Monday, March 09, 2020

Scandal at state domestic violence agency leaves local shelters in limbo. (Orlando Sentinel)

This mushrooming domestic violence shelter funding scandal reminds me of my mother's wisdom: "Republicans never steal anything small."

Lack of oversight and desuetude of law enforcement by Tallahassee's dull Republican poohbahs, who rather remind me of the line from the musical 1776, where John Adams sings:
You see, we piddle, twiddle, and resolve
Not one damn thing do we solve
Piddle, twiddle, and resolve
Nothing's ever solved in
Foul, fetid, fuming, foggy, filthy

Cue the local journalists: This would be a good time for everyone to investigate Betty Griffin Houae. What, if anything, does it do to support victims of Officer Involved Domestic Violence? Why did it refuse to speak with the New York Times for months in connection with its investigation of the September 2, 2010 murder of Ms. Michelle O'Connell in the home of Deputy JEREMY BANKS? How is it that its putative Circuit Court courtroom rep. told me December 7, 2016 that it is on BANKS' side? Where is a deputy's partner supposed to go if s/he is a victim of domestic violence?

From the Orlando Sentinel:

Scandal at state domestic violence agency leaves local shelters in limbo

MAR 06, 2020 | 2:37 PM

In this September 2004 file photo, Tiffany Carr, executive director of Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, speaks at a news conference to announce a public awareness campaign designed to prevent disaster-related domestic violence.
In this September 2004 file photo, Tiffany Carr, executive director of Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, speaks at a news conference to announce a public awareness campaign designed to prevent disaster-related domestic violence. (Phil Coale / AP)
A massive pay scandal ensnaring the state’s top domestic violence organization has left Central Florida shelters wondering what will happen to tens of thousands of dollars in already overdue government funding and worrying that the alleged wrongdoings will damage their own fund-raising efforts.
They also question how many more domestic violence victims might have been helped if money hadn’t gone instead to lavish salaries at the organization.
Last week, the Florida Department of Children and Families sued the executive leadership of the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, its board and former CEO Tiffany Carr for a “fraudulent concealment and civil conspiracy” in paying Carr more than $7.5 million over three years.
The coalition — a nonprofit organization that contracted with the state — managed all the state and much of the federal money that went to 42 certified domestic violence centers throughout Florida, paying for the shelters’ operations, outreach workers, attorneys for victims and everything from towels to diapers to food for survivors and their children.
Shelter leaders are already facing a backlog of payments, including $124,000 to SafeHouse of Seminole alone.
“I’m outraged,” said SafeHouse CEO Jeanne Gold, a former prosecutor. “Our shelter is now 13 years old. There have been thousands of people in and out of there. So now I need to paint, I need to put flooring down, I need to fix holes in the walls — and all those dollars could have come to the shelter to do those things. I hope [the people responsible] all go to jail.”
According to a survey of Florida shelters by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, on a single day in September 2018 victims made 132 requests for services — including emergency shelter, housing, transportation, childcare and legal representation — that could not be provided because the shelters didn’t have the space, money or staff to do so. That same year, Carr was paid $4.5 million in taxable wages, including several million dollars accrued from past years for paid time off.
Carr and the coalition have been under investigation by the Florida House of Representatives, the governor’s chief inspector general and Attorney General Ashley Moody over Carr’s $761,000 annual salary and considerable benefits.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said thousands of pages of documents from the agency exposed “exorbitant compensation payouts, failures of leadership, misuse of state dollars and breaches of public trust.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis orders top-down review amid domestic violence group spending scandal
Gov. Ron DeSantis orders top-down review amid domestic violence group spending scandal
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“My administration will not tolerate wasteful or fraudulent spending, particularly by an organization that purports to serve the vulnerable victims of domestic violence,” the governor said. State leaders have said the coalition executives could face criminal charges.
Late last month, the Florida Legislature also took the extraordinary step of passing a bill, signed by DeSantis, to sever the contract it had with the coalition. The contract was to remain in place for 60 days while state officials figured out what to do next.
Local shelter directors credit the state — and particularly staff of the Florida Department of Children and Families — for trying to maintain domestic violence programs and keeping channels of communication open in the wake of the scandal. But the directors worry that the overdue funding from the coalition and some expected future payments may not come at all.
At Harbor House of Central Florida — the nonprofit that operates Orange County’s domestic violence shelter, advocates for survivors, runs educational programs and helps with housing — CEO Michelle Sperzel said her agency is still waiting on $40,000 to help survivors pay for everything from car repairs to apartment deposits to job certificates that allow them to work.
“That’s money that we normally get in January or February, and it can be used for whatever it takes to help a survivor become financially independent and get out of an abusive relationship. But we haven’t gotten those funds, and we don’t think we’re going to,” she said. “That’s huge as far as the impact on survivors.”
Another $30,000 to $50,000, not due until summer, is threatened, Sperzel said.
“At the end of each [fiscal] year, we would get what was called a basic needs grant, and that would pay for a bunch of supplies that we knew that we need for our next fiscal year — diapers and baby wipes and dry goods like macaroni and cheese and pasta and tomato sauce… It could be a year’s worth of towels,” she said. “Our fiscal year ends in June, and knowing that I don’t have that $40,000 or $50,000 … I’m trying to figure out what are we going to do for next year. It is really frightening for not just Harbor House, but for all the centers across the state of Florida.”
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando — who first brought questions about Carr’s salary to the governor’s office in January 2019 — said she has had her own concerns in the wake of the rapidly evolving situation. She recently called the state’s domestic violence hotline just to make sure it still worked.
It did.
“It’s unusual for a bill to go into law immediately, and I didn’t know that the governor would sign it so fast, although it was necessary for a serious action to be taken,” she said.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody is still collecting evidence in the case, Eskamani noted.
“So I think there's a lot of uncertainty, not just around what the future will look like, but also how deep does the damage go at [the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence],” she said.
The timing is especially difficult for Help Now of Osceola, that county’s designated nonprofit domestic violence center, which is now paying the mortgage on a building purchased in late 2018 while raising money for renovations.
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“It certainly has raised questions about costs and feasibility and the time frame in doing all of that work — until we see where things are going,” said executive director Tammy Douglass. “We have been advised that the money is not going away, that the Legislature is committed to survivors, and that the work that we do is important. That’s the message, so we’re just really trying to stay focused while keep an eye on the cash flow.”

Douglass said the revelations about the coalition have been “incredibly disheartening,” and she worries that they will unfairly taint the reputation of all the nonprofit agencies that serve domestic violence victims, making donors wary.
“This has been, for sure, the most trying time in my 13 years in this role, and I’ve seen some trying times,” she said. “I mean, we're working to save lives. And we know the lives that haven’t been saved. We see the work that still needs to happen. It feels like it has been an enormous setback for the domestic violence movement.”
The Department of Children and Families, which did not respond to a request for an interview, has already posted notice that it is collecting information on who might have the expertise and ability to replace the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence — but it’s not clear how quickly that can happen. And meanwhile, the state has filed for the courts to appoint a receiver to control the coalition’s assets.
Gold, still an attorney herself, also filed to intervene on behalf of SafeHouse, a move that would give the Seminole agency a voice in saying what happens.
“We want a seat at the table, and Tallahassee wants us at the table,” she said. “And, God, I really hope we get that salary money back for the taxpayers.”

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