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THE MAN IN CHARGE
By February 2013, UDVC’s staff and board had gone through nine drafts of new bylaws. UDVC board chairman James Harper, a Brigham Young University professor, sent out an e-mail to members noting that the new bylaws to be voted on in March would “sharpen the focus of UDVC to more clearly represent victims, victim safety, support of victim services and promotion of national best practices for victim services.” That meant that only shelter providers could be voting members of the council, and that the board had to be majority controlled by shelter providers as well. State officials with influence over funding could not become board directors, as that was a conflict of interest.
The Office on Domestic & Sexual Violence’s Searle e-mailed Harper on Feb. 26, criticizing the proposed bylaws as changing UDVC’s identity and making it “just like every other state DV coalition.” He was upset that the bylaws referred to shelters providing sexual-assault crisis work. While shelters often provide that service, along with the Rape Recovery Center, Searle didn’t want UDVC straying into territory that he felt belonged to another nonprofit, the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault. He asked Harper for his support and further information, concluding, “I’m not asking Peg, because I want an answer from someone like you who has been involved but not so sensitively tied to all of these changes. After all, you are the man in charge.”
In early March 2013, Noyes, of the Family Violence Prevention & Services Act, came to Utah to check on how the federal funds were being spent. He visited shelters, state agencies and, on March 6, met with Coleman, Searle and a DCFS official. Noyes expressed discomfort with aspects of DCFS’s involvement with shelters, particularly with regard to confidential personal information of individual shelter clients. Shelter providers are required to inform DCFS when they take in “children who have directly witnessed or experienced DV,” says Jenn Oxborrow, who became the agency’s new domestic-violence program administrator in May 2013.
Coleman says DCFS is much more involved in Utah’s shelters than is typical elsewhere in the country. “Some women will not come into a shelter, they would rather get beaten than risk kids coming into a state system. Part of our job is look at where the state, agencies or even ourselves cause barriers.”
Platt agrees that there are tensions between DCFS’s primary concern of child welfare and domestic-violence services. “I want to reduce [the tension], I don’t like it,” he says.
If Coleman had thought that Noyes’ statement to UDVC board members that the state should support UDVC rather than dictate policy would be embraced, she learned otherwise from community members as word of a state-driven lobbying campaign against the vote reached her ear. Interviews and e-mails City Weekly accessed through records requests show that Searle lobbied council and board members to vote down Coleman’s changes.
Coleman e-mailed Searle, “I have been maligned, misquoted, shunned and frankly treated very badly.”
On March 19, council members met at the Episcopal Church Center in downtown Salt Lake City to vote on the proposed bylaws.
Longstanding voting members expressed their displeasure at the idea of losing their vote. Shelter providers “talked about serving victims, the struggle they’re having with no resources,” Coleman says. But some individuals City Weekly interviewed said they had been afraid to speak out in support of the pro-shelter bylaws, not wanting to antagonize those who controlled their funds.
Shelter providers and advocates “went in very hopeful that they would have a voice at the coalition table,” Coleman says. But it quickly became apparent that a power play was in process, Coleman says. When several shelter providers said they did sexual-assault crisis work, one of the key funders responded, “No, you don’t.”
That, Coleman says, left many shelter providers who provide support to sexual-violence victims “raw. They had anticipated a collaborating relationship, but then they saw they had no power there,” she says.
One longtime advocate and domestic-violence survivor left the meeting in tears. “I felt as if I had a huge hole in my soul.”
The new bylaws were voted down.
The following day, barbed e-mails, typically copied to many in the domestic violence community, flew back and forth. They culminated in a public e-mail scolding of Coleman by Searle: “When are you going to work with and listen to those who want to support you and have UDVC be successful.”
Tension between Coleman and DCFS also simmered. When she asked for 2011 figures for money spent on perpetrator treatment in order to compile a Utah needs assessment required by FVPSA, DCFS’s former domestic-violence program administrator Del Bircher wrote to division director Platt, “I don’t trust how the information will be used.” Platt agreed: “Which is why I only want to give her very little info.”
Platt says the e-mail exchange was during the legislative session and he wanted to ensure the information given out to her was accurate, “that we were able to explain it. The reality is, facts are facts.”
The board and Coleman reworked the bylaws, simplifying the voting structure. While shelter providers were still in charge, state officials, among others, were once more eligible to be voting members. However, they could not be voted to the board if they had any influence over funding streams to shelters. Two months later, on May 21, the council voted to adopt the new bylaws version.
Coleman has mixed feelings. She now leads the UDVC—renamed as a coalition instead of a council—that, run by shelter providers, “is in minimum alignment” with federal regulations. But to get there, she also had to take out references to shelter providers doing sexual-assault work, the issue that had so irked Searle. “That doesn’t make any sense to me that to please local government I can’t have it in the bylaws,” she says.
Coleman still has obstacles to negotiate, including a federal audit of her agency, which she fears will not go well because of its history of not being in compliance. But she also finds in the DCFS’s Oxborrow someone who speaks her language. Platt gave Oxborrow a mandate to bring the shelters and DCFS closer together. “I told her go check on the shelters, make sure we are in line with them,” Platt says. “I want to renew our efforts, to make sure we are part of discussions, to be supportive of latest research, the latest trends in intimate-partner violence.”
Part of FVPSA’s funding requirement is a state plan to end domestic violence. While many other states have active 10-year plans to reduce domestic violence, no one City Weekly asked could locate one for Utah. There is also no needs assessment as yet done to plot out how big Utah’s domestic violence problem is, nor an effective tracking program in place to identify how the money is spent on treatment and how effective that treatment is.
Oxborrow says she and Coleman have already talked extensively about developing a needs assessment for Utah. “We need to organize ourselves and have a collective voice to seek funding,” Oxborrow says. “There’s been so much chaos for so long” in Utah’s domestic-violence-services community.
Coleman says she seeks “a strong partnership with the state, but one where our differences are respected.” She is determined to hold course. “Where I’ve gotten marginalized, my response is keep standing. That’s really what we ask victims to do.”
Despite the painful rejection Karen encountered when she sought help from Utah’s shelters, she agrees with Coleman. “I don’t have the luxury to crawl under a rock and hide or have an emotional breakdown,” she says. “There has to be a comeback story, the Rocky music, whatever you want to call it. I have to show my kids you keep going and don’t give up. Something will come of it.”
By early June, Karen and her children’s time at the Logan shelter was up. The allotted time for victims is 30 to 45 days before moving to transitional housing. But Karen could not find somewhere to rent that was appropriate for her family. CAPSA gave her a two-week extension while she continued the search.
Despite the lingering uncertainty, Karen says that women who find themselves caught between an abusive partner and the underfunded shelters of Utah shouldn’t think twice.
“Leap anyway,” she says.