency’s finance director, Janice Mason, are consumed with counting pennies. The two women’s workdays, and even some of their off-work hours, are spent discussing and mulling over how to best spend what they do have.

No money hasn’t meant no need: 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.

No matter what happens to the nonprofit agency, Jackson County won’t be getting out of the domestic violence caretaking business, said Bob Cochran, director of the county’s Department of Social Services.

“If REACH weren’t there,” he said, “we would have to look at other ways to provide these services as a county and as a community.”

There are a few counties in North Carolina where local government does directly provide such services. Cochran really hopes it doesn’t come to that, however. He wants REACH to survive. Cochran said he intends to provide the agency’s workers with whatever support he can, including speaking on the nonprofit’s behalf to county leaders.

“REACH is just critical,” he said.

 

‘The numbers didn’t work … from Day One’

Shortly after she and her husband left Maine two years ago and Roberts-Fer started her new job in Jackson County, she had a terrible realization, one of those ‘Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into’ moments.

“The agency was in financial trouble the day I came in,” Roberts-Fer said.  

REACH didn’t have enough money to make payments on the loans they’d taken out. The nine-apartment village, no matter how skillfully operated and managed, would never actually generate the funds to pay those 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 does not pay the mortgages and expenses,” the agency’s executive director said. “The numbers didn’t work, and they didn’t work from Day One. We told them (the note holders), to go ahead and foreclose. Take it.”

 

The vision

The village is a complex of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments and a community center. There is a playground and commons area. As envisioned, the village apartments would serve domestic-abuse victims from Haywood, Jackson, Macon, Swain, Graham, Clay and Cherokee counties, along with those from the Cherokee Indian Reservation.

A decade later, however, and the dream is dead. The two note holders, the N.C. Housing Finance and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are well into the foreclosure proceedings.

Adding to the problems: Insurance payments on the agency’s emergency shelter went sky-high 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. It was critical that the agency reassure other domestic-violence victims they would find safe haven at the emergency shelter. Roberts-Fer said the shooting cast a long shadow over REACH: financially and emotionally, and that the legacy continues today.

There have been additional money woes: Water to tenants has been cut off at least once because REACH failed to pay the bill. The agency’s payroll was missed twice. Health insurance coverage lapsed for a time. Everyone kept working anyway, and eventually the agency’s employees did get paid — at least they did until about half of them were laid off as part of cost-savings measures. Today, there are seven fulltime REACH employees and two part-time workers. Additional staff reductions are likely, Roberts-Fer said.

Another, unidentified local nonprofit is weighing whether to continue offering low-income housing at the village, located just off N.C. 107 near Wal-Mart, but REACH wants shed of its role in the project. And as quickly as possible: Just keeping up with maintenance is proving too large a financial drain on the cash-strapped nonprofit. Selling it proved impossible because the village was worth less when appraised than what REACH owed on it, Roberts-Fer said.

As quickly as a new emergency shelter is ready, the agency plans to abandon the village lock, stock and barrel. The tenants in the village, she said, have been warned. Boxes of items are stacking up on the steps, waiting to be moved to the new location.

 

Bigger problems still loom

“Even then, though, we are going to be in trouble financially,” Roberts-Fer said.

The agency’s thrift shop is barely breaking even. Donations are down, and buyers don’t seem much interested in what items the REACH thrift shop does have to offer, she said.

Grants and other funding streams are drying up as North Carolina grapples with a shortfall numbering in the billions. And even more critical: A somewhat obtuse administrative detail on the state’s part, which is choking REACH’s finances, and is reportedly causing other nonprofits in North Carolina trouble, too.

The state once paid grant money upfront, apparently recognizing that the wiggle room for most small nonprofit agencies is marginal at best. No more — these days, payments don’t begin until about four months into the fiscal year, creating a cash-flow crunch.

“Last year, the only thing that got us through was a particular grant that gave us a little room to survive,” Roberts-Fer said.

That’s not how the situation is shaping up for fiscal year 2011-12, which starts July 1.

“Worst case, we won’t be able to function,” she said bluntly.

Why? There is no cash reserve. Zero. Nothing. Nada.

Banks, understandably, haven’t been eager to extend a line of credit to REACH. They’ve been turned down twice, even though one of the board members is an experienced banker. His bank, in fact, said no thanks.

Here’s the solution, perhaps the only means of saving REACH of Jackson County: A fairy godmother, or a slew of community donors, come up with a cash reserve for the agency of between $100,000-$150,000. This would give REACH the money needed to ride out the state’s Scrooge-like methods of doling out funds. Additionally, this three-month reserve fund would provide REACH the money needed in the future. The budget, Roberts-Fer said, would be stabilized.

“The board has already agreed we’d only use the money as cash flow against receivables,” she said.

Additionally, REACH is streamlining operations. Only essential, core services are being offered: the REACH crisis line, for example, the emergency shelter and legal advocacy.

“We’re determined that this will not be the last year for REACH,” Roberts-Fer said.

UN representative discusses domestic abuse in Cherokee

Cherokee got a special visit last month from Rashida Manjoo, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, as part of a fact-finding trip around the United States.

Making her stop at the special request of several tribal council members, Manjoo was welcomed by the chief and Tribal Council before touring the reservation and meeting with survivors of violence.

Manjoo visited the tribe as part of her mandate from the UN High Council on Human Rights. She looked specifically at the high rates of violence against women that occur within native American communities and talked to local women’s organizations as well as law enforcement and tribal officials about why such crimes are more likely there than within the general populace.

One problem facing tribal nations around the country is the matter of jurisdiction – tribal courts have no jurisdiction over non-Indian American citizens. And while such criminals can be tried in federal courts, some slip through the cracks.

For those that are pursued in tribal courts, the maximum sentencing limits – three years at most for certain multiple-charge crimes – pale in comparison to the much longer maximums available in state courts.

Manjoo addressed this problem during her visit and said that she hoped to include possible solutions in her final report, due to be given in Washington, D.C. this week.

“Jurisdictional issues are one aspect of the challenges that you face in terms of accountability and impunity, but I’m sure there are many other challenges and opportunities that we will be exposed to,” said Manjoo, in an address to Tribal Council.

She applauded the council and others working on the reservation with victims of violence for their efforts to hold the Eastern Band to the standards of international law when it comes to due diligence and prosecution. She said, however, that the effort must be deeper than just dealing with the after-effects or working with tribal women on prevention. To really eradicate violence against women, said Manjoo, girls must be protected and educated early on, and prevention – along with prosecution – should be a priority for both men and women.

“My mandate goes broader than women, and the goal of elimination of violence against women is a goal that I think all of us subscribe to, and eventually we will not require a position of this nature in the UN system,” said Manjoo.”

Manjoo is the third special rapportuer to occupy her position, and the findings from her two-week tour – which also included stops in Florida, California, Minnesota and New York – will be presented in full at the next meeting of the Council on Human Rights in Geneva later this year.

REACH funding called into question by commissioners

A non-profit that helps abused women escape domestic violence could be facing a budget cut by Jackson County commissioners this year.

Victim’s family sues REACH for negligence

REACH of Jackson County, a non-profit that aids victims of domestic violence, is being sued by the family of a woman shot and killed at a domestic violence shelter last September by her deranged husband.

Planning ahead a critical first step in escaping abuse

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

If you or someone you know is thinking about leaving an abusive relationship, there are some things that are good to know.

Safe haven: Domestic violence hits home

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Editor’s note: The names of domestic violence victims Linda and Anne, who were interviewed for this story, have been changed.

The afternoon Linda decided to leave her fiancé, she waited until he was asleep, put a slip of paper with the phone number of the Haywood County Reach Shelter in her pocket along with her cell phone, and walked out the back door very quietly.

Do what it takes to protect battered women

There was so much blood all over the place that her home looked more like a slaughterhouse. That’s what she said. She said that he chased her back into the bathroom and she felt the cold, sharp barrel of a pistol pushed hard against her head, and his threats, always with the threats he came, relentless, unpredictable, set off by anything, set off by nothing at all. How many times had he beaten her bloody, threatened to kill her, lost control utterly? She didn’t say.

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