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Domestic violence group shrinks region footprint

SoVaNow.com / February 12, 2020
The Southside Center for Violence Prevention, which operates the Madeline’s House emergency shelter for adults and children seeking protection from sexual and domestic violence, is curtailing its service area — leaving Mecklenburg County to find a new provider to take the group’s place.

Michelle Laaksonen, executive director of the Southside Center for Violence Prevention, informed members of the Board of Supervisors of the organization’s shrinking footprint at the monthly board meeting on Monday. As of July 1, Mecklenburg County will no longer fall within the service area of the SCVP, a non-profit organization that provides free, confidential, and comprehensive services to adults and children affected by sexual and domestic abuse.

Laaksonen said the change comes in response to concerns by funding agencies — the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services and Department of Social Services — that the organization is trying to serve too large an area to be effective.

“The sad part of it is that out of all 12 counties [in the SCVP service area], Mecklenburg has been one of most successful as far as getting support for victims and for advocacy efforts,” Laaksonen said.

Currently, the SCVP and Madeline’s House provides coverage in Amelia, Brunswick, Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, Dinwiddie, Halifax, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nottoway, Powhatan, and Prince Edward. As of July 1, its service footprint will be limited to Amelia, Prince Edward, Buckingham, Cumberland and Nottoway counties.

County Administrator Wayne Carter said “we were blindsided” by the news. In the past Laaksonen has updated the board on the number of persons served annually as well as the array of services offered to victims. Carter said he expected the same type of report on Monday since Laaksonen gave no prior indication that her comments at Monday’s meeting would be any different than past updates.

In addition to Madeline’s House emergency shelter, a 292-bed facility for those in imminent danger of domestic or sexual violence, the Farmville-based SCVP provides counseling and advocacy services, evidence recovery and educational programs. The staff works with law enforcement agencies on behalf of victims, makes outside referrals for a continuum of care, and provides crisis intervention.

Madeline’s House also includes services for children who have experienced or witnessed abuse. Children at the shelter are provided with tutoring to increase their success in school and with structured activities to boost their creativity and social skills.

“We wish we were in an environment where victim care was the only concern facing agencies like ours and victims could have their choice of agencies from where to receive care,” said Laaksonen. “Unfortunately, we must also consider the financial standing of the organization and accreditation.

“As many agencies compete for the same funds across Virginia, we need to follow recommendations by all of our current grantors and respect the monopoly-like system that Virginia has elected to utilize for the development of a Child Advocacy Center,” Laaksonen explained. “We do greatly appreciate our relationship with our current grantors that we were able to receive recommendations that, while difficult on our hearts, may improve our sustainability in the long run. We also truly value our time in Mecklenburg County and all of the support we have received from the county and county officials.”

She added after the meeting that SCVP has no plans to seek future support from Mecklenburg County. The Board of Supervisors typically provides $10,000 each year to the organization.

Laaksonen said the center’s staff would try to continue to participate in what she called “tabling events” — appearances at local fairs, festivals and other public forums where they could set up informational tables — and staff members would “still be available via phone,” but did not say if any of the other services would continue past July 1.

The problem began, according to Laaksonen, when Southside Center for Violence Prevention (SCVP) was denied the opportunity to seek accreditation and funding as a Child Advocacy Center (CAC).

“While we were meeting required criteria regarding our capacity and cooperative agreements with Mecklenburg County officials, the Virginia CAC decided against supporting our application or writing a letter of support for SCVP to serve any area outside of Prince Edward, despite the support from partner agencies and our ability to offer long-term services at satellite office spaces,” she said. The letter is a prerequisite to receiving funding or accreditation as a CAC.

Laaksonen said the only explanation SCVP received from the Virginia Child Advocacy Center was that they “did not believe it was in the best interest of those who live outside of Prince Edward County to receive services through us, despite travel distance to us, our ability to travel to clients for all long-term services (e.g., accompaniment, advocacy, case management, advocacy) or client preference.”

Hattie Farrar, who heads the Victim/Witness Assistance Program for Mecklenburg County, said she was not surprised to learn that the Southside Center for Violence Prevention was being forced to limit its service area. According to Farrar, the Virginia Departments of Social Services and Criminal Justice Services have been making similar demands for as long as she has worked in victims’ assistance in Mecklenburg County.

“Rural areas keep getting cut from specific areas of service because the grantors don’t recognize the distances our people have to travel. We’re not like urban areas,” Farrar said.

Laaksonen said SCVP also faced a second hurdle — concerns at the state level because of the vast geography of its footprint, other providers might be able to do the job better. Funding agencies “expressed concerns that all domestic and sexual assault victims across 12 counties cannot be adequately served by an agency of SCVP’s size. Additionally, grantors expressed that other agencies co-serving some of SCVP’s localities and/or new agencies might be better suited to provide those services solely because of their proximity, client volume, community representativeness of their Board of Directors, etc. Ultimately, grantors discussed how our funding was in jeopardy because of these concerns.”

Laaksonen said the SCVP board of directors in December made the difficult decision to reduce the service area. “This decision was based on a number of objective factors, as recommended by the grantors. Counties are now being informed about that decision. SCVP will continue to offer assistance to anyone calling our hotline and will provide additional services, such as emergency shelter, on a case-by-case basis, as capacity allows, to individuals outside of the primary service area.”

Farrar said Tri-County Community Action Agency based in South Boston provides similar services to area domestic violence victims. They have a small shelter, as well. That was the only local agency she named that offers counseling and emergency sheltering services similar to those provided by Southside Center for Violence Prevention.

The nearest Child Advocacy Centers that provide counseling and other services for child victims are located in Rocky Mount and Emporia.

While Farrar said she had not spoken with Laaksonen about the change, she felt confident that Madeline’s House shelter would continue to accept victims of domestic and sexual assault from Mecklenburg County, if there were available beds.

“We shelter all over the Commonwealth,” Farrar said, as part of their mission to keep victims safe and ensure they have access to needed services. Most agencies, despite the pushback from the state and other funders, find ways to work around the funding limitations, Farrar said.

In her experience, “shelters don’t turn down any county that calls for help,” Farrar said.

When asked what Mecklenburg County can do to once again receive domestic violence and sexual assault services from SVCP, Laaksonen told supervisors to lobby the state funding agencies involved.

Despite the news, Carter suggested the Board of Supervisors should continue to fund the Southside Center for Violence Prevention since the money is used to help abuse victims.

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