As victims sort out where to find help, Jackson County agency chair blames closure on financial problems
Part one of a series about how WNC groups are working to help victims of domestic violence after one agency implodes.
A shake-up in domestic violence services in the region this year has led other agencies to step in and local officials to funnel one county’s funds to another county’s program — all to ensure area victims of violence get the help they need.
REACH of Jackson County, which used an acronym for Resources, Education, Assistance, Counseling, Housing – is an agency that provides emergency services for victims of domestic violence. It was founded in 1978, and its shelter opened in 1988.
But a litany of financial problems drove the agency to close in February, leaving some victims wondering where to go for help.
Three months later, the REACH of Macon County’s 15-person staff is answering the Jackson County crisis hotline calls and is assisting in referrals for needed resources, said Andrea Anderson, service director for REACH of Macon County.
“When I heard that the Jackson County REACH was closing, I felt sad,” said one woman who has turned to domestic violence agencies for help.
These agencies can provide services that mean the difference between life and death for victims of domestic violence. But keeping that help available has required area nonprofits and local governments to quickly reorganize to find needed staff and funding — something leaders are still working to do.
“That is going to make it harder for those women to get the help they desperately need,” she said of the Jackson County agency’s closure. Carolina Public Press does not normally quote anonymous sources, but granted an exception here because of ongoing legal issues this source has with her abusive husband.
She first turned to REACH of Haywood County four years ago, when the verbal and physical abuse from her husband escalated. She stayed at the REACH shelter for a week, but went back to her husband after her nephew was killed in a car accident.
But her husband’s abusive behavior continued, and, in May 2011, she again sought assistance through REACH. That time, the agency helped her get housing, and she separated from her husband for six months. But she went back again, in November.
Less than a week later, her husband beat her so badly that she called law enforcement and he was arrested.
“REACH has helped me move forward,” she said. “I hope Haywood County never loses its domestic violence program. If it wasn’t for REACH, I probably would be dead.”
Problems surface at Jackson County agency
Another woman was not as fortunate. And it was one of the first times problems at the Jackson County domestic violence-services agency gained such public attention.
Bonnie Woodring, of Sylva, went to REACH of Jackson County for help in September 2006. Her estranged husband, John “Woody” Raymond Woodring, discovered the location of the REACH shelter, forced his way past a shelter worker through an unlocked door and fatally shot Bonnie.
In the weeks following her murder, many residents complained that the shelter’s location was common knowledge to most people in the area.
And, in March 2007, her daughter, Michelle Stojanik, filed a lawsuit against the shelter on behalf of her mother’s estate, alleging that REACH “failed to provide adequate security, failed to provide adequate lighting, failed to monitor and maintain a secure environment, failed to provide necessary safeguards to permit tenants to live in safety, failed to have in place mechanisms and procedures that would have made the premises reasonably safe, and failed to properly secure and monitor the shelter.”
The court ruled that the victim never communicated to REACH employees that her husband was so dangerous that she should be transferred to a shelter in another county, and REACH never had an abuser come to the shelter before in its 30-year history, according to the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence.
But after that, the agency’s financial problems began to surface, too.
Although it is not clear exactly all that led to the closing of the program, Jackson County commissioners learned that the Internal Revenue Service placed a lien on property owned by REACH after it failed to pay $81,000 in payroll taxes dating back several years.
Another outstanding debt accrued because the non-profit failed to make mortgage payments on an apartment facility known as REACH Village, which was used to shelter victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Mountain Projects purchased REACH Village on Feb. 22, and a portion of that money will be used to repay REACH’s debt to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program.
“A number of things led to our closing,” said Rich Peoples, chairman of the board of directors for REACH of Jackson County. “We had been losing money on our housing investment for REACH Village, which we used as transitional renting housing for victims of domestic violence. And, in recent years, grants have been more difficult to obtain and have been less than in years past.”
Those financial problems were not shared with the board, he said. If the board had been informed sooner, steps could have possibly been taken to avoid the closure, Peoples said.
But the agency did close. REACH of Jackson County filed for dissolution with the N.C. Secretary of State on April 24 and will not be able to apply for government grants for three years.
As others step in, ‘big push’ to open another Sylva shelter
At first, the REACH of Macon County’s reserve funds had to be used to meet the additional needs left by the closure of the Jackson County program. It opened in 1987 as an outreach program of REACH of Jackson County before officially becoming a separate agency in 1990.
Jackson County commissioners recently appropriated $14,000 to match a state grant received to provide services through June 30.
“All state funds that were going to the Jackson County REACH are now coming to us,” said Anderson, with REACH of Macon County
“However, all funds for the two programs are kept separate,” she emphasized.
“We are in the process of hiring additional staff and are currently operating out of the Department of Social Service office in Jackson County,” Anderson said. “We want victims in Jackson County to know they do not have to come to Macon to receive services and that there definitely is a continuation of services.”
The next step will be to identify office space in Jackson and to work with Jackson County officials to find a location for a shelter for victims.
For now, if a resident of Jackson County needs shelter services, Macon staff helps determine which shelter would be closer. Based on their location, residents could go to Franklin, Waynesville, Bryson City or Cherokee for housing, Anderson said.
“There is a big push to open another shelter in Sylva. It’s a barrier to have to drive several miles to another county for someone needing to get out of an abusive relationship,” she said, “especially if they have a job or children in school.”
REACH of Macon County is in the process of preparing new brochures to help eliminate confusion about the transition in services and to promote awareness about the available services.
During the first few weeks after taking over the crisis hotline for Jackson County, Macon staff provided services to 38 victims.
Three victims received temporary housing at the Macon shelter and 14 hotline calls have been answered.
There have been 80 instances where the program’s court advocate has appeared with a victim in court, and Macon staff met a victim of abuse at a hospital emergency department several times, Anderson said.
“But,” she said, “we know that is not representative of the people needing these services.”
Read more about domestic violence services across Western North Carolina: