Chatham County has cut ties with Family Violence Rape Crisis, the nonprofit that has helped survivors of domestic and sexual violence since 1982.
The county’s decision to launch new programs of its own came after a performance review by the county identified gaps in the nonprofit’s financial reporting.
“I don’t have any evidence of financial mismanagement,” County Manager Renee Paschal said. “We do have evidence of lack of financial oversight.”
FVRC unexpectedly closed the county’s only emergency shelter for domestic violence victims in May 2016, a move that surprised county officials, who had contracted with FVRC to run it.
“I was concerned because they closed a program we were funding and they didn’t notify us on that,” Paschal said.
The county had previously set aside $420,000 to build a new shelter, but confusion surrounding the sudden closure of the old shelter and failed attempts to relocate it led the Chatham County commissioners to reconsider the partnership.
The commissioners voted unanimously in January to sever ties with the agency, citing breach of contract, lack of transparency, and inadequate documentation of financial records and board meeting minutes,
“The vote was a somber one, but the facts contained in the report left us little choice,” Board Chairman Jim Crawford wrote in an email.
“As responsible stewards of the people’s funds our obligation was to secure other means to meet the domestic violence needs of our community, a policy shift that is reflected in our FY 2018 budget which funds extra positions in the sheriff’s office and in social services,” he wrote.
Paschal said the agency, which had received the largest slice of the county’s nonprofit grant funding, will not be eligible for further funding until the current leadership can demonstrate sound fiscal management.
Concerns about the nonprofit led county officials to consider alternative ways to serve those looking to leave abusive relationships. Instead of spending roughly $29,000 to fund annual shelter operations as the board had done in years past, the commissioners in June allocated $237,946 in the current budget to launch new services to domestic violence victims.
While this represents a significant increase, Paschal anticipates it will only be a one-time expense.
“We are using one-time money, money from our fund balance to do this, because our hope is the path will be clearer a year from now about what we need to do going forward,” said Paschal. “If we have to provide the services, we’ll be eligible for grant funding that we’re not eligible for as a start-up.”
That money will pay for full-time and part-time advocates and coordinators to help domestic violence victims seeking legal help, housing, and community services.
From filing protective orders to navigating court dates, advocates help victims work through the legal system, said Joe Buckner, chief district court judge for Orange and Chatham counties.
“There’s just a myriad of things that somebody in that circumstance would be confronted with, and especially if they aren’t legally experienced, it could be overwhelming,” Buckner said.
With no emergency shelter available in Chatham County, temporary housing assistance will be coordinated with the United Way and the Salvation Army. The county is contracting with the Chatham Housing Authority to provide transitional housing for victims who qualify for vouchers, Paschal said.
While the county debuts its new programs, FVRC will continue to offer its core services to domestic violence and sexual assault victims, including counseling, court advocacy, and housing transition assistance.
The organization has operated in Chatham County for decades, but in recent years has suffered from internal divisions. Since 2015, the organization has been through eight executive or interim directors, and its board has shrunk from 15 members to six. Staffing dropped from 40 employees to less than half that, said associate director Travis Patterson.
Former executive director Cindy Carter resigned abruptly August 3, leaving Patterson to lead FVRC while the board of directors consults its succession plan.
During months of upheaval and personnel turnover, FVRC lost grants from Chatham County, the United Way and others. Community members said in some instances division inside the agency affected its ability to provide key services.
“There were times when we did not we have any advocates,” Buckner said.
A chance to rebuild
Carter and Patterson acknowledged some services suffered even when the agency was fully staffed.
But Patterson says closing the shelter and restructuring the staff have allowed the agency to streamline and shift to a new model of case management that helps clients attain housing, education, financial literacy and job training. He sees it as a holistic model that addresses multiple needs beyond emergency shelter.
“It’s given us a unique opportunity to rebuild,” said Patterson. “We can be creative, we can be somewhat flexible in how we do things now.”
Patterson said he and others at FVRC are working to renew community relationships and rebuild trust, with an eye toward reestablishing ties with the county down the road.
“I am a realist, so I know that there’s going to be some difficult times ahead, but I do feel confident with the right leadership and the right direction, that this agency could be known for what it was once known for, which is quality service delivery,” Patterson said.
One first step has been to provide the missing records identified in the county’s performance report. Pascal said those documents are currently under review, though she wrote in an email that it’s premature to speculate on whether the county and FVRC will have a future relationship.
Looking ahead, all parties agree domestic violence services are critical, as demand continues to grow both in Chatham County and North Carolina as a whole. The biggest need, said Buckner, is for transitional housing to help victims stabilize their living situation in the first year and a half of leaving an abusive relationship.
Both the county and FVRC plan to reevaluate their domestic violence service delivery models next year. In the meantime, the $420,000 originally allocated for a new emergency shelter will be set aside while the county evaluates its options.
For domestic violence services in Chatham County contact the Sheriff’s Office (walk in or 919-542-2911, or 911 emergency after hours) or the Chatham Family Violence Prevention Office (919-542-1792), 45 W Salisbury St., Pittsboro.
Victims can contact FVRC via a 24-hour help line (919-545-0224), at www.fvrc.org, or at offices at 200 E. St. in Pittsboro, and 113 N. Fir Ave. in Siler City.