When the Domestic Abuse Shelter’s certification to operate a shelter was temporarily suspended in May by the state Department of Children and Families, The Lodge stepped in and took over. The Lodge is a state-certified domestic abuse shelter that operates in Miami-Dade County, one of 42 certified by the state. It continues to operate the 38-bed facility in the Middle Keys.
The DAS board has rallied, though, and are trying to piece together the agency. The goal is to be recertified and resume control of the Monroe County nonprofit. It will be an uphill battle — the embattled CEO isn’t receiving a salary and yet her contract doesn’t expire until 2019. And there’s a balloon mortgage payment due in 2017 of $186,000 on it’s only asset — the Middle Keys shelter. To put it simply, the DAS is flat broke.
A domestic abuse shelter is nothing like a homeless shelter. Its clients — mostly women and children, and some men — require special services after surviving a relationship with a batterer. Shelters, by law, are required to offer counseling services, emergency shelter, operate a hotline and are tasked with community education.
“The Domestic Abuse Shelter is a critical component of justice in the Keys,” said Sheriff Rick Ramsay. “Men or women who are victims of domestic violence need a safe space to go, otherwise they might not report the domestic abuse crime. Or, if they do, they might end up living on the streets or in their cars.”
Ramsay said in his tenure as a law enforcement officer he’s seen every type of domestic abuse — sibling on sibling, kids on a mother, mothers on fathers, grandkids on the elderly.
“Most victims are women, but they are not the only ones,” he said. “All of them need a safe place to go where they can receive counseling and begin to rebuild their lives. It happens all across the country and also in the Keys.”
It’s important to note that the Domestic Abuse Shelter is a Keyswide organization. Many locals have fallen into the mindset that it’s just for the Middle Keys, but in reality it serves women up and down the island chain, the only one of its kind in a 112-mile radius. (For more on who it serves, see sidebar.)
“Specifically, we need the community’s help in getting the word out that we are open and serving survivors,” said DAS Board Director Jennifer Powell. “While some of our locations have closed temporarily, all published phone numbers are being answered locally.”
Powell said the board is still actively soliciting cash or gift card donations, recruiting staff so as to re-open the 21-bed facility in Key West, and looking for donated office space in Key Largo and Key West to reopen its outreach offices.
What went wrong?
According to a spokesperson for the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, this is the first time in 20 years that a domestic violence center’s certification has been suspended. The FCADV is the state agency that oversees 42 domestic abuse shelters in Florida.
In 2015, the Domestic Abuse Shelter passed three annual tests, but two of the tests included troubling footnotes that would forecast the troubles of 2016. The FCADV noted noncompliance with fiscal and administrative findings. The DAS also passed an accounting audit that did note the shelter had a $35,000 line of credit, a mortgage on the shelter, and an unpaid “loan” of $30,000 from an anonymous benefactor. The Department of Children and Family’s review of DAS required no corrective action.
But a review reveals the agency wobbled significantly in 2015. It closed the Key West shelter, a 21-bed facility, for three and a half months claiming staff shortages. And that $35,000 line of credit? It was immediately expended in total. The mortgage on the shelter — $186,000 — started as a line of credit, but when it went unpaid it converted into a mortgage. (The loan originated in 2014 and most of the funds paid for office staff salaries not covered by grants.) The balloon payment is due in 2017. Finally, the shelter director, Venita Garvin, also loaned the shelter money.
When reached by email, Garvin said she did not wish to comment.
According to minutes from a FCADV grant oversight committee meeting prior to March 22, the center’s “ongoing issue related to staff recruitment, cash flow, and building of debt.” At a meeting of the same group on March 25, it was noted, “There is a long history of organizational instability.”
For the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the Domestic Abuse Shelter was scheduled to receive at least $1.1 million from a variety of grants. Its operating budget is about $1.8 million to operate and staff its two 24-hour (three shifts) shelter.
The FCADV issued an interim monitoring report two days before the DCF temporarily suspended the DAS’s license in May. It revealed more trouble ranging from incomplete personnel files, an almost complete lack of assessments for paperwork related to minors at the shelter, an infestation of cockroaches that lasted at least two months. The most damning, however, was the inability to meet payroll for almost nine weeks.
There was one more red flag. The FCADV, the oversight agency for all Florida shelters, stopped providing the $702,000 grant as a monthly lump sum to the DAS in 2012. Although the grant amount did not change, it became a “reimbursable” grant — after DAS spent funds it was required to send documentation to the head agency for payment. FCADV takes this action when an agency is determined to be high risk.
“At the time, the CEO presented it to us as a change in operating procedure,” said Powell. “We did not understand that it was a probationary measure.”
The FCADV report also noted problems with invoices and checks not being submitted correctly and improper notification when the finance/fiscal grants manager position went vacant at the DAS.
Supporters of Garvin said the DAS Board of Directors failed the shelter; not the other way around. Gavin has been the CEO of the Domestic Abuse Shelter for 18 years and is a well-known figure in the Keys, although her home is on the mainland. She earned an annual salary of $129,954. She was furloughed along with the rest of the employees in May but her contract does not expire until 2019.
“My reason for leaving the board of directors was my understanding that it is the board of director’s role is to come up with creative ways to fundraise unrestricted funds for DAS to meet cash grant match requirements as well as position for reserves,” wrote Cynthia Grant, former executive assistant to Garvin, in a letter to the Weekly. “… the few months I was on the board there was minimal fundraising discussions. We talked about how much admin was spending on pens, pencils and paper and would it be cheaper to order supplies on line?”
Grant said she rules prevented her from serving on the board at the same time she was in a DAS paid position as executive assistant. She worked at DAS for three years until she was furloughed along with the rest of the staff in May, although some staffers did accept a position with The Lodge.
“I feel sorry for the other staff as well,” Grant said. “We are still waiting to get paid.”
Grant went on to say that Garvin loaned the shelter $14,700 of her own money. And that it was she who took a company credit card to buy each employee a $150 gift card when the first payroll wasn’t met.
Although the grants pay for the bulk of the shelter’s expenses — professional payroll for the director and counselors, program services, food and transportation — it does not cover such things as utilities or payroll for administrative staff. Powell acknowledges that funds raised locally, by the board of directors for unrestricted funds, has slipped.
“Have we been struggling? Yes, for a couple of years. The best way I can describe it is the problem just snowballed,” Powell said.
In suspending the DAS’s license, the DCF noted it was taking the “least restrictive” option available. The DAS has six months — until early November — to take corrective action. The report also said, “it must also demonstrate the willingness and capability to change its management and operations …”
Powell said the board is rewriting its fiscal policies and procedures, board policies and procedures and management process in order to assure there is no reoccurrence of this issue.
“We’ve been researching other models and best practices so we can address our hard-learned lessons,” she said.
The Domestic Abuse Shelter recently secured a $20,000 donation from the Snow Foundation. Part of the funds will be used to renovate the shelter in the Lower Keys to make it ADA compliant.
For more information about volunteering or making a donation to the Domestic Abuse Shelter, email [email protected].
Domestic Abuse Hotlines: 305-743-4440 or 1-800-500-1119
DAS in FY 2014-2015
Shelter nights 10,245
Individuals served 277
Average stay 5 weeks
Crisis/hotline calls 932
Who does the Domestic Abuse Shelter serve?
The Domestic Abuse Shelter is part of a statewide network of 42 shelters across Florida. While it does serve some local residents, sometimes women (and men) are encouraged to relocate out of the county and receive service at another shelter so as to be far away enough from the abuser and not be tempted to return as she struggles to rebuild her life. In the same manner, many mainland survivors receive shelter and treatment in the Florida Keys.
One of the most sacred goals of any domestic abuse shelter is to protect the anonymity of the survivor. Here are a few anecdotes about shelter clients; their details have been omitted for reasons of privacy.
- One recent client is a successful professional, managing her own home-based business, has her own car and is a longterm resident of Monroe County. When she found herself in an abusive relationship, she had no place to go except the shelter. She told staff she’s grateful for a safe place to live while she rebuilds her life; it’s embarrassing for her to be so dependent on others as she’s used to taking care of herself.
- Another client is also a longterm resident of Monroe County; she has an injury that needs treatment but she’s afraid to go. As the shelter supports her transition, she feels she has to leave the county, a place she loves, in order to be far enough away from her abuser.
- Another survivor who wrote us awhile back who successfully transitioned and exited the program wrote, “I feel that [your program] not only changed my life but in many ways probably saved my life. To have a place to come, to lay your head, put your clothes in a dresser (not a plastic bag), food, and a kitchen to cook in, washer and dryer for clean clothes to keep working and a group of women going through a similar experience has made all the difference for me …”
“One in four women will be the victim of domestic violence at some point in her lifetime. Reducing that statistic is why the board and FCADV are committed to restoring the Domestic Abuse Shelter’s certification.” — Jennifer Powell, president of the DAS Board.