By Julie Manganis
SALEM — Lawyers for six residents at an emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence have asked a state agency to investigate a "climate of abuse," including complaints of humiliating treatment, improper evictions and retaliation after some residents went to court.
The shelter, at an undisclosed location in Salem, is operated by HAWC (which stands for Healing Abuse Working for Change), a 34-year-old Salem-based program that provides services to battered women and other victims of domestic abuse, including a shelter for those fleeing abusive relationships who have no safe place to go.
But in a letter to the state Department of Children and Families, the women's attorneys, from Neighborhood Legal Services, say they have "grave concerns" over the situation at the shelter, which receives state funds, and are asking for an investigation and corrective measures.
A DCF spokeswoman, Cayenne Isaksen, said in an email that her agency "will be conducting a thorough investigation into these allegations."
HAWC's director, Candace Waldron, acknowledged there has been tension within the shelter, as well as a lack of understanding of the legal process to remove certain residents, but blamed some residents who, she suggested, simply don't want to leave.
In their letter, the residents' lawyers, Marc Potvin and Laura Gallant, cited a range of allegations, from evictions of women with children with as little as two hours' notice to an incident in which residents were told to stand in a circle around a pile of donated clothing and wait for a countdown before they could then rummage through the bags and "fight" over the clothing, as staff members watched and laughed.
Some residents report having to "beg" for basic items, including one woman who asked repeatedly for cots for her children.
The Salem News is not reporting the names of the women in keeping with a policy of not identifying victims of domestic abuse.
The letter said residents who did complain were "shunned" by staff; had services such as translation reduced or eliminated; and were assigned the most loathsome of chores, such as cleaning the staff bathroom, all in retaliation.
The letter highlights six areas:
Alleged mismanagement of federal funds for rental assistance through the North Shore HOME Consortium, and inaccurate information being provided to residents;
Illegal efforts to remove shelter residents;
Beds intentionally being left unfilled;
Retaliatory conduct toward residents who have sought assistance from lawyers or the courts;
Humiliating treatment and a "general climate of condescension" at the facility.
Staying too long?
The shelter, purchased in 2009, was intended to house up to seven adults and 12 children, HAWC representatives said at the time.
In an interview, Waldron blamed some of the complaints on a small number of residents who have sought to stay in the eight-room shelter for longer than the 12 weeks the shelter was intended to provide, or who have engaged in what she believes to be violations of shelter rules, including what she described as "bullying" behavior.
In one instance, a shelter resident brought a boyfriend (who was not her abuser) to the facility, Waldron said, something shelter staff believe could endanger other residents because the location of the shelter is supposed to be confidential.
"I've had to protect my staff," Waldron said. "I feel like at some point we're getting bullied. We have limited resources, and we can't give people the living arrangements they want."
But Waldron acknowledged that she, her agency and the shelter's new director, Eva Kubai, had also misunderstood the legal requirements to remove residents and are now "seeking clarification."
That comes as a Northeast Housing Court judge has granted temporary restraining orders to four women since November (including the woman accused of bringing in a guest), as well as a notification from the Department of Children and Families that residents being removed from the program are entitled to a hearing.
"DCF has told us when they re-contract with us, they're going to add language as to what our process should be," Waldron said.
Isaksen, the DCF spokeswoman, said in her email that shelter directors will receive more guidance on the process in the future.
Waldron also suggested that the shelter is under added pressure because of the state's lack of affordable housing and jobs.
While emergency domestic violence shelters funded by DCF, like HAWC, were originally intended to serve women for up to 90 days, an email last November from a DCF program director to HAWC and other domestic abuse programs advised those programs that they should no longer enforce a 90-day rule because of the economy and budget cuts to other programs, which made it less likely that shelter residents would be able to become self-supporting.
"It was made clear ... that residents were not to be asked to leave the shelter because 'their time was up,'" Tammy Mello, the DCF domestic violence program director, said in the email.
She went on to advise programs not to send women who cannot find permanent housing to the state's emergency shelter system, because it is not equipped to provide the services or security required by many victims.
In her own email forwarding Mello's message to employees, Waldron seemed to acknowledge the edict, writing, "Given the limited and continual constricting of long-term housing options, we are in a pretty serious statewide crisis at the moment. The longer families remain in shelter, the fewer families in crisis can access these lifesaving services."
Despite the directive from DCF, however, the 90-day limit is still being referred to by staff, as well as in court filings seeking to justify removing residents from the shelter — something Waldron said in an interview was more about making a "philosophical" point.
Waldron also acknowledged that the shelter is not filling empty beds when residents leave, despite a shortage of such beds statewide.
Residents told the attorneys for Neighborhood Legal Services that the staff wants a complete turnover of residents before it begins filling the beds to create a "fresh start" with women who have not been "poisoned" by the women who have challenged HAWC's actions.
Waldron said the agency does not want to fill the beds until it fully understands the procedure for removing residents.
As for the incident involving the donated clothing (which lawyers for the women say was also picked through by staff first, before being given to residents), Waldron suggested that the account may have been exaggerated by one resident (one of two, Waldron said, "who have created a lot of strife") who wanted more than she received.
HAWC has stopped bringing donations to the shelter, Waldron acknowledged, saying residents now receive donated clothing at HAWC's main office on Congress Street.
Residents of the program also learned that rental subsidies that cover all but 30 percent of a tenant's rent for up to a year had run out, leaving some shelter residents unable to follow through on plans to move to apartments. Lawyers for the residents suggested it was caused by mismanagement.
Kevin Hurley, who administers the North Shore HOME Consortium, said he's not aware of any mismanagement of funds by HAWC, only that HAWC had failed for some period of time to include a complete list of the 30 communities that participate in the program — something Waldron blames on a "copy and paste" error she made when preparing the brochure.
The communities left off the list include some of the area's most affluent, including Hamilton, Marblehead and Topsfield, as well as communities to the north and west such as Newburyport and Andover.
Both Waldron and Hurley say it's not uncommon to shut off new applications for rental subsidies after funds have been committed for the balance of the fiscal year and suggest that residents may have misunderstood the decision to stop accepting applications.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis may be reached at 978-338-2521 or email@example.com.