The logo for the Southside Center for Violence Prevention.

State officials have pulled funding for a Farmville-based provider of services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, citing a series of known issues that’ve reached an apex in recent years. 

The Southside Center for Violence Prevention started out in 1999 as Madeline’s House, a shelter for domestic violence survivors named after a local woman who was killed by her abusive husband. With a vast majority of its funding coming from government grants, officials with the state Department of Criminal Justice Services had been working with SCVP to overcome challenges they’d reported and ensure compliance for those grants.

Kristina Vadas, manager of the victim services team at DCJS, said that some of the challenges SCVP has faced go back a decade or more. Two major ones that the agency emphasized in asking SCVP for a corrective action plan earlier this year, following a fall 2021 site visit, were low service numbers and high turnover — having gone from eight staff members to one, the executive director, over the course of three months last year.

Vadas and Amia Barrows, grant monitoring supervisor for DCJS, didn’t specify the reasons for those departures, saying that there were “various reasons” and that the reasons weren’t clear. And while staff turnover isn’t a unique issue, they said it was compounded by funding hurdles, lack of engagement from its board and departure of board members, and external concerns over the quality of services provided.

Besides running Madeline’s House as a shelter, SCVP states on its website that it provides crisis intervention and stabilization, psychological evaluations, counseling and therapy, educational programs, case management and accompaniment to the hospital or legal proceedings. A program providing forensic exams and forensic interviews is on hold because of cut funding.

Though SCVP estimated it would serve 150 to 200 people in a year, it had only served 12 in the first quarter of 2022, Barrows said, and its anemic staffing situation fueled concerns over whether it was capable of meeting that goal. The agency has operated in a footprint of up to 11 localities in south-central Virginia, where close to 240,000 people live. Some agencies have service overlap in certain counties, but SCVP is the sole agency listed in statewide directories for such aid programs and shelters for an area with more than 80,000 residents.

With more than $800,000 of grant funding on the line for 2022, the DCJS board voted to pull SCVP’s award in June, after a reported mismanaged incident and submission of the corrective plan to address the agency’s capacity to work with survivors.

“Obviously with a grant the size they had been awarded … we would expect a pretty high number of victims to be served … and we just haven’t seen that in recent years,” Vadas said.

SCVP addressed DCJS’s decision in an Aug. 1 Facebook post, stating it had served close to 90 people so far this year and that it “wholly disagrees” with the department’s assessment in deciding to pull funding. Efforts from a Cardinal News reporter to reach SCVP, its executive director and board members over a weeks-long period were not met with responses.

Amid the corrective plan process, DCJS was notified of another issue involving SCVP in late March, according to records obtained through FOIA requests. 

April Rasmussen, the director of forensic services at Centra Health in Lynchburg, who oversees treatment and triage of sexual and domestic assault survivors, wrote a letter detailing issues with SCVP’s staff when they’d work with nurses. In March, she said one SCVP case worker appeared to answer questions for a patient during a forensic interview and recorded it, which she was later asked to delete.

SCVP investigated the incident and, according to its Facebook post, gave its staff additional training on confidentiality in response. But the March incident was only the latest in a series of concerns Rasmussen included in her letter; she said that over the past few years she’d found SCVP staffers to be misinformed about the process of treating survivors, and had received complaints over lack of patient follow-up and derogatory statements toward Centra. Many of her own attempts to reach SCVP went unanswered.

She also mentioned to state officials that the Prince Edward office of the commonwealth’s attorney, which prosecutes domestic violence and sexual assault cases, had withdrawn from a cooperative memorandum of understanding with SCVP because of similar issues.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Megan Clark said in a statement that she did so because of “questions surrounding SCVP potentially employing a forensic nurse examiner.”

“I had concerns about whether the person hired would carry appropriate credentials, and whether a domestic violence shelter employee conducting forensic exams versus an employee of a medical facility would compromise the integrity of investigations and admissibility of evidence in any subsequent criminal trials,” her statement reads. “When my concerns were not adequately addressed, I felt it was in the best interests of victims and survivors to withdraw from the MOU and continue to use our medical facilities for such exams and evidence collection.”

DCJS noted several financial concerns in prompting SCVP’s corrective plan. It attributed an “incident involving theft, damage of property, and alleged drug use” in November to limited staffing at Madeline’s House — an incident that wasn’t reported to DCJS until January.

And in 2019, SCVP found a $60,000 funding discrepancy that led its board to file a report about potential fraud or embezzlement with Virginia State Police, according to the agency’s records. VSP didn’t start a criminal investigation in that instance, according to a spokesperson, and SCVP later said it was “not able to conclude that there was any malfeasance.” It also conducted a financial audit, but DCJS records indicate its officials continued to have concerns over bookkeeping — namely, stewardship of funds from administered grants. 

In its Facebook statement, SCVP stated it “was never provided any opportunity” to present evidence in its defense directly to the DCJS governing board, but DCJS records reveal a detailed back-and-forth over the issues that prompted the corrective plan, and Barrows said DCJS staff had been working closely with the agency throughout.

Despite losing the majority of its funding source, SCVP has indicated it’s still operational but at risk of closing. Through social media and other avenues, its leadership has solicited for board members and fundraising in recent months.

The issues surrounding SCVP and Madeline’s House are something of a perfect storm — the worst of problems plaguing such advocacy agencies and employment generally in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kristi VanAudenhove is the executive director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, which has connected, supported and advocated for local providers for over 40 years and counts SCVP among more than 80 member agencies.

“The Southside Center was just facing an uphill battle, always,” she said in an interview, adding that the rural south-central swath of the state has always been underserved, even when SCVP was doing well.

Many regions lack a pool of potential qualified workers who can take on such shelter and advocacy work, which is demanding in terms of education and training as well as fortitude. Combined with low pay to be a frontline worker throughout the pandemic, she said it almost guaranteed burnout.

“Once you start to lose some people, you start on a downward spiral,” she said.

Though the pandemic seemed to exacerbate things, VanAudenhove said SCVP was already in crisis beforehand. Even American Rescue Plan Act funding dedicated to workforce retention in domestic violence programs has been a temporary Band-Aid for agencies struggling with a receding tide of grant money and perpetually hungry for paltry local buy-in.

In such a remote region, she said the bandwidth for counseling treatment is especially low, between busy private practices and community service boards with waiting lists — though an increase in virtual options has helped a bit.

Money from the federal Victims of Crime Act, which seemed flush in Virginia for several years, started decreasing last year and is slated to continue doing so, VanAudenhove said. And periods of economic downturn lend to spikes in domestic violence and sexual assaults. Without more direct support from the state, she said SCVP could be a bellwether, the first of many agencies to start collapsing under all that weight.

The alliance has been proactive in connecting other agencies to offer assistance, VanAudenhove said, and ones in surrounding areas have stepped up to do so. Anyone needing assistance can be connected to an advocate near them by texting (804) 793-9999 or calling (800) 838-8238.

“Those of us at the action alliance, DSS, DCJS — we’re all willing to work with the community in rebuilding services or starting something different,” she said, something echoed by Vadas at DCJS.

Rachel Mahoney

Rachel Mahoney has worked as a journalist in Virginia for seven years and has won several press awards. She lives in Lynchburg.