Staff and Clients Allege SafeHouse Center is Mismanaged and a “Racist, Toxic” Environment

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Staff and Clients Allege SafeHouse Center is Mismanaged and a “Racist, Toxic” Environment

NOTE: SafeHouse Executive Director Barbara Niess-May has alleged that there are unspecified inaccuracies in this article. She has been invited to contact The Ann Arbor Independent and submit all corrections of fact, which the A2Indy posts publicly. On June 16, 2021, Niess-May was sent these questions and requests for follow-up comments, twice, and did not reply.

by P.D. Lesko

In February of 2021, SafeHouse Center clients, staff and interns, present and past, came forward to allege that under Executive Director Barbara Niess-May, who has been at the helm since 2002, a “toxic, racial divide” exists between management, low-paid staff, and survivors who are, according to Niess-May, primarily people “who have run out of resources” and who are “very low-income.” The shelter, say the staff and clients, is filthy and security is lax.

Suzette Bouchard-Isackson MSN, RN, NEA-BC is a member of the Board of SafeHouse Center.

The other concern that arose frequently when speaking to former long-term SafeHouse staff had to do with minimally-trained client-side staff, many of whom are new graduates without licensure and with little experience.

According to Niess-May, none of the client advocates employed at SafeHouse has Michigan licensure (i.e. licensure as a social worker). Niess-May, who is white, claimed that requiring licensure or an advanced degree “could potentially limit our diversity and our ability to hire.” The average hourly pay for workers who provide client services, including advocacy, is $16-$17 per hour ($33,280-$35,360). The assumption that non-whites do not have or could not obtain the appropriate licensure is not supported by licensure data kept by the National Association of Social Workers in Michigan. In our state, approximately 40 percent of licensed mental health professionals are minorities.

Former clients, all of whom are Black, sharply criticized what they saw as systemic racism, and paternalistic policies in place at SafeHouse. In particular, the clients talked about the predominantly white management, being forced to clean the shelter, having a curfew imposed, being forbidden from having food or drinks in their rooms, and unannounced room inspections.

When asked about the potential psychological impacts of limiting, controlling and withholding food from abuse survivors and their children, Niess-May refused to comment.

In addition, former clients and staff pointed out that despite the pandemic, Niess-May got rid of the one nurse who provided health services and resources to the shelter’s residents and their children. This was done despite the presence of Suzette Bouchard-Isackson MSN, RN on the SafeHouse Board of Directors.

The allegations of systemic racism at SafeHouse are particularly concerning considering that SafeHouse Board member LaRonda Chastang is the Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion for Trinity Health. On her LinkedIn page, Chastang says she is: “a result oriented [sic] leader with a strong commitment to inclusive leadership and addressing systemic factors that contribute to inequities.”

Executive Director Niess-May earns $121,000, according to the non-profit’s most recently filed 990 tax return. The Ann Arbor Area Median Income (AMI) for a family of two is $81,000. Pay gaps, racial dissonance between management and clients, and allegedly “oppressive, punitive” treatment of survivors, have a deleterious impact on the SafeHouse shelter clients (women and children) served, so say concerned present and former employees.

The reviews of SafeHouse Center (Domestic Violence Project) on social media are mixed: “My abusive husband is a professor at University of Michigan, not a nice guy. Cut off from financial resources I temporarily stayed [at SafeHouse] for a week. I had a vile experience at this shelter.” Then there is this review: “I was privileged enough to work with Regina during a personal ordeal a few years ago. She was an excellent educator and advocate for me in navigating the confusing judicial system to help me stay safe and protected. I am so grateful that we have this resource in Washtenaw County.”

Barbara Niess-May earned her MSW and MPA from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She describes herself as a “lifelong learner,” and defines domestic violence as a “learned behavior,” as opposed to being a result of substance abuse. Among the honors Niess-May lists on her LinkedIn profile is “Congressional Record.” In September 2017, Rep. Debbie Dingell recognized Niess May’s 15 years of service at SafeHouse Center. Dingell remarked, “She has advocated for survivors and implemented programs to help both women and children get back on their feet by finding safe and affordable housing, employment, and childcare. Successful SafeHouse programs include a children’s playroom, Teen Voice Peer Education at local schools, and four different onsite support groups….Her tenure at SafeHouse has greatly contributed to the organization’s ability to provide important services and support to women in need.”

To say there is a need for SafeHouse Center would be putting it mildly. Approximately 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 10 men face sexual violence, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These numbers have only gotten worse during the pandemic. More than 43 million women and 38 million men have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner, the CDC also has said. Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, according to data from county policing agencies turned over to the Michigan State Police, have seen a significant increase in domestic violence and assault calls and arrests. The docket of Ann Arbor 15th District Court Judge Miriam A. Perry is available online and a look at a single morning in May showed Perry presiding over half a dozen domestic violence hearings.

In March 2021, the release of Ann Arbor Police Department public records to MLive, a resident and The Ann Arbor Independent showed that Ann Arbor City Council member Jen Eyer Irwin (D-Ward 4) and her husband Mitchell Irwin were involved in a domestic violence incident. According to the police report and 15th District Court records, Mitchell Irwin was arrested, charged with misdemeanor domestic violence and sentenced on March 22, 2021. Eyer Irwin, according to the police report, was referred to SafeHouse Center by the responding officers. In a subsequent statement about the incident to the press, Eyer Irwin referred questions about her incident to Barbara Niess-May, the Executive Director of SafeHouse. Niess-May was surprised when told what Eyer had said.

SafeHouse Center’s Annual Reports signed by Niess-May paint a picture of an organization that provides hope to survivors of sexual and domestic abuse, “100% cost free,” according to the shelter’s 2017 Annual Report. The most recent Annual Report says SafeHouse sheltered 190 women and 187 children in 2019. The shelter’s 2019 operating revenue was $2.73 million, up from $2.5 million in 2018. Annual reports do not include year-to-year comparison data, and Niess-May refused multiple requests to release year-to-year data so that a more complete picture of the scope of services could be ascertained.

While the individuals served by SafeHouse may not be asked to pay for their room and board, survivors and staff allege the services come at great expense: the dignity of those served. Several of the policies implemented by SafeHouse management, including Niess-May, paint a picture more akin to a detention center than a nurturing, safe house. Supervision of staff and interns under Niess-May’s leadership was repeatedly described as “silo-ed and punitive.”

Empowerment Through Cleaning?

“Some women clean and some women don’t and it creates a lot of unnecessary frustration,” said a former intern. “Full-time staff don’t clean. There is no cleaning service on the shelter side, but you never see the white people on the office side cleaning their own space. The Black women are not only expected to clean, but if they don’t, they can be reported by their own advocates and exited.”

“Exited” refers to a survivor who is evicted from the shelter.

A former intern alleged that the police had to be called to break up a knife fight between two clients that erupted over neglected cleaning duties. Police records indicate officers were, indeed, dispatched to SafeHouse on the date in question. No one was charged as a result of the altercation.

SafeHouse does not permit access to the shelter side of the facility to anyone except staff and residents. Niess-May explained that tours would impact the privacy of the residents. “It’s someone’s home,” she said.

When it was pointed out that only clients who are in desperate need of services, and people in the employ of Niess-May are permitted to see the state of the shelter and its facilities, Niess-May refused to comment.

Sexual assault and domestic violence shelters in Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties all regularly offer tours of their facilities.

One former staff member, a Black woman who provided services at SafeHouse for several years, brought up the pictures of the interior of SafeHouse posted online. According to SafeHouse staff former and present, the room, pictured below on SafeHouse Center’s social media, doesn’t exist in the facility. Posting old photos on social media is hardly a crime, but it’s indicative of a lack of care on the part of management that critics allege extends to the upkeep of the facility, and the treatment of the survivors, primarily people of color. A staff member explained that social media photos from SafeHouse are from the side of the shelter where management staff work, not the client side.

One of four photos posted to Safehouse’s Yelp page. Staffers say this room does not exist in the facility.

Empowerment or Exploitation?

Barbara Niess-May spoke at length about the importance of “empowering” survivors of domestic and sexual abuse. What that empowerment looks like has prompted questions about racism from her own staff. Former staffers say the policies related to the “empowerment” of survivors suggest a lack of understanding of the psychological impacts of abuse. Survivors of domestic and sexual abuse often suffer from depression and PTSD. As a result, they can have difficulties caring for themselves and their children.

At SafeHouse, the survivors, mostly Black women, according to Niess-May (though she says she does not collect demographic data), are “empowered” as soon as they arrive, and assigned cleaning chores. Survivors who don’t clean, or who don’t clean adequately, may be given “chore violation warnings” by their own SafeHouse advocates. If the clients don’t complete their cleaning of the shelter, they are given a warning. The second time a cleaning “infraction” occurs, the survivor must meet with an advocate. According to SafeHouse staff, a victim of sexual and/or domestic violence who gets three warnings related to their cleaning of the shelter may be “exited.”

Christy Summers, Principal Landscape Architect at Beckett & Raeder, Inc., is a member of the SafeHouse Board of Directors.

In interviews, the Executive Directors of shelters in three Michigan counties expressed dismay that survivors of sexual and/or domestic abuse were, in essence, being used as free laborers to clean the Safehouse shelter. Executive Directors of other shelters explained that each employs cleaning services. At those shelters, survivors are never required to clean the facilities and are never threatened with eviction if they don’t or can’t clean. In one shelter, survivors may be asked to “lend a hand” to staff who clean, but there are not penalties for refusing to do so. Likewise, the three shelter directors were horrified that victims of domestic and/or sexual violence could be “exited” for not cleaning, or for cleaning inadequately.

SafeHouse staff confirmed that the side of the SafeHouse Center building that houses the management offices is cleaned regularly by a cleaning service. The side of the building where the predominantly white managerial staff work was described as “spotless” and “meticulously maintained.”

The entrance of the building where management staff enter is neat and tidy, well-landscaped. The entrance of the building on the shelter side is decorated with an abandoned tire, weeds and trash. Christy Summers, Principal Landscape Architect at Beckett & Raeder, Inc., is a member of the SafeHouse Board of Directors.

SafeHouse Center staffers, concerned about the filthy conditions of the shelter side of SafeHouse Center, pointed the finger at Niess-May and the Board of Directors.

“She doesn’t visit the client side to solicit feedback,” said one staffer. “Board members never visit. There is no way to give feedback anonymously to management.” Other shelter officials said they use suggestion boxes to regularly solicit anonymous feedback from staff and clients.

The photos, below, of the client side of the SafeHouse shelter were provided to The Ann Arbor Independent by a concerned former employee. The photos show peeling paint, filthy, broken, bathroom fixtures, dirty bathrooms and sinks in client bedrooms. The shelter has a limited number of rooms for clients, and according to staff, two of the rooms are used for storage. This means that abused women, children and men are turned away because of a lack of available space.

Damaged wall, peeling paint in the client side of SafeHouse Center, February 2021. Hole in wall in the client side of SafeHouse Center, February 2021. Peeling paint in a client room, SafeHouse Center, February 2021. Broken drain, grimy floor in a client bathroom, SafeHouse Center, February 2021.Moldy tiles, grimy bathtub in a client bathroom, SafeHouse Center, February 2021.

County Money for COVID-19 Cleaning

Public records show that in 2020, SafeHouse Center was given an additional $96,000 from Washtenaw County in order to implement protocols and improvements in the shelter related to checking any spread of COVID-19. Nonetheless, air ducts on the client side of the shelter remained filthy and moldy. Outside cleaning services were not used. “Empowered” Safehouse shelter domestic and sexual abuse survivors were expected to clean the shelter during the height of the pandemic.

Air ducts on the client side of SafeHouse were left uncleaned and moldy, despite $96,000 from the County to implement COVID-19 cleaning and safety protocols.

Rotting Food

SafeHouse gets the bulk of food made available to survivors and their children from Food Gatherers. According to information provided by Food Gatherers’ Executive Director Eileen Spring, in 2020 SafeHouse received a little under $9,000 worth of donated food, the equivalent of 4,500 meals. Food Gatherers makes weekly deliveries to the shelter.

Niess-May said that while her $2.7 million budget, “can’t buy McDonald’s” for clients, upon request, her facility does purchase some fresh food. A former staff member described shelter staff being invited by management to take items donated by Food Gatherers and meant to feed the survivors and their children.

Niess-May defended her use of Food Gatherers by pointing out that SafeHouse clients are “homeless.” The Executive Directors of other shelters in Michigan said survivors in their facilities are given gift cards to purchase the food items of their choice, including fast food, if they so choose. Those shelters also budget for fresh, as opposed to food-banked, food.

Survivors who’ve stayed at SafeHouse described kitchen cupboards with food left to rot, and filthy refrigerators. Their assertions were confirmed by staff. A staffer currently employed described the kitchen cupboards and main refrigerator as “disgusting, with rotting, and sometimes out-of-date food.”

One former staff member pointed out that thanks to a State audit of SafeHouse in early 2021, two of the shelter’s four refrigerators were replaced. However, as with the rest of the client side of the shelter, staff doesn’t clean the refrigerators, or the kitchen. Survivors are expected to do that. At SafeHouse, the kitchen is closed several hours during the afternoon. Survivors found with food or drinks in their rooms to feed themselves or their children can be written up, or even “exited.”

Safety Concerns

Washtenaw County Sheriff Jerry Clayton sits on the Board of SafeHouse.

According to multiple SafeHouse staff, in 2020 a Black client who was upset at her treatment by shelter staff, and by rules and policies she alleged were racist, left the shelter and returned home. Her partner shot and killed her. The SafeHouse advocate assigned to oversee the woman’s care was fired, but the shelter’s allegedly racist, punitive, rules and policies were not changed.

According to reporting in the New York Times, “Homicides by intimate partners are increasing, driven primarily by gun violence after almost four decades of decline, according to a recent study looking at gender and homicide.”

James Alan Fox is a criminologist and professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University. He authored a 2019 study on intimate partner violence. Fox says, “The number of victims of intimate partner violence rose to 2,237 in 2017, a 19 percent increase from the 1,875 killed in 2014. The majority of the victims in 2017 were women, a total of 1,527.”

Over all, gun-related domestic killings increased by 26 percent from 2010 to 2017, which Dr. Fox said was cause for alarm. In 2017, 926 of the 1,527 women murdered by partners were killed with guns. In 2014, it was 752 of 1,321 women. The Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization of 2021-2022 was introduced into Congress in March of 2021 and has not yet passed. Ann Arbor’s U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell was instrumental in the expansion of the Violence Against Women Act in 2019 to include gun control legislation.

Sheriff Jerry Clayton sits on the Board of SafeHouse as does Eddie L. Washington, the Executive Director of the Department of Public Safety and Security at the University of Michigan. Having the County Sheriff and the Head of the Department of Public Safety and Security at a major public university participate in SafeHouse Center Board oversight might lead one to conclude safety at the facility is excellent. Nothing would be further from the truth.

SafeHouse staff (present and past) and interns expressed many of the same safety concerns. For starters, they all pointed to the fact that the shelter is not protected by a video security system. There is a single camera, a fake, so say the staff and interns, which is installed above the door leading into the client side of the shelter.

Eddie Washington is a member of the Safehouse Board of Directors and Executive Director of the Division of Public Safety and Security at the University of Michigan.

“The clients are led to believe the camera records the parking area and the entrance. It doesn’t record anything. It’s a joke among the staff,” said a current employee. “Ain’t nobody recording nothin’.” One former staffer allegedly offered to provide a security camera at her own expense, but her direct supervisor refused the offer.

Staffers at sexual assault and domestic violence shelters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties all described robust security systems, including video security and archived footage.

The Executive Director of a shelter in Oakland County explained how her shelter’s comprehensive security camera system worked and how security camera footage was maintained.

Along with the “broken, fake” security camera, there are other serious safety concerns. Via email, a former staffer pointed out that there is “no lighting around [the] perimeter of building. Ground floor windows facing outside [were] unlocked, for weeks, if not months, in an empty room reserved for [COVID] quarantine.” Multiple staffers mentioned a ground floor window in the shelter that is broken, and kept closed with duct tape.

The Root of the Problem

Staff present and former point to the composition of the SafeHouse Board, and the Board members’ “hands-off” supervision of Niess-May as a significant part of the dysfunction and alleged racism suffered by those who seek out shelter and services.

There is no one on the SafeHouse Board who is a physician with an expertise in psychiatry or pediatrics. The closest to a doctor on the Board is the COO of Huron Valley Radiology; he holds a Master’s in Human Resources Development.

Two members of the SafeHouse Board work for Google. One is a sales manager and the other is an account executive. One of the Google employees has an undergraduate degree in French and the other, a white man, has an undergraduate degree in English. Another member of the Board, a white woman, is a customer service representative at an insurance company who attended Michigan State for one year between 1972-1973. On the other side of ledger is a former United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, John Huber–Head of Emerson School, and Washtenaw County Executive Gregory Dill.

“No one is looking past the front door, literally and figuratively,” said a former SafeHouse client who spent three weeks at the shelter.

A former staff member added: “Too many of these inexperienced, low-paid people don’t know what they’re doing, and the people who should be supervising Barbara have no idea what Barbara is doing. It’s negligent and it’s happening because SafeHouse serves poor, Black people.”

Barbara Neiss-May, Christy Summers, domestic violence, Eddie Washington, Gregory Dill, Jerry Clayton, John Huber, LaRonda Chastang, SafeHouse, SafeHouse Center, Suzette Bouchard-Isackson

Staff and Clients Allege SafeHouse Center is Mismanaged and a “Racist, Toxic” Environment

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