Prince George's County housing inspectors and family services officials are investigating conditions inside a county-funded safe house for domestic-violence survivors after residents reported living in mold- and pest-infested rooms, eating spoiled food and enduring cold nights without heat.
The county pays the private nonprofit Family Crisis Center Inc. of Prince George's County $385,000 a year to operate the 55-bed shelter, which is the only facility in the county that provides temporary housing for abused women and their children.
The Family Crisis Center, which also offers counseling and outreach services to domestic-violence victims, receives hundreds of thousands more dollars each year in state and local grants.
Residents of the shelter — whose location is kept private for security reasons — approached reporters during the weekend to say that their concerns had been ignored by the organization's executive director, Sophie Ford. The residents presented videos and photos of mold in bathrooms, broken windows and rust.
One young mother, who declined to give her full name out of fear for her safety, said that shelter staff members were friendly, but that there was never enough money for groceries.
"The food was like slop," said the woman, who asked to be identified by her first name, Jay. "It got so bad that my children wouldn't eat it, and I wouldn't let them. I went to the store nearby to buy whatever I could find."
Ford did not respond to requests for comment. But in a statement posted on the crisis center's Facebook page, the organization said it is investigating the complaints and making repairs to the century-old building. The statement denied that the safe house lacked heat or that any of its 46 residents consumed rotten food.
"It is our highest priority to protect our population," the statement said. "Therefore we take any and all complaints very serious. . . . These allegations strike at the core of our mission."
Elana Belon-Butler, director of the county's Department of Family Services, visited the crisis center facility on Monday and saw leaking shower heads, filthy air vents and other problems.
"I was not aware of the extent, severity and complexity of the issues," said Belon-Butler, adding that she is awaiting a complete report from inspectors. "I saw a number of things I am concerned about."
The county Department of Family Services conducts quarterly site inspections of shelters it contracts with, notifying the organizations ahead of arrival. Officials are reviewing past reports, including the one from the most recent Nov. 29 site visit. The shelter has been funded by the county since 1993.
"Specifically, what we are going to wait to see is whether or not there has been any violation of the grant agreement," Belon-
Butler said. "We are taking this very seriously."
Prince George's leads the state in domestic-violence-related homicides. The safe house is part of a network of services — including a year-old Family Justice Center focused on helping abuse victims — aimed at combating the violence.
The Family Crisis Center was paid $108,000 by the county this fall to expand services to southern Prince George's. Since 2012, the organization has won at least $630,000 in county grants. The shelter also received $1.2 million in the past two years from the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.
A grant coordinator from the state inspected the shelter on Tuesday after WUSA-TV reported on the residents' complaints, agency spokesman Robert James said. No major problems were reported during two site visits earlier this year.
The state also investigated complaints about the shelter in 2015, James said. After several staff members were removed, he said, conditions improved.
Keiyauna Stanley, a former manager of the shelter, said she was fired in November after contacting the organization's board of directors about conditions at the house and unpaid utility bills.
Carolyn White Williams, the head of a nonprofit that donates toys and clothes to the women in the shelter, said, "The issues have been going on for a mighty long time."
White Williams, founder of Sister 4 Sister Inc., said she complained about insufficient funds and shelter mismanagement during a recent County Council oversight hearing but did not receive a response that satisfied her.
"My heart is with those women. It makes me really, really angry," she said.
County Council Chair Dannielle M. Glaros (D) called the allegations about the shelter "disturbing and unacceptable."
"We anxiously await more details from the inspections and the results of this investigation before determining the best next steps to support the needs of the residents of the Family Crisis Center," she said in a statement.
Prince George's County State's Attorney Angela Alsobrooks (D), who is running for county executive, successfully sought state funding this year to provide additional short-term housing options for domestic-violence victims.
Her spokesman, John Erzen, said Alsobrooks was motivated in part by long-standing concerns about the crisis center.
"We wanted to try and bring another option when people are looking to get out of dangerous situations," Erzen said.