Safe Place, Inc., which has operated a shelter and crisis center in Dumas for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault from Moore, Dallam, Hartley, and Sherman Counties for 31 years, was shut down Tuesday, at least temporarily, pending the results of an investigation by the Texas Rangers into what Safe Place, Inc. Board of Directors President Michael Barr called the "alleged misuse of funds."
According to member of the Safe Place, Inc. Board and chief of the Cactus Police Department Maribel Tiarzon, all of the current employees have been laid off, and the residents of the shelter were transported to a shelter in Amarillo. "It was very sad. We didn't want to come to this decision, but that place runs on grants, and once the grantors were notified of the investigation, they put the grants on hold until the investigation is complete, and without the grants, there is no money to run the organization," said Tiarzon. "We had to lay everyone off, because there is no telling how long this process will take."
As listed on the Safe Place, Inc. website, the United Way, the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of the Attorney General, and the Office of the Governor are among the main sources of grants that fund the agency. In addition, Valero, the Dumas Noon Lions Club, the Dumas Economic Development Corporation, and others have provided money or made awards for special projects and needs. The agency is subject to periodic audits from the state.
Barr says it is a former employee under investigation and that none of the newly laid off employees are suspected of wrongdoing.
According to Barr, the investigation has been going on for a while. "This is from an ongoing investigation that started back at the first of the year. I am not saying any names by direction of our investigator," he said. It is not clear why the grantors picked this time to freeze the grants.
Tiarzon says it was the board that brought in the Texas Rangers. "Once we found out something was going on, we notified (the Texas Rangers) to take over the investigation," she said.
As reported in the April 3-4 edition of the News-Press, the board removed former Safe Place, Inc. Executive Director Heather Weidner in March and replaced her withTemple Baptist Church Pastor and Safe Place, Inc. Board of Directors Vice President Chris Fobbs, who was to serve as interim executive director of the agency until a permanent replacement was found. Fobbs says the search for a permanent executive director has been placed on hold until the investigation is complete and the grants are restored.
According to Fobbs, it was a whistleblower from within the agency that first alerted the board to potential problems.
Fobbs also said that he and another former Safe Place, Inc. employee would begin working as soon as possible on a contract basis to man the Safe Place, Inc. hotline and refer clients to services in Amarillo. The exact arrangements have not yet been fully ironed out.
"We are working on getting that number (the hotline) … so that if you call the hotline that it will forward (the call) to the appropriate people," said Barr. He says he hopes to be able to provide transportation to clients needing services in Amarillo, such as interviews at the Bridge and Sexual Assault Nurse Examinations at Northwest Texas Hospital.
Barr says both the This n That Thrift Store in Dumas and the one in Dalhart are open and will continue to operate, though the store in Dalhart announced on their Facebook page on Wednesday that the ribbon cutting ceremony scheduled for that day had been cancelled. He added, "The goal was to get (victim's advocates) over there to Dalhart. That is still our future goal, when we get our funds back and get back on our feet. That is still our goal."
Barr insists the problems at the agency are temporary. "It is a hiatus. That is how we are looking at it. We will be coming back stronger and better ready to serve those clients in our communities."