DV shelters lose eight months of funding
At least Lorena Halwood can now empathize with her clients even more. “I now know what it feels like to be emotionally abused,” she declared after reading a letter from the Navajo Nation Department of Family Services. “I feel like crying.”
The letter canceled the Navajo Nation’s fiscal year contract for the Chinle-based domestic violence program Halwood runs, Amá doo Alchíní Bighan, and replaced it with one that starts June 1.
The seven programs with which the tribe contracts for domestic violence services are used to getting their funding late. At a meeting of the Navajo Nation Council’s Health, Education and Human Services Committee last month, four DV program directors complained that they hadn’t get gotten their annual funding that had been approved eight months ago and should be a simple pass-through from the federal Family Violence Prevention Fund. But that’s pretty much business as usual.
The directors are used to fending off their programs’ creditors, waving their award letters and pleading on behalf of the abused women and children (and, increasingly, men) they serve. The committee had listened attentively and asked for a written report from each director. The women signed off the conference call feeling encouraged.
The next week, however, things somehow got even worse. “This is to notify you that the Navajo Department of Family Services retracts a letter dated August 21, 2019, written by Mr. Virgil Pablo, former delegated program manager for the Strengthening Families Program awarding an unofficial contract to Amá doo Alchíní Bighan Inc. … to begin on October 1, 2019, and end on September 30, 2020,” read the letter Halwood received the first week of May. “That letter is hereby null and void.”
Instead, the letter stated, ADABI’s contract would begin June 1 and run through Sept. 30. That means not only will Halwood not be able to pay the bills she’s accumulated since October, when she thought her contract was beginning, but she’ll have only four months to spend her annual allocation of $250,000. “It’s insane,” she said.
Calling around, she found all the shelter directors had received a similar letter. The women decided to respond individually, but also go back to HEHS to update the committee.
At the virtual meeting, Halwood suggested a compromise: Could the shelters at least be able to invoice from Feb. 28, when the tribe received the funds from the federal government?
Deannah Neswood-Gishie, director of the Division of Social Services, said the contract period revision was an effort to correct 20 years of bad practice. “We have heard from the controller we can’t have contracts going back to October,” she said. “We’re not supposed to backdate.” Opal Cole of the Family Crisis Center in Farmington pointed out that the shelters got no notice that the process would change and asked if, just this once, they could bill retroactively.
“We have victims right now,” she noted. “Once the state opens up, the country opens up, we’re going to get a flood of victims.” Halwood added that the federal government is on an October through September fiscal year, and wondered if it’s even legal for the tribe to adjust the dates of a contract for federal funds.
An attempt to contact the U.S. Family and Youth Services Bureau, which administers the funding, resulted in a recording saying the bureau couldn’t be reached at that number, which was on its website. The controller’s office also couldn’t be contacted Monday because Administration Building 1, where it is located, was being deep-cleaned after a Department of Health employee had tested positive for COVID-19 last week. The office’s mailbox was full so there was no way to leave a message.
Neswood-Gishie said the contracts are already at the Department of Justice and can’t be changed now. She did offer to consider multi-year contracts in the future, which would prevent the shelters from having to respond to a request for proposals every year.
Committee Vice Chairman Carl Slater asked if the shelters could use some of the $600 million in federal COVID-19 relief recently awarded to the tribe. All the women had wish lists at the tip of their tongues, including such things as more housing for victims to enhance social distancing, technology so they could attend their court hearings online, vehicles, gas cards, meal vouchers and a roof replacement.
At the meeting, which was last Wednesday, the committee voted unanimously to have the directors submit their requests for the COVID funding in writing, and directed Neswood-Gishie and Department of Family Services Director Regina Yazzie to meet with the shelter directors to resolve the contract issues. As of Monday, however, Halwood had not heard from either Neswood-Gishie or Yazzie, and Halwood said she had received a letter saying her contract — with the June 1 start date — was in the mail.
Emily Ellison, director of Battered Family Services in Gallup, said Tuesday she hadn’t heard from the tribal directors either, and she’s “incredibly frustrated” by the situation.
“There’s no one we can go to,” she said. “We can’t sue the division, because they’re part of the government. They pass it off as an arbitrary decision by the controller. Where’s the oversight for that?” To add insult to injury, said Ellison, the tribe skims 30 percent from the grant for overhead costs, about twice what the state of New Mexico charges, and “we get our money from the state within a week.”
While she was grateful for the opportunity to submit a wish list and perhaps have a multi-year contract in the future, Halwood said she still doesn’t have a way to pay her current overdue bills. And the clients keep coming. “I just got back from driving someone to Kayenta (for housing) and I got a call saying there’s another person who needs to go there, so I’ll just get in my car and turn around, because that’s what we do.
“I wish Miss Yazzie and Miss Neswood-Gishie could come out here and see what we’re dealing with,” she sighed. “I really don’t think they understand.”