SAFE Inc. and its 14-bed shelter for victims of domestic and sexual violence are closing today (Friday) due to lack of funds, said Sandy Sheppard, the nonprofit’s board chairman.

Sheppard said there are no plans for SAFE or its shelter to reopen.

Incorporated as Sheltered Aid to Families in Emergencies in 1980, SAFE provided immediate and safe housing through the shelter 24/7. The location of the shelter, which served women and children, was never made public to protect those staying there. Male victims, far fewer in number, were served elsewhere.

Nan Sanseverino, director of communications for the N.C. Department of Administration, said the N.C. Council for Women and Youth Involvement is working closely with officials in Wilkes County and the SAFE board and staff to identify alternative service providers for continued and uninterrupted support of domestic violence and sexual assault victims in Wilkes.

Lt. Logan Kerr of the Wilkes Sheriff’s Office provided deputies with names and phone numbers of similar shelters in Caldwell, Surry, Watauga and Ashe counties. Wilkes deputies have been instructed to transport domestic or sexual violence victims to these shelters as needs arise.

Sheppard said she would contact law enforcement agencies in Wilkes and other entities to tell them about the shelter’s closure on Friday.

Jonathan Perry, managing attorney for the Boone office of Legal Aid of North Carolina Inc., noted the involvement of the N.C. Council for Women in helping to make sure needs in the immediate aftermath of SAFE’s closure. He called the loss of the agency “a huge blow to the community.”

Perry said Legal Aid of N.C., which provides free legal services to all victims of domestic or sexual violence, 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 victims know to contact Legal Aid of N.C. for free legal assistance. “One option is that whenever someone applies for a DVPO (domestic violence protective order), they could be given our direct line (828-355-4891) 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.

The six women and five children at the shelter this week all have other places to stay now. One is moving to a similar shelter in Boone and another is staying with a friend.

Four of the women, with some of the kids, already had or knew they soon would get federally-funded section 8 housing vouchers. Some are staying in motels funded by Wilkes Ministry of h.o.p.e. or Vaya Health until their voucher-funded housing is available.

As Wilkes County’s designated domestic violence and sexual assault program, SAFE received funds from the state in return for providing core services such as a 24-hour crisis phone line, community education, advocacy in court and other victim assistance.

SAFE’s 24-hour crisis phone line—336-838-SAFE (7233)—apparently is still functional.

Shepherd said the SAFE shelter often is full and added, “It’s a wonderful, valuable service that we hate to close.” Compton Fortuna has been SAFE director since 2017, and also is chief financial officer.

Sheppard said SAFE’s seven fulltime 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.

Heather Shumate, who has worked at the shelter for six months, said two SAFE employees in lead roles at the shelter are owed thousands of dollars in back pay for several weeks of work. Shumate said she and other employees have had pay checks bounce when they tried to cash them.

Shumate also said SAFE employees sometimes have had to use their own money to buy food for meals for people staying at the shelter. “We (some of the staff) wanted to stay as volunteers to help clients transition” out of the SAFE shelter, she said, but this wasn’t allowed.

Shumate said clients at the shelter now should but aren’t being given some of the clothes, furniture and other household items donated for people staying there.

Clients were fed, provided transportation, received clothing vouchers, helped finding and securing long-term housing, received workforce assistance through the Step Ahead program through St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, advocacy in court and other help.

“The biggest thing was that we helped women regain their independence and to not be dependent on a man who had been abusing them,” said Shumate.

Two women at the shelter since before Christmas said clients at the shelter supported each other and became like family. They praised shelter staff for their dedication.

Sheppard said the shelter often was at capacity, with an average stay of about 90 days.

Safe Spot breaks off

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.

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