BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — SALEM — A state investigation into alleged abuses at the North Shore’s only domestic violence shelter found that the Salem facility lacked a clear, written policy for dealing with residents who violated rules and guidelines, and that, in turn, left the organization unable to deal with a series of problems that emerged last year.
That was one of the conclusions of a Department of Children and Families investigation into the shelter run by Healing Abuse Working for Change, or HAWC, a Salem-based nonprofit. The 11-page DCF report was provided to The Salem News yesterday in response to a request last month under the state’s public records law.
The six-bed shelter stopped accepting new residents last spring and has been empty since October, after lawyers representing residents of the shelter wrote a letter alleging a “climate of abuse” at the facility.
The DCF report lays much of the blame on residents who had stayed well beyond the shelter’s typical 12 weeks and who were unwilling to accept placements in longer-term housing or who violated safety rules. Overall, the report concluded, “HAWC was diligent in maintaining good relationships with guests” and “the complaints were not typical.”
The report called on HAWC to take three steps, including developing a “quality improvement plan” with the DCF’s domestic violence unit; training employees in the state’s mandated child abuse or neglect reporting requirements; and “debriefing” staff, “to address the past stressful environment and to foster development of a stable and healthy program.”
The agency has also been working with DCF to develop new written policies regarding discharging residents from the program.
HAWC Executive Director Candace Waldron indicated in an interview yesterday that the shelter could reopen as early as this week.
The report found the most serious allegations, including humiliating or retaliatory treatment of residents, to be unsupported, while noting that the environment in the shelter had deteriorated to the point that closing the shelter to new residents was a “sound administrative decision.”
“The environment within the program needed to be stabilized,” the report said.
The report blames much of that deterioration on the residents “going to Housing Court, not complying with rules, declining readily available housing options and intimidating new residents,” and on the inability of staff to deal effectively with those problems.
The report concluded that the lack of clear policies resulted in residents placing “excessive demands” on the program and remaining for extended periods of time. “This created an unhealthy environment and substantially limited the program’s capacity to provide emergency shelter to survivors at immediate risk,” the report noted.
The report said that HAWC sheltered 13 families in 2012 and asked five of them to leave. The DCF concluded that three of the five violated the shelter’s “guest contract” and that HAWC had grounds for their immediate removal.
But the lack of a written policy about removals led to inconsistent results, the report said. One resident, for example, was given two hours to leave after her third written warning, while another was asked to leave after one warning and was given seven days. A third was ordered to leave after an altercation, but her termination letter cited another reason, overstaying the shelter’s 12-week limit.
“Given the lack of clear policies, when the residents became aware that Housing Court was a viable mechanism that allowed them to remain in the shelter, HAWC had no option that allowed them to more effectively manage the lengths of stay,” the report concluded.
Waldron said that in the varying circumstances, HAWC was facing conflicting advice. The issue has led to new policies, she said, which will be used now by all domestic violence shelters in the state.
Those policies will require that residents being admitted to the program receive a series of documents, including a copy of the policy on how and why residents can be removed. It will give residents the opportunity to appeal their removal through an internal grievance process, and then to a Department of Children and Families “fair hearing” proceeding.
In response to complaints about the “climate” at the shelter, the report said that residents may have misinterpreted some of the staff’s actions. For example, a resident denied housing funds may have interpreted the action as deliberate, while it was actually due to the program exhausting its allotment for the year. In another complaint, a resident said that staff refused to give her blankets and pillows, but the staff said it was because the children had allergies requiring hypoallergenic bedding.
At the same time, however, the report acknowledged that a pediatrician trying to assist the family described shelter staff as “quite unsympathetic and antagonistic.”
The report said current residents of the shelter viewed the staff’s demeanor as “abrasive and terse,” while some former residents described the environment as “supportive” and “nurturing.” The report made no conclusion about the different views.
Waldron defended her staff, saying employees struggled to provide services in a difficult environment.
“I know firsthand what they were going through, and it was really difficult,” she said, “and I have the utmost respect for their work.”
Employees of not only the Salem shelter but of other domestic violence shelters around the state took part in a “mandated reporter” training concerning their obligation to report suspected child abuse or neglect, after the DCF investigation found instances where residents may have placed their children in harm’s way, such as leaving them unattended during a bath, the report said.
Waldron said the staff is also being trained in procedures to “de-escalate” conflict, though it was not one of DCF’s recommendations.
Waldron said that once the shelter reopens there will be more emphasis on working with residents to get them into more permanent situations.
“I think what we’re going to do is be much more proactive with clients and help them develop more of a timeline in achieving their goals,” Waldron said.
That will include setting up more of the services for the women outside of the shelter, which will become more of a place to sleep and eat.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.