Sheltered Aid to Families in Emergencies (SAFE) Inc. in Wilkesboro is closing Friday due to lack of funds, said Sandy Sheppard, SAFE board chairman.
Sheppard said this includes closure of SAFE’s 14-bed shelter for victims of domestic or sexual violence, open 24/7 and often serving people (mostly women and children) in emergency situations.
SAFE began in 1981 and has provided immediate and safe housing to hundreds of adults and children since its shelter opened that same year. To help protect people staying there, the shelter’s location isn’t made public.
As Wilkes County’s designated domestic violence and sexual assault program, SAFE receives federal and state funding in return for providing core services such as a 24-hour crisis phone line, community education, advocacy in court and other victim assistance.
Sheppard said all of SAFE’s services will end and there are no plans to restore them.
She said SAFE is working with the N.C. Council for Women and some of its other funding sources to find another area shelter to house victims of domestic or sexual violence in Wilkes. Sheppard said her understanding was that a shelter in another nearby county agreed to provide this service for Wilkes.
She said the SAFE shelter often is full and added, “It’s a wonderful, valuable service that we hate to close.”
Jonathan Perry, managing attorney for the Boone office of Legal Aid of North Carolina Inc., said in an email to local court officials that the N.C. Council for Women is working to help the 14 women now housed in the SAFE shelter find rooms elsewhere and also to provide an alternative 24-hour crisis phone line.
He called SAFE’s closure “a huge blow to the community.”
Perry said Legal Aid of N.C., which provides free legal services to eligible people, receives almost all of its domestic violence referrals in Wilkes from SAFE.
“So far this year, we averaged 10-12 (domestic violence) referrals in Wilkes every week. I am very worried that victims will be unaware of how to contact us for in-court representation without SAFE making that referral,” said Perry.
He said he wanted to open the discussion of how to let these victims know to contact Legal Aid of N.C. for legal assistance. “One option is that whenever someone applies for a DVPO (domestic violence protective order), they could be given our direct line to call our paralegal to apply for free services.”
Perry offered to provide pamphlets that can be given out with this contact number and other Legal Aid of N.C. information. He said his office is open to other suggestions.
Wednesday morning, Sheppard was contacting law enforcement agencies in Wilkes and other entities to tell them that the shelter is closing Friday. Law enforcement officers often take victims of domestic or sexual abuse to the shelter.
“We have struggled for some time” financially. “It waxes and wanes, but we have had delays in (grant) funding to the point where it is not recoverable,” she said in an interview Wednesday morning.
“We don’t know why it was delayed, but we have depleted what we have,” said Sheppard, adding that SAFE’s financial shortfall has grown too large for the private, nonprofit to remain sustainable.
Sheppard said SAFE’s seven full-time and three part-time employees were told in a meeting Tuesday that SAFE is closing Friday.
When asked if all employees had received the compensation they are due, Sheppard said she couldn’t comment. There are reports of SAFE staff being behind on being paid.
Compton Fortuna has been SAFE director since 2017.
In the past, SAFE received funding from the Governor’s Crime Commission, N.C. Council for Women, United Way of Wilkes County, Wilkes County government and other sources. It was budgeted $11,866 from county government for fiscal 2019-20.
SAFE lost its United Way of Wilkes funding within the last couple of years, but it received $28,500 from that source in 2017. An explanation from United Way concerning why SAFE lost that funding wasn’t immediately available.
SAFE’s federal and state funding must be matched with 20% in local funding.
According to SAFE’s 2015 IRS Form 990, a tax return form filed by tax exempt organizations, SAFE received $400,912 in contributions and had expenses totaling $468,990 that year. Its contributions were $418,782 and its expenses were $435,394 in 2014. More recent Form 990s weren’t available online
Sheppard said Safe Spot, an advocacy center for child victims of sexual or other severe abuse, was started as a SAFE program about nine years ago but has separated from SAFE to become an independent, private 501(c)(3).
Safe Spot is operating as a program of the Health Foundation until it becomes a stand-alone nonprofit, said Health Foundation Director Heather Murphy.
Murphy said Cindy Hartley, Safe Spot program director, is now an employee of the Health Foundation instead of SAFE.
She said Tim Murphy, who is her husband, worked for SAFE as Safe Spot child and family advocate but now is retired and is continuing in that role as an unpaid volunteer.
Murphy said Safe Spot assumed responsibility for the lease of a building on School Street in Wilkesboro that formerly was in SAFE’s name.
She said the Health Foundation currently has a $74,000 deficit in taking on Safe Spot as a program.
Safe Spot provides comprehensive, community-based services to children and families affected by sexual abuse or severe physical abuse. Its services include forensic interviews, child medical evaluations, victim advocacy and case coordination.
Safe Spot was started to improve coordination between agencies involved in child abuse cases, prevent victims of sexual and severe physical abuse from having to go out of town for the interview process and only be interviewed once.
It includes representation from the district attorney’s office, Guardian ad Litem program, Wilkes County Schools, Wilkes Department of Social Services, Jodi Province Counseling, Wilkes Sheriff’s Office and the Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro police departments.