GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 25, 2013

HAWC shelter still closed in DCF dispute

By Julie Manganis
Staff Writer

---- — SALEM — The North Shore’s only shelter devoted specifically to victims of domestic violence has been closed for more than two months, with no date set to reopen.

The director of the Salem-based HAWC — which also raises funds and serves victims in Gloucester and across Cape Ann — laid blame for the closure on a lack of clarity over the legal process for removing residents and whether the facility is considered a housing program or a clinical program. The agency’s acronym Healing Abuse, Working for Change.

“My understanding is the reason is related to the need for clear, statewide termination and appeal policies for shelter guests,” Candace Waldron wrote in an email.

But a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Children and Families, which oversees funding for the shelter, said the facility remains closed in order to complete retraining of staff, as well as “trauma debriefing” for employees who say they were affected by allegations of abuse made by several former shelter guests.

A state investigation cleared the shelter of abuse allegations, but ordered new training for the staff.

“The shelter’s reopening has been delayed in order to provide trauma debriefing for all of the staff that were involved with the recent allegations brought against HAWC,” said the spokeswoman, Cayenne Isaksen. “Additionally, they are being trained to create a structure within the organization to ensure proper supervision is provided and that each staff member has the tools they need to continue to promote trauma-informed services, which will benefit future program participants, as well.”

After a series of emails and calls over two days from a reporter at the Salem News, sister newspaper to the Times, both women said Thursday that they are now discussing a possible reopening of the shelter “soon.”

The HAWC shelter came under scrutiny last April after attorneys from Neighborhood Legal Services representing six shelter residents sent a letter to the Department of Children and Families alleging a “climate of abuse” and retaliation against residents.

The residents, through their attorneys, charged that staff at the shelter were evicting women with children with two hours’ notice, that women were expected to “beg” for basic needs such as cots, and that women who complained or sought legal assistance suffered retaliation.

The women, some of whom had been asked to leave the shelter because of inappropriate conduct or because they had stayed longer than the 12 weeks the shelter was intended to provide, also sought assistance in Housing Court, where a judge took the position that they were entitled to the same protection as any tenant being evicted from a residence.

The DCF investigation found the abuse and retaliation claims to be unsubstantiated, according to accounts of the report provided by spokeswomen for HAWC and the DCF. But the report also recommend the agency retrain staff members, develop an improvement plan and clarify termination policies for residents of the shelter, the spokeswomen said.

HAWC has declined to release its copy of the report.

The Salem News last month requested a copy of the DCF report under the state public records law; Isaksen said the agency will release it after its lawyer completes a “redaction,” or blacking out the names of individuals named in the report.

The shelter stopped accepting new residents last spring, amid the request for investigation. The last resident moved out in October, Waldron said.

Waldron told editors in a meeting at The Salem News that HAWC wants to reopen the shelter but that state officials would not allow it because of the uncertainty over the agency’s ability to remove shelter guests who don’t want to leave. She said DCF considered Salem a “test case” on the issue of whether the facility is considered housing, which would subject it to the same requirements landlords face in an eviction proceeding, or a clinical program, which would allow the organization to remove individuals more quickly.

But in an email in response to questions from the newspaper, Isaksen disputed that, saying “The Department of Children and Families does not intend to use, nor has it been using, HAWC as a ‘test case’ for any practice.”

Isaksen said it is the first time that anyone in any of the state’s domestic violence shelters has raised the question in Housing Court.

All of the Housing Court cases brought by now-former residents have been settled and there are no open cases, Waldron acknowledged.

In her email responding to a question about how the shelter could be used as a test case if there are no open cases, Waldron responded, “DCF is rightfully trying to avoid a repeat of what happened last year when guests refused to leave the shelter and housing court support(ed) them. The policy issues between protecting the safety of guests in a trauma informed program and housing rights have not yet been clarified.”

Waldron said she and DCF have exchanged a series of draft removal policies requested in the DCF’s report, including a set of revisions she completed yesterday.

Waldron believes that because the shelter provides services such as safety planning, crisis prevention and intervention, advocacy, support groups, parenting support, child care and information referrals, it should not be prohibited from immediately removing residents who become disruptive or who might pose a risk to others.

Since April, when HAWC stopped accepting new placements at the shelter, the organization has paid for 48 nights in area motels for clients, said Waldron.

The organization has continued to receive state funding for the six rooms in the shelter, at a rate of $151.28 per room per day, said Isaksen.

Waldron said the shelter’s employees are continuing to be paid as they take part in training and work in HAWC offices.

Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at jmanganis@gloucestertimes.com, or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.