Safe Place, Inc., the non-profit organization that operated a domestic violence shelter and sexual assault crisis center for 31 years in Dumas, remains in a state of limbo in the wake of an investigation by the Texas Rangers into the possible misuse of funds by a former employee. The agency offices remain closed, and the services provided directly by Safe Place, Inc. personnel to clients remain very limited.
Michael Barr, president of the Safe Place, Inc. Board of Directors says the limited personnel available to the board have been working to fill in the gaps in services, as they work to have funding restored to the agency.
"What we don't have going is the overnight shelter and outreach," he said. Barr says the Safe Place, Inc. hotline (935-2828) is now being answered by the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Personnel from the national hotline relay the information from victims to Dumas, where a former shelter advocate at Safe Place, Inc., working hourly on a contract basis, provides transportation to Amarillo for Sexual Assault Nurse Examinations (SANE), interviews at the Bridge, and other services. Those victims of domestic violence needing shelter are driven to the Family Support Services (FSS) shelter in Amarillo, and those who relied on the food bank run by Safe Place, Inc. can still get assistance by calling the hotline.
"We have had law enforcement and the national hotline call us … they have dispatched us, and we have been helping people, at least one a weekend," said Barr.
In addition, Barr says the Dumas and Dalhart This-N-That Thrift Stores are still operating. "We are still accepting donations and still getting donations, and they still have the regular hours," he said.
Safe Place, Inc. was forced to close in late June, after the state, federal, and private agencies that award the financial grants that Safe Place, Inc. relies on for funding learned of the investigation and froze the money. At that time, with no money to pay them, the board laid off all personnel. Barr says that when funding is restored, the former employees, who, he says, are not suspected of wrongdoing, will have the opportunity to reapply for their jobs. "Applications will be open for everyone," he said.
At this time, Barr said, "We don't have anyone working full time." Chris Fobbs, the former board vice president who took over as interim executive director when the former executive director, Heather Weidner, was fired in March, works part-time as executive director until a permanent replacement can be found.
"He is not full time. He is also contract labor as we need him," said Barr. "Instead of salary, it is hourly as needed. He is still pastor at Temple Baptist Church." Barr says they do not want to bring in a permanent executive director until at least the grants have been restored. "We plan to look for someone, but we want to set them up for success. We wouldn't hire someone in the middle of a difficult situation. It wouldn't be fair to hire someone. They don't have a staff or grants coming in," he said.
Former Safe Place, Inc. Finance Director Ginger Parks also works part time. "She is one that we can use as a contract person to file tax stuff and grant stuff. We just use her whenever we need reports and things done," said Barr. Though Parks was the finance director during the period under investigation, Barr insists that her continued employment is not a problem. "No, no, there is a former employee that is under investigation and nothing else other than that." Asked if Parks was implicated in any way in the financial irregularities being investigated, Barr replied, "No."
Barr says they are working on a "strategic plan" for reopening the shelter. The shelter is one of the requirements for the grant Safe Place, Inc. receives from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.
"We have already implemented some new policies and procedures -- that is coming out with part of the strategic plan too. We have been doing business different for a while -- extra layers of protection and accountability," said Barr.
As for the board, Barr says he is not anticipating any changes.
Asked who picks board members, Barr said, "We ask the other board (members) to submit names. I think even employees have submitted names. We don't have a set … I don't think we have any one person that does it."
Asked about the role of the board, Barr said, "The board is there to advise the executive director and finance director. As far as reporting to anyone, we answer questions that our grantors have, but they require contact with the executive director … the person that answers to the grantor is the executive director."
Barr says despite the recent problems, he is optimistic about the future of Safe Place, Inc. "We have still been able to help people. People who were in the shelter when we transported them to FSS in Amarillo have come back and thanked us for the care and attention we have given to their needs … we still help people get into places of living, food, and clothing."
"I was telling Chris, 'We are fixing to have us a good story on the front page, I hope, but we are just not quite there.' It is coming. We are positive it is coming. We have faith that it is coming. That is where we are at."