A nonprofit organization that specializes in emergency hotlines will take over the only shelter for abused women in Prince George’s County, after an audit exposed management and financial problems at the long-troubled facility.
Family Crisis Center Inc. had an operational deficit last year despite receiving more than $1 million in county and state funding, according to the audit, which the Prince George’s County government ordered following news reports about decrepit conditions in the shelter. The nonprofit shelter’s leaders followed few written rules, spent money without clearly documenting its purpose and failed to fundraise successfully, the audit showed, putting the organization’s future in jeopardy.
After the release of the audit, the Family Crisis Center board voted to be acquired by Community Crisis Services Inc., said interim director Michele Williams.
“Family Crisis Center was facing a decision of whether it could continue to operate long-term,” Williams said. “We view this as positive.”
The 55-bed shelter, which opened in 1981, will continue to operate, and staff from the two groups are already working together, leaders from both organizations said.
Community Crisis Services started in 1970 as a suicide prevention hotline and has expanded to include 18 different hotlines and a year-round shelter program for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
Executive director Tim Jansen said the organization sought to take ownership of the Family Crisis Center because it was concerned that if no one intervened, the services the shelter provides to victims of abuse “would just go away.”
Prince George’s has had the highest rates of domestic-violence related homicides in the state over the course of the past five years, accounting for 55 of 247 such deaths, according to the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.
The Family Crisis Center receives revenue from all marriage license fees collected in Prince George’s, thanks to a state law passed in 1987. It also has received millions of dollars in state and federal grants.
But residents have complained about mold- and pest-infested rooms, spoiled food and poor heating inside the shelter, which is called “Safe Passage.” Staff turnover was high and counseling and other services were either not provided or were substandard, they said.
They allege that state and county officials ignored signs of trouble and continued to bankroll the organization because its leaders had close ties to powerful bureaucrats and politicians.
The audit, which examined a sample of transactions between July 1, 2015 and Jan. 31, 2018, found undocumented salary increases and a lack of “basic internal controls” — such as approving expenses before payment — at the shelter. It concluded that members of the board were “not fully aware” of their responsibilities.
Less than 1 percent of the shelter’s revenue came from fundraising in fiscal year 2017. And when Family Crisis Center did hold fundraising events, the organization spent far more than it brought in, according to records included in the audit. In fiscal year 2017, the shelter spent $9,795 on entertainment and event space and raised $3,030 in ticket sales, records show. The next year, it spent $19,247 and raised $2,636.
Budget details were not provided to board members, some of whom thought the events were “extravagant,” the audit said.
Former executive director Sophie Ford, who was hired in 2014 and asked to resign following complaints last winter, was the only person signing checks for the organization, despite its written policy that checks be signed by a board member, the audit said.
Ford gave a $1,700 payroll advance to one employee, but there is no evidence that payments were deducted from subsequent paychecks, the audit said. She wrote a $300 check to the same employee as prepayment for shelter expenses, the audit said, but receipts for those purchases were not provided to the Office of Audits and Investigations.
Ford did not respond to requests for comment.
Three employees had access to the organization’s debit card and were able to make purchases without prior approval or providing receipts. Officials found one unexplained purchase of $777.
Without the board’s approval and despite ongoing financial trouble, Ford signed a two-year lease agreement to open a new location in southern Prince George’s, at a cost of $850 per month. Those plans were put on hold this winter, and the audit said they would have detracted from the crisis center’s core mission.
Board members Charline Jacob and Andrea Morris said in their response to the audit that Family Crisis Center “is in agreement with the findings identified in the report.”
Jacob and Morris said the shelter has hired an external accounting firm to help “develop the necessary protocols that will move the organization forward,” including better recording keeping and clearly differentiating between the duties of the director and the board.
The board voted this spring to no longer allow payroll advances, which members had not been aware of, Jacob and Morris wrote in their letter.
Williams said the shelter has made substantive changes since it reopened following its brief closure this winter.
Food — which previously came from donated sources and was not a line item in the budget — is now included in the budget and supplied by a caterer each night. The average shelter stay has shrunk from more than 100 days to 23 days because of increased attention to placing women in more appropriate housing, Williams said.
Williams and Jansen, the executive director of Community Crisis Services, both said they expect the acquisition to be complete by fall, although there are still some legal technicalities to work out — including what to do with the marriage-fee legislation, which mandates that the revenue go to the Family Crisis Center.
In April, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) withdrew a bill he had submitted to the Maryland General Assembly that would have allowed the fees to be directed to other entities, saying it was clear the bill would not advance.
A change in the state statute may now be required.
All of the Family Crisis Center board members were offered spots on the Community Crisis Services board, and two have joined, Jansen said.
Longtime county employee Howard Stone, who was part of the group that started Family Crisis Center in 1981, said he thinks the merger “is going to be great.”
“You expect a quality of service — that obviously deteriorated with Family Crisis Center,” Stone said, adding that Community Crisis Services “has a solid reputation and has served this community well.”
Stone, who is now part of a committee that awards County Council grants for domestic violence, said the topic “used to be a subject people didn’t even want to talk about.”
“We have come a long way in terms of community engagement,” he said.